Coke Zero 400: 9 Drivers Who Could Shake Up the Wild-Card Race at Daytona

Ben Montedonico@@NASCARBRBenContributor IIIJuly 5, 2012

Coke Zero 400: 9 Drivers Who Could Shake Up the Wild-Card Race at Daytona

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    Nine races remain until the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Chase field is set. Of those races, none is considered to be quite as unpredictable as Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.

    Since 2007, we have not had a repeat winner in the annual summer classic, and the race has never been short on excitement.

    From Jamie McMurray's stunning photo finish victory over Kyle Busch in 2007 to Busch almost ending up on his lid in 2009 to a 21-car pileup in 2010 and David Ragan's breakthrough win a year ago, it's no wonder this race is considered to be the wild-card event in the Race to the Chase.

    Speaking of wild card, two coveted wild-card positions in the Chase have yet to be earned. Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne currently hold down the two slots, but an angry mob of drivers looms close behind, waiting to turn the wild-card race upside-down Saturday night.

    It is those drivers we will highlight here as we take a look at nine guys who can shake up the wild-card race at Daytona.

1. Carl Edwards

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    After finishing second in the championship standings to Tony Stewart by zero points in 2011, Edwards has had a well-documented nightmare of a year in 2012.

    Through 17 races, Edwards has just two top-five finishes to his credit and has yet to find a victory after winning at Las Vegas a year ago.

    Yet despite his struggles, Edwards still finds himself 11th in the standings heading into Daytona, where he won the pole and finished eighth in February.

    Roush-Fenway Racing has been stout on restrictor-plate tracks in 2012, with Matt Kenseth taking the checkered flag in the season-opening Daytona 500.

    If Edwards should meet that same fate Saturday night, he would move to the top of the wild-card race.

2. Paul Menard

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    Don't look now, but the neon yellow colors of Paul Menard sit 13th in the Sprint Cup standings.

    That's close enough for Menard to make a huge dent in the Chase wild-card race should he manage to find victory Saturday night at Daytona.

    It's entirely possible. In his last three Daytona starts, Menard has improved upon each performance with finishes of ninth, eighth and sixth, respectively.

    In addition, Menard has managed to get out front and lead at each of his last three Daytona races, proving that if he can get his timing right, he's more than capable of crossing the line in first.

    Should Menard take home the checkers Saturday night, he would take sole possession of a wild-card slot with eight races to go.

3. Ryan Newman

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    Ryan Newman has not finished better than 20th at Daytona since he won the 500 back in 2008.

    Still, the Coke Zero 400 is always a crapshoot, meaning not even Newman can be counted out come Saturday night.

    Newman sits in a three-way tie with Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano for the second and final wild-card slot. The tiebreaker goes to Kahne, but if Newman wins Saturday night, that won't really matter.

    Furthermore, after Saturday night's race concludes, the circuit will head to New Hampshire, where Newman won a year ago.

    Should Newman manage to win Saturday night, he could all but lock up a Chase berth the following week at New Hampshire.

4. Joey Logano

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    The final driver who can definitely take possession of a wild-card slot with a victory at Daytona is Joey Logano.

    Logano already has a victory in 2012 and, like Newman, is in a three-way tie for the final wild-card position.

    Though Logano would currently lose the tiebreaker to Kasey Kahne, he has run well at Daytona in the past.

    In February, Logano finished ninth in the Daytona 500, and last summer, he came within a hair's breadth of winning the 400-miler, finishing third behind David Ragan and Matt Kenseth.

    If he can get just a little bit more Saturday night, Logano could find himself well-positioned for one of those elusive wild-card slots.

5. Marcos Ambrose

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    It's easy to forget just how good Marcos Ambrose was during Speedweeks 2012.

    Yet there he was, finishing third in both the Budweiser Shootout and his Gatorade Duel race. Ambrose even looked like he might take a shot at winning The Great American Race before a late crash knocked him out of contention.

    The terrific opening week was no fluke for the Tasmanian Devil. Ambrose has experienced a career year in 2012 that includes two poles (including the first of his career at Michigan) and four top 10s.

    Ambrose has looked like a contender to break through and win every week. Daytona should be no different.

    Should Ambrose win Saturday night, he could be a favorite to break the two-win barrier with a race at Watkins Glen yet to come.

6. Jeff Gordon

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    Of all the drivers who could shake up the wild-card race Saturday night, Jeff Gordon may be the most likely to do so.

    Gordon has six wins at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, including three wins in the 400-mile summer event.

    Though his most recent victory in this event came in 2004, Gordon has managed to finish in the top 10 in this event each of the last two seasons, including a third-place effort in 2010.

    Gordon is expected to break through any week now, and with three teammates ready to help him out, Daytona may just be the place he does it.

    If it is, look for the floodgates to open back up on Gordon's winning ways.

7. Jamie McMurray

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    Daytona has always been feast or famine for Jamie McMurray.

    In 19 starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, McMurray has 11 finishes of 31st or worse, including seven DNFs.

    But when McMurray does manage to put it all together, the result is usually pretty spectacular. The Earnhardt-Ganassi driver has two wins, including the 2010 Daytona 500 and the 2007 Coke Zero (then Pepsi) 400.

    McMurray sits 19th in the standings, which is a little too far back to make a huge dent with just a single win Saturday night.

    But if he does win Saturday night, McMurray could still be a player with races at Indianapolis, Watkins Glen and Bristol still on the schedule.

8. Juan Pablo Montoya

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    Juan Pablo Montoya may be the longest shot of anybody on this list to win Saturday night.

    Jet-drying jokes aside, Montoya has never really been considered much of a superspeedway driver. Yet the Colombian did manage to finish in the top 10 in both Daytona races a year ago.

    If Montoya's Chase hopes hinge on Saturday night's race alone, he may be in trouble. But if he does stun the field and make it to Victory Lane, things could get interesting.

    Among the races remaining on the regular season schedule are Indianapolis, where Montoya has dominated two out of the last three years, and Watkins Glen, where he won in 2010.

    It's a long shot, but if Montoya wins Saturday night, we could see him back in the Chase for the first time since 2009.

9. A.J. Allmendinger

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    To many, A.J. Allmendinger's Chase hopes may be all but shot.

    But as long as you're mathematically alive, you can't be counted out. Such is the case with Allmendinger, who finished third in the 2009 Daytona 500 and 10th in this race a year ago.

    Daytona isn't Allmendinger's favorite track, but no matter. Anybody can win on this surface at any given time, and if Saturday night is 'Dinger's time, it may just spark something.

    Allmendinger is already riding the momentum of back-to-back top 10s, and even at 23rd in the standings, the No. 22 team has no desire to quit.

    With races at Watkins Glen and Bristol left on the regular season schedule, Allmendinger could do what his teammate did a year ago and make the Chase after being buried deep at the halfway point.