Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Daytona Preview: Coke Zero 400

by Micah Roberts

This Saturday night the NASCAR Sprint Cup series goes under the lights for restrictor plate racing at high speeds in Daytona for the Coke Zero 400. There have been a few other sponsors other the years, but the summer Daytona race will always remain the Firecracker 400.

While spending a holiday weekend with family and friends celebrating the United States Independence and Freedom, there isn’t anything much more of an American tradition than turning on a stock car race from Daytona.

This fourth of July, Daytona will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of Richard Petty’s last and final win of his career, win number 200, a nice round even number that stands out among all others drivers in the history of NASCAR.

On that day in 1984, NASCAR royalty and “The King” were cheered by the thousands of followers. That day also marked the first time an acting U.S. President visited a NASCAR race.

Ronald Reagan was on a re-election campaign and thought it might be a good idea to see if they could win some NASCAR dads over, a republican trademark that continues to this day.

The way Richard Petty see’s it, That marked a major stepping stone to where NASCAR is today in mainstream America.

“I always figure that we went upstairs, and we’re still going upstairs,” Petty said of NASCAR.

“You know, we got the president of the United States on the sports page, and the president of the United States got us on the front page. So it was a pretty good tradeoff.”

The favorite to win this weeks race is Kyle Busch, who won this race last year. Ever since joining Joe Gibbs racing in his Toyota, no one has been better than Kyle Busch at Daytona. We could be discussing how he’s won three in a row there, but has had trouble in each of the last two Daytona 500’s.

Last season in the Daytona 500, while Busch and teammate Tony Stewart were jostling for late positioning and battling for what seemed to be their race to win, Ryan Newman and his teammate Kurt Busch worked together pushing Newman to the win.

This season in the Daytona 500, Kyle Busch led the most laps and was cruising to what looked to be a well deserved win for the Las Vegan, but then some thing got in the way. A lapped car driven by Dale Earnhardt Jr got over-aggressive on the re-start causing a giant wreck up front where many of the leaders, including Busch, had their day finished.

This weeks race may not have that type of pile up on a restart, at least caused by a lapped car, because of the new double file restarts which puts the leaders side by side up front. We’ll still have some aggression early on, but consequences are much more damaging for a leader than a lapped car which is taken into consideration before making a move like Junior did in February.

Speaking of Junior, this could be a race where he gets himself going in the right direction after getting a new crew chief. So far, the new marriage hasn’t reaped any rewards yet, but things looked encouraging last week at New Hampshire as Junior was competitive for a change running in the top-10 frequently in that race.

In this race last season, Junior led the most laps before finishing eighth. He has two wins all time at Daytona to go along with his five restrictor plate wins at Talladega. His first win at Daytona came in this race in 2001. It was Junior first win following his father’s passing and was on the same track where he died. It was a one the great moments in NASCAR and solidified Junior’s fan base to a plateau that no one may ever get to.

Junior’s other Daytona win came in the 500 in February of 2004. I remember the race vividly because I watched most of it stuck on the concourse by the beer stand. Another President winning favor of NASCAR dads made the visit that day. George W. Bush and a brigade of about 30 black Chevy Tahoe’s came rolling up through the concourse and everyone had to freeze as he was going to the television booth.

The race had just started and I was in line again for another Ice Cold Bud Light when all these Tahoe’s pinned me in and we were told not to move. We couldn’t go to our seats or anything as sharp shooters dressed in black SWAT gear peered through the cracks of the windows in the cars. It wasn’t all bad; I mean I had beer I could I buy, a monitor to watch the race in front of me, and I could still hear the cars, and smell the fuel and burnt rubber from the track.

Luckily I didn’t have to go to the restroom until they left. Unluckily, however, is that GW didn’t even flip me a drink ticket or a sawbuck for the inconvenience. He could have bought me a beer, right?

In the last two Daytona 500’s we saw a lot of different occurrences than we have from the past.

Generally, Chevy has had the dominant teams in restrictor plate racing led by Hendrick, DEI, Childress, and Joe Gibbs when they drove Chevy’s. They weren’t a lot of intruders to the Chevy bow-tie part in plate races over the last 8 seasons. That all changed last year when Newman won in a Dodge with only one Chevy making the top-10.

This year, Matt Kenseth won in a Ford and only two Chevy’s cracked the top-10. Four Dodges, three of which run for Richard Petty made the top-10 also. Couple all that with Kyle Busch having the most dominant car in a Toyota, and it’s clear to see that Chevy is no longer a serious player in the restrictor plate race any more.

Some of the best in plate racing, like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, haven’t even cracked the top-10 at Daytona in their last three starts. Johnson hasn’t even sniffed a top-20 in that span. The best Chevy team right now mat be the Childress drivers, who are struggling everywhere else currently.

Despite the lack of Chevy success recently in plate races other than Brad Keselowski at 100 to 1 odds winning at Talladega, I’ll go with the fan favorite this week in Dale Jr and hope that he gets things back on track. He finished 2nd at Talladega and saw enough of him in that race to believe between his desire, struggles, and legacy on the line, he’ll show up for a big performance.

No President this week however. Though a great sports fan, he sticks to football and basketball and hasn’t warmed up to NASCAR yet. Maybe in 2012 he’ll make a visit on the campaign trail.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (8/1)
2) #2 Kurt Busch (12/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
4) #14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (20/1)

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