Wednesday, July 4, 2012

2012 Daytona Coke Zero 400 Preview: Earnhardt Jr. is Top Candidate to Win

By Micah Roberts

Daytona a special place for Junior; good spot for him Saturday? (Getty)
Since the time Daytona International Speedway was opened in 1959, NASCAR has always tied itself into the festivities Independence Day weekend offers.

At first, NASCAR founder and track owner Bill France used the weekend to lure in all the visiting guests taking in the beach while on holiday. But it was soon found out that the bond NASCAR had with future, former and current Military personnel was much greater than any kind of publicity stunt France could have conjured up.

In 1969 France invited every living Congressional Medal of Honor winner to the Firecracker 400 and when nearly a third of them, 87 at the time, showed up, it shined the light even brighter on who NASCAR’s core audience might be.

NASCAR will never be mistaken as an elitist sport. It‘s more of a regular man’s man type that the middle and poor classes across America seem to gravitate towards. Those bottom two classes is where most of us find ourselves in and it is the largest populous in America.

Baseball will always be America’s pastime, but it is NASCAR that is America’s number one spectator sport.

The Armed Forces even use the popularity of the sport to be their main avenue for recruiting because NASCAR hits their target audience -- the middle and poor class that usually end up fighting our wars. That’s why the Department of Defense has spent millions for their National Guard division to sponsor Dale Earnhardt Jr’s car. Junior is NASCAR’s biggest star and has the most pull among possible recruits with raising awareness about serving our country.

63 years after France first thought of running the summer race in conjunction with Independence Day, the relationship between NASCAR and Americans’ Patriotism is stronger than ever. The tradition has now been passed down a couple of generations and stretches well beyond the beaches of Daytona to now being highly anticipated from coast-to-coast via television, radio and now the internet.

This weeks Coke Zero 400 at Daytona will have all the pageantry expected out of the fourth-of-July weekend with flags flying over the thousands of parked motor homes on the infield and several of the cars on the track painted with patriotic red-white-and-blue schemes.

And just like every year, NASCAR’s bond with our troops and America will continue as four Medal of Honor winners be recognized for the entire nation to salute.

But before all the patriotic action gets started on Saturday night, another American pastime, gambling, is in order as we must have some action on the race. Here's a look at a couple that should be considered.

Over the last four seasons we’ve seen a shift in power where the Roush Fords have been major players in restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega. A Roush driver has won the last three races at Daytona -- if counting Trevor Bayne’s 2011 Daytona 500 win -- and has won the Daytona 500 three times since 2009.

Matt Kenseth has won two of those 500’s and despite being in a lame-duck situation with his ride, he should still be considered one of the drivers to beat on Saturday. Greg Biffle is also a former Daytona winner and finished third in this years 500, behind Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth will be looking to be the first driver to sweep Daytona since Bobby Allison did it and 1982 and has a lot of confience coming in this weekend.

“I looked forward to going to Talladega more so than any plate race I have ever looked forward to in my career with as well as we ran at Daytona and how fast ourcars were in February," Kenseth said earlier this week.

"I feel the same way about Daytona this weekend and I am looking forward to getting down there. At Talladega, I felt we had the fastest car inthe race and dominated the race as much as you can, but I felt like I messed that up at the end when Greg (Biffle) and I somehow got separated. I have been agonizing over that since Talladega, but I am looking forward to getting some redemption this weekend and returning to Daytona coming off that win in the 500. Our Roush Fords have been fast and we have been able to pass, so I am going back this weekend hoping it will be the same as our earlier superspeedway results this year.”

We’ve seen Junior evolve over the last few weeks into one of the more confident drivers on the track. The No. 88 team has been fast every week and with all things being equal in a plate race, his skills and newly found confidence should be able to help carry him to the winners circle.

He’s no longer driving to get the monkey off his back. That monkey is long gone and now its about restoring some of his plate race magic that watched him win twice at Daytona and five times at Talladega.

It would be too good of a story to actually become true -- asking for Junior to win on Independence Day weekend driving the National Guard car, but why not? He won at Michigan a few weeks ago on Father’s Day, four years almost to the date of the same weekend that he had last won a race, on Fathers Day. You kind of get the Father theme here?

One of my fondest NASCAR memories ever happened during this holiday race in 2001 when Junior won for the first time since his had father passed on the same track a few months earlier. Junior had an understandably tough time racing every week prior to that win, but on that night, Junior dominated and it ended up being the perfect story book ending with the perfect salute to his father and the legions of fans across the country who cried with him along the way.

Now he returns to the track that will always have bitter-sweet memories where he is in a state of mind probably better than he’s ever been at during his career. He’s been humbled with a long losing streak after a meteoric rise in popularity. Now, he’s a new man with a new plan and part of that plan will be winning once again on the track where no one was better than his Daddy.

Have a great holiday weekend!

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (12/1)
2) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
3) #29 Kevin Harvick (12/1)
4) #16 Greg Biffle (12/1)
5) #99 Carl Edwards (12/1)    

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