It’s the Fourth of July week, and that traditionally means the NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) schedule brings us back to where we started the year: The Daytona International Speedway (DIS). Amazing how fast this season has gone by so far, and who doesn’t remember not only the delayed Daytona 500 back in February, but also the tremendous fireball created when Juan Pablo Montoya ran into a jet dryer during a caution flag. Hopefully we won’t see THAT sight again tonight with the Coke Zero 400. However, you can definitely expect the “Big One” to occur at least once, as happened last night during the Nationwide race with over half the field being taken out. But before I preview this week’s NSC race, let’s take a look back to last week’s finish at Kentucky with the Quaker State 400.
Starting from a backup car after a wreck early in the first practice session last week at the Kentucky Speedway, Brad Keselowski held off a late-race run by Kasey Kahne to take his third checkered flag of the season in the Quaker State 400. Denny Hamlin finished third, with the other three Hendrick Motorsports cars finishing in the top six with Dale Earnhardt Jr in fourth, and Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr, AJ Allmendinger, and Kyle Busch rounding out the top ten. With his third win, Keselowski now moves into the first wildcard position, should he fall outside of the top ten in NSC points.
The action at DIS starts Saturday afternoon at 4:30pm EDT with the NASCAR Raceday Pre-Race show on SPEED, TNT NASCAR Countdown at 6:30pm EDT, with the race broadcast itself on TNT starting at 7:30pm EDT. Former Florida State University head football coach Bobby Bowden is the Grand Marshall for the event tonight, with CNN morning anchor Robin Meade performing the National Anthem. A scheduled flyover of a U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress bomber from the 307th Bomb Wing, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana will precede the Command to Fire Engines. We’ll be in for 160 laps on this 2.5-mile tri-oval, for a total distance of 400 miles. Coors Light Pole Award winner Matt Kenseth will lead the field to Green at approximately 7:48pm EDT for this eighteenth of thirty-six races in the NSC 2012 season, having bested Ryan Newman for the Pole by .008 seconds.
Best Bets: With the pack racing so prevalent at DIS, it’s really anyone’s race, as long as you can get to the front…leading contenders this week:
Matt Kenseth (#17 Zest Ford)- Kenseth, current leader in the NSC points standing, puts himself in a good position this week to extend his lead over second-place Dale Earnhardt Jr by starting from the front. Matt won this year’s Daytona 500, so he’s used to the racing surface that we now have at DIS. He’s got two wins, five top-five, and twelve top-ten finishes here, and has finished in the top fifteen for three of the last four races, with a win and a runner-up finish. On the last four Superspeedway outings, Kenseth’s placed no worse than eightheenth, with a win, second, third, and eighteenth. As mentioned, he’ll lead the field to Green tonight, and was twelfth-fastest in Happy Hour final practice.
Jeff Gordon (#24 PepsiMax Chevorlet)- I’m going to take a chance this week on Jeff Gordon, who has had a horrible run of luck this season. While he’s only got two top-five and eight top-ten finishes so far this season, Gordon’s managed to reach Victory Lane six times at Daytona, with twelve top-five and nineteen top-ten finishes. His sixteen wins on superspeedways should also say something. The last two summer Daytona races, he’s posted a sixth and third-place finish, which might be an indicator of things to come. Jeff’s got some of the best numbers going into this race, as he’ll start fifth and was eleventh-fastest in final practice.
Probables: Two top performers so far this season head up my probables this week.
Greg Biffle (#16 3M Ford)- Biffle, third in NSC points, is two of the three Roush-Fenway stallions that Jack Roush has in his stable. Fords seem to be performing well on the big tracks, like they do on the 1.5-mile ovals, and seem to handle the draft/pack racing a bit better than their other competitors. Biffle’s got fifth and third place finishes in the last two superspeedway races, and coupled with his win, three top-five, and five top-ten finishes, he could be a factor. The Biff starts fourth and was fifteenth-fastest in final practice.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr (#88 National Guard An American Salute/Diet Mt Dew Chevy)- Dale Jr, Mr. Consistency so far this season, has put up a win, seven top-five, and thirteen top-ten finishes. He’s got two wins, nine top-fives, and fourteen top-tens at Daytona. Coupled with his seven wins, eighteen top-five, and twenty-nine top ten finishes on Superspeedway tracks, Jr knows what he’s doing. He’s got a fourth and a second-place finishing positions in two of the last four races at DIS. Dale may be starting in the back of the pack in twenty-fourth, but was ninth-fastest in final practice. If he couples up with a running-mate, expect him to run up front.
Dark Horses: With pack racing at Daytona, it’s really anyone’s game…a few to look out for as possibles tonight.
- Jamie McMurray (#1 Bass Pro Shops/NRA Museum Chevy), starting thirtieth but fastest in final practice.
- Kurt Busch (#51 Phoenix Construction Services Chevy)–Kurt won the Nationwide race last night, so he’s got a lot of momentum coming into tonight’s race after winning with an unsponsored car last night. Third-fastest in final practice.
- Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Won last week at Kentucky, two Superspeedway wins, three wins so far this season. Starts ninth.
- Aric Almirola (#43 U.S. Air Force Dodge)- First in the first practice session, fifth-fastest in Happy Hour. Could have some momentum.
- Kasey Kahne (#5 HendrickCars.com Chevy)- Has some good momentum in his own right in the last few races. A win, four top-five, and eight top-ten finishes, plus starts third and was tenth-fastest in the first practice session.
As with any race at the World Center of Racing, while there are favorites, it’s really anyone’s game. The pack can move you forward, and throw you back in only a few laps. So keep your eyes out; a driver who is up front at the start of a lap may not be there at the end of the lap. And with the ever-present summertime storm around, the ten jet dryers available for track drying will be on the lookout for where the track is wet, and where Juan Pablo Montoya is on the racing surface (reference back to the Daytona 500 for those wondering).
Turn in to TNT, your local Motor Racing Network affiliate (www.MotorRacingNetwork.com), or SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (channel 90) for the wreckers and the checkers. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@Speedglutton) for in-race updates, news, and my occasional rantings. I wish I were there in Daytona tonight, but I will be at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway next weekend.
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