Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Coke Zero 400 Daytona Preview: RCR Drivers Will be Tough To Beat

By Micah Roberts

Saturday night under the lights should be exciting (Getty)
What an extreme change of venues we have from one week to the other in six short days in NASCAR‘s Sprint Cup circuit. On Sunday we had the up and down hills of Sonoma’s road course with left and right turns at laps of 90 mph. This Saturday night we’ll see left turns only on the high banks of Daytona at speeds of over 190 mph.

This weeks race also represents the one race out of 36 on the year that we’ll see the entire race uninterrupted by commercials. TNT will still show commercials, but it will be in a side box with race coverage running continuously making the normally sub-par TNT broadcast must see television. While this is a compromise made by NASCAR, TNT and sponsors who all know that fans want to watch every green flag lap, it’s a shame that it’s only once a year. NASCAR still remains the only sport that cuts away during live action for commercials.

The type of restrictor-plate racing we’ll see this week will be similar to what we saw at Daytona in February and Talladega in April with two-car tandems being the fastest way around the track. Drivers will create alliances with each other to help each other get to the final lap and then everyone is on their own from there.

That type of racing has been received with mixed reviews from fans, but there is no denying that it adds to a major change of pace from what we‘ll witness in the 32 other races during the season. The best part about it is seeing the drivers unite -- putting their differences aside -- for the greater cause of winning the race. If someone’s fast during Thursday’s practice like Kyle Busch, even Kevin Harvick will have no problem hooking up with him.

I like the aspect of tandem racing in the same fashion I liked tag-team wrestling or 4x100 meter races of any kind. It takes two to tango and one weak link hurts the team effort. Ideally, most of the drivers would like to have their own teammate be their buddy, but based on where they qualify, they may have no choice to use the partner their dealt with.

Busch won the Gatorade Duel and Bud Shootout (Getty)
Just to reflect back to February during Daytona speed weeks, Kurt Busch dominated. Last weeks Sonoma winner won the Gatorade Duel and Budweiser shootout leading up to the Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne won the race as a 100-to-1 long shot with the likes of David Gilliland finishing third and Bobby Labonte finishing fourth. Kurt Busch settled for fifth in the last lap frenzy that took place.

Although Talladega races much different than Daytona, because the cars are the same and the tandem racing is the same, it’s worth noting what happened there in April. Eight cars -- or four sets of teams -- came through the final turn of the last lap with a legitimate shot at winning. Three of them were separated by two thousandths of a second with Jimmie Johnson’s nose of the car getting there just before Clint Bowyer’s.

In that last stretch at Talladega, it was Hendrick teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr who pushed Johnson to the win and Harvick who pushed his RCR teammate Bowyer to a close second. Incidentally, both Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. will be using those cars for this weeks race.

The top candidates to win this week will be some of the same drivers and teams beginning with RCR who have four capable drivers led by Harvick and Bowyer, both of whom won at Talladega last season. Harvick also won this race at Daytona last season. Jeff Burton, who has had an awful season thus far, won one of the Gatorade Duels at Daytona. Harvick is bring the same car that finished fifth at Talladega, Bowyer is doing the same. In Bowyer's case, the car he's bringing also won last years fall Talladega race in a ddition to runner-up this year. Burton will be using the same car that won the Gatordae race.

Last season the Ganassi team did very well in plate races, but haven’t shown the same type of ability in the two races this season. Jamie McMurray led the teams change with a win at Daytona win and runner-up at Talladega, but they have been off not only in these type of races this season, but everywhere else.

Roush has been great, of late, in plate races
Expect Roush Racing to continue their excellence in plate races as well. Carl Edwards was runner-up in the Daytona 500 and finished sixth at Talladega. Greg Biffle was right in the mix on the last turn at Talladega as well. The two of them teamed up so well together at talladega that they have brough the exact same cars this week for Daytona.

The driver everyone wants to see win is Dale Earnhardt Jr. and he just might do it ending his 108 race winless streak. In two of his last three Daytona races, he’s finished runner-up and fourth to go along with his two career wins on the track. He’s got his fourth-place finish at Talladega this year to go along with five wins there as well.

I’m going to look for RCR to continue their great run with maybe Kurt Busch making a surprise visit to a plate race winner’s circle. There is no better plate racer without a win on them than Busch.

Since long shots have been successful the last three seasons of plate races with both Brad Keselowski and Trevor Bayne paying out at odds of 100-to-1 or higher along with Jamie McMurray paying out at 35-to-1, it may serve well to look for a few of those type of candidates. Paul Menrad has the RCR power going for him and has done well at both plate races this season. David Gilliland has finished in the top-10 of both plate races this year. Mark Martin has found himself right in the thick of things at the end of both races and David Ragan has always run well.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #29 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
2) #22 Kurt Busch (10/1)
3) #33 Clint Bowyer (12/1)
4) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (10/1)
5) #31 Jeff Burton (18/1)

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