|Kevin Harvick win last year's Coke 400|
|Getty Images for NASCAR|
After last weekend's road course adventure featuring left and right turns, and some road rage in between, the NASCAR Sprint Cup teams moves on another daunting challenge: super speedway restrictor plate racing at the Daytona International Speedway. Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 already has the making of a potential barn burner in a racing environment that could turn up some genuine surprises by the time the checkers fly through the air.
Because this is a restrictor plate race, fans can expect to see a return of the two car draft sequence recently established at both the Daytona and Talladega super speedways. It will literally be a case of two cars bumper to bumper trying to push each other past other racing tandems and into the lead. While it's only natural to assume that Sprint Cup team mates will want to work with each other, it may not necessarily be the case. You will see plenty examples of unexpected dance partners based on how the two cars perform together. The partnerships could feature a Chevrolet pushing a Ford or a Dodge pushing a Toyota.
The in car radio transmissions will also be quite interesting Saturday night. Drivers have already made a list of who they want to communicate and work with and the radio frequencies of these potential dance partners have already been placed on a special in car dial up switch for quick access. Once contact and a partnership has been made, then the role of the spotters will increase. The driver doing the pushing are going to have difficulty seeing the track and the traffic front of him. It will be up to the spotter from the front car to guide both drivers while they're hooked together. Then there's the matter of race strategy. Will a duo try to maintain a position at the front of the field, or will they choose to stay at the back of the pack most of the evening and make their charge to the front at the end of the race?
Let's not forget about "the big one." The slightest miscalculated move could easily, and quickly, trigger a multi car crash that could easily change the outcome of the race. "The big one" is always going to be a major factor in restrictor plate racing.
The Coke Zero 400 is going to have a lot of dramatic elements to it and will be well worth your Saturday night viewing time.
The Las Vegas Breakdown
To take an accurate look at some of the Coke Zero 400 pre race favorites, we again turn to the experts from the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE).
The WSE has placed two huge potential winners right at the top of their list this week and has backed drivers Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr with 8 to 1 odds. First off, Harvick is the defending race champion from last year. He understands what it takes to win at Daytona and has backed that up with some impressive stats that includes two wins, five top five finishes, eight top tens and an average finish ratio, (AFR), of 15.8. He's currently second in the championship standings, only 25 points behind leader Carl Edwards, and will be looking to improve those numbers as well Saturday night. This is a rock solid wager consideration.
So is Dale Earnhardt Jr. The excitement of this driver's fan club, aka "The Junior Nation", has hit a fever pitch over the past several weeks. The fact that the WSE has rated this driver at 8 to 1 indicates that they also believe that the combination of Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte are going to be 2011 Chase contenders. However, Earnhardt will have to do some make up work to counteract last weekend's disappointing 41st place finish at Infineon. He was a victim of someone else's road course road rage that created a free fall from third to seventh in the championship rankings. The good news is the fact that Earnhardt is extremely good at this form of racing based on lessons well learned from his famous father. There could be some good news for the Junior Nation this Saturday night.
In the 12 to 1 group is a trio of drivers who could also become huge players in the outcome of this race. Tony Stewart is well versed in restrictor plate racing and has three Daytona wins and six overall super speedway wins. However his big concern Saturday night will be making the top ten in points to insure a berth in the 2011 Chase. Roller coaster performance levels this year has left Stewart 12th in the standings. Last Sunday's road rage adventure with Brian Vickers didn't exactly help that cause either. Stewart, after the Infineon race, defiantly proclaimed that anyone who intentionally blocked him was going to get dumped and he would keep doing that until NASCAR came up with a new rule to make him stop. One has to assume that those statements were made out of anger and frustration and a driver/team owner is not going to be interested in wadding up another race car this weekend. Making the Chase is by far too important.
Also at 12 to 1 is Jimmie Johnson, a previous Daytona winner and a six time super speedway winner. Johnson goes into Saturday night third in the points, 33 from the lead, and appears to be poised to launch a major offensive towards that sixth, consecutive, Sprint Cup championship.
Completing the 12 to 1 trio is the red hot Kurt Busch and his Penske Racing Dodge. A week ago it was pointed out that the elder Busch brother had never won a road course race. He took care of that deficiency last weekend with a dominant win at Infineon. Now we're being reminded that Busch has never won a super speedway restrictor plate race. With the performance levels this team is displaying that issue could be resolved this Saturday night.
At 13 to 1 odds you will find the trio of Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon. Busch is a former Daytona winner and a two time super speedway winner. Whatever you may think of this driver, his NASCAR numbers do not lie. He's a genuine threat to win a race every time he straps himself in the driver's seat.
Carl Edwards will be the first to tell you that restrictor plate racing is not exactly his strong suit. In fact he's still searching for his first ever super speedway win. That stat aside, Edwards is having a wonderful racing season. He's currently the points leader and this Roush Fenway Racing team is more and more looking like Sprint Cup champions.
Jeff Gordon is the driver with all of the positive Daytona stats. He holds the series record, among active drivers, with wins at six, the most top fives at 12 and he shares the record with Mark Martin for most top tens at 18. His second place finish at Infineon last Sunday moved him to ninth in the points. Daytona is an excellent place for Gordon to improve on that ranking.
The above WSE ranking are considered to be rock solid wager considerations. Now let's take a look at some potential long shots. All by himself, at 14 to 1 odds, is Jamie McMurray. Granted, this team is not exactly having the season everyone thought they would. They are mired down in 27th in the points and their 2011 season has become a matter of trying to collect wins and aiming for 2012. The long shot consideration lies in the fact that McMurray is very good at this form of racing. He has two Daytona wins and four overall super speedway wins.
At 15 to 1 you will find Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer, two drivers who will be seeking their first Daytona wins this Saturday night. Hamlin, a pre season championship favorite, has endured a roller coaster season such as last week's mechanical failure at Infineon that dropped him to 11th in the standings. Despite the occasional bouts with bad racing luck, this team could pull off a surprise win Saturday night.
The same goes for Bowyer who is actually very good at restrictor plate racing. He's still trying to find Daytona's victory lane, but he understands the process of this form of racing and proved it with a win at Talladega. His overall consistent levels this season has him ranked eighth in the points standings.
In the lower tier, of this week's WSE rankings, you will find Jeff Burton, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Ragan at 25 to 1. Burton is a former Daytona winner and knows how to get the job done. Unfortunately, the inconsistent performance levels of the team, combined with some horrible racing luck, has left him 24th in the standings.
You may want to avoid putting some cash on Montoya this weekend. Plate racing is clearly not his thing. There may also be the element of some payback from last Sunday's race at Infineon.
David Ragan is the most interesting of this group. Although he has a contract extension with Roush Fenway Racing in his hip pocket, he has some serious sponsorship issues to consider. Long time primary sponsor United Parcel Service is in the final year of their contract with the team. Considered to be one of the most lucrative sponsorship packages in NASCAR, the delivery company is reported to be examining other options. Ragan has showed some strength this year and even created a few moments for the television highlight reels. But this is a driver who seriously needs a win. If the team is going to resign UPS then they need to hand them a great reason for staying.
In the WSE's 30 to 1 ranking you will find a quintet of drivers featuring Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Greg Biffle, Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth. Newman is a Daytona winner currently tenth in the points and could be worthy of a long shot consideration.
Kahne has endured a season's worth of up and down performance levels with Red Bull Racing. He's of course finishing out the year with the team while waiting to join his new ride at Hendrick Motorsports. However, Kahne has made it clear that he would like to help Red Bull get a win especially in light of recent news that the energy drink company is pulling out of team ownership this year and investors are being sought to keep the operation going.
Biffle's 2011 season is just plan frustrating to watch. A team expected to make the 2011 Chase roster is just mired down. However he's a former Daytona winner and Saturday night could be the time for him to get that bad luck monkey off of his back.
Believe it or not, Daytona is one of the few tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule that has never hosted Mark Martin in its victory lane despite the fact he has four super speedway wins at Talladega. Despite Daytona luck that often has him finding "the big one", Martin has a very healthy 14.1 finish ratio there in 52 starts.
Kenseth is also a former Daytona winner and a three time super speedway winner as well. For those of you who don't mind long shot wagers, Kenseth could be your man Saturday night. But bear in mind that the team just got handed a major distraction in recent days with the announcement that Crown Royal will not be returning as their sponsor next year.
Concluding this week's WSE rankings, at 35 to 1, are David Reutimann, Brad Keselowski, Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano and Brian Vickers. The one interesting stand out here is Bayne who of course pulled off that huge win last February in the Daytona 500. Could this youngster pull off another miracle win, especially after being out of the car several weeks due to illness? I think Frank Sinatra probably put it best when he sang "fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you, if you're young at heart."
Remember this is plate racing at Daytona. Anything could happen and often has over the years.
Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants to remind you that these odds numbers are for informational and entertainment purposes only. They neither encourage nor condone the placing of wagers on their races. But if you're going to do it anyway, and many of you will, then you at least have the professional advice from the professionals at the World Sports Exchange. Remember: "fairy tales can come true, they can happen to you"….etc.
The Race Breakdown
The Coke Zero 400 is 160 laps/400 miles around the Daytona International Speedway's mammoth 2.5 mile oval.
The race has 46 entries vying for the 43 starting berths. 11 of those entries are on the go or go home list. These teams are not guaranteed a starting berth because they are currently outside of the top 35 in NASCAR owner's points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speed to make the race.
The top 35 in owner's points is going to be an interesting focal point during this race. Robby Gordon currently holds down the 35th position but he's only three points ahead of Trevor Bayne with Andy Lally in 37th just 17 points away.
Pre race track position is extremely important at Daytona and that will place a special emphasis on the Friday qualifying session. Out of 128 races at Daytona, 25 of them, 19.53%, have been won from the pole position, 69 races, 53.91%, were won from a top five starting berth and 100 race winners, 78.13%, started within the top ten.
Never forget that Daytona has a habit of last minute hard chargers making their way to the front during the final laps to steal a win while we all yell "where did he come from?" A prime example of this is Jamie McMurray who only needed to lead two laps to win last year's Daytona 500.
The big concern here may be the weather forecast for the Daytona Beach area. There are two common denominators here. The first is partly sunny skies and 91 degrees during the day. The second factor is the possibility of evening rain, along with isolated thunder storms, all weekend long. The 40% chance of rain on Friday alone could cancel qualifying and that same forecast also applies to Saturday race day. Even if the race has to be postponed to Sunday, there's still a 20% chance of rain.
The Coke Zero 400 will be broadcast live by the TNT Network beginning at 630 pm eastern time. The race re air will be on Wednesday, July 6th, at 12 pm eastern on SPEED.