NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Lessons We Learned at the Coke Zero 400

Sandra MacWattersCorrespondent IJuly 8, 2012

NASCAR Sprint Cup: 10 Lessons We Learned at the Coke Zero 400

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    Daytona International Speedway, a place that has given us the some of the greatest moments and most tragic in NASCAR, never fails to disappoint when it comes to the unexpected. Once again the track carried on tradition.

    The Coke Zero 400 is the midpoint of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, but it leaves only eight chances for drivers to guarantee their spot in the Chase.

    A race at Daytona is always a crapshoot. With the inevitable "big one" lurking on every lap, drivers know that their season can take a huge hit or gain the boost that they needed.

    Starting position didn't matter, but keeping a car cool was critical. Pack racing was back, but drivers needed a dance partner just the same. Survival was sometimes the biggest goal.

    It was another Saturday night spectacle with patriotism galore. There were some stunning moments, and as the Coke Zero unfolded on the 2.5-mile tri-oval, we learned some important lessons.

New Driver in the No. 22

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    A. J. Allmendinger was the scheduled driver for the No. 22 Penske Dodge, but shortly before the start of the race, NASCAR announced his temporary suspension for violation of the Substance Abuse Policy.

    Allmendinger was tested after the Kentucky race, but the announcement was not made until Saturday.

    It was a battle against the clock for Sam Hornish Jr., who was back in Charlotte, to hop on a jet in Daytona that was sent to pick him up. He arrived minutes before the start of the race.

    Hornish unfortunately suffered a blown rear tire that did some pretty heavy damage when he went for a spin and he finished 33rd.

    He did put his drivers suit on in the plane, which was a first. It was also his first time driving for Shell/Pennzoil since 2003.

    It was quite the day for the driver who had been enjoying boating on the lake in the morning.

Tony Stewart Rules the Daytona July Race

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    Tony Stewart qualified his Mobil 1 No. 14 Chevrolet in the second-place slot, but a minor rules infraction sent him to the rear where he started 42nd.

    Stewart rallied from the back to win his fourth July Daytona race, which was the 18th checkered flag that he has taken at Daytona in combined series. He is second to Dale Earnhardt Sr. in number of wins.

    It was the third win for Stewart this season, who has two second-place finishes and a third place out of the last five races. "Smoke" may indeed be on fire during the summer streak.

This Is Never Good

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    Under the first caution, Kasey Kahne was exiting his pit stall when he was clipped by Jeff Gordon. Ryan Newman, in the No. 39 Chevrolet, then spun backwards hitting the No. 2 Dodge in the adjacent stall.

    It was a very dangerous situation that could have ended badly, since Brad Keselowski's team was servicing the left side of the Blue Deuce.

    Fortunately there were no injuries.

Bill Elliott Was Back

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    Bill Elliott returned to race the No. 50 Walmart Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports. It was the first time a Cup car was raced by that team, and the number 50 represented Walmart's 50th anniversary.

    Elliott was running 14th on lap 125 when he was caught up in an accident. He finished the race in 37th place.

    Turner Motorsports proved they could contend with a Cup car and a good driver, but they were a little slow on pit stops. A Cup operation could well be in their future.

It Worked for Kurt Busch in the Nationwide Race

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    Kurt Busch drove the No. 1 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet where angels fear to tread in the Nationwide Jalapeno 250 at Daytona. His bold moves resulted in victory.

    Busch started 33rd in the Coke Zero 400 and by lap 23, he was in 10th place. On lap 91, the driver of the Phoenix Racing No. 51 thought he could pull off a bold move to the center of the two racing lines.

    It didn't work with a Cup car that has little downforce. Aric Almirola came up to close his lane and as Busch tried to maintain control, he tagged Trevor Bayne and cars went spinning.

    Busch went to the garage on lap 109 and though he returned, a bent suspension part left him less than competitive. He finished in 35th place.

Jimmie Johnson on the Hook Again

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    The five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion qualified 16th for the Coke Zero 400. With a bump to the rear, Johnson took a hard hit to the inside wall on lap 125.

    Much like the Daytona 500, Johnson's day ended with his car on the hook. This was the third DNF this season for the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet team.

    Johnson was scored with a 36th place finish and he dropped to fourth in points, 58 markers out of the lead.

Mind Games

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    Racing on the high banks of a superspeedway can lead to mind games as drivers run in snake-like lines, side-by-side, wondering who will make a wrong move and when.

    The drivers also must constantly seek a way to gain position and wonder who will come with them or if they will get hung out to dry.

    The Coke Zero 400 ran under green-flag conditions until just after the midpoint at lap 82. From that point on, the intensity began to build.

    Drivers in the lead group were running scenarios of whether it would be better to lead or be in second place on the final lap.

    Other drivers were just hoping they would survive to finish the race.

Patriotism Was Strong

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    Our nation's birthday, the Fourth of July, may have come and gone, but patriotism was alive and well with the many tributes to our military.

    Many cars in the field sported colors of red, white and blue in the patriotic paint schemes that glistened under the lights.

    The July race at Daytona is always a celebration of the Fourth of July, no matter what day it comes on. It is a display that can only make you proud.

Kenseth Is No Lame Duck

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    Matt Kenseth, driver of the No. 17, may have announced his departure from Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season, for a team yet to be announced, but he was the class of the field at Daytona.

    Kenseth showed he is no lame-duck driver by leading 89 of the 160 laps. He and teammate Greg Biffle worked together much of the race.

    In the end, it was a battle between Hendrick Motorsports power and the Fords of Roush Fenway Racing. Tony Stewart was able to power ahead, with the help of Kasey Kahne, to take the win.

    Kenseth remains the points leader, 25 markers ahead of second place. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kenseth was scored in third place at the end of the race.

Television Coverage

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    It was so refreshing to have TNT and their commercial partners give us the "wide open" television coverage with the commercials, for the most part, contained in a picture-within-picture mode.

    They did take a few 90-second breaks for TNT promotion, but that was easy to live with.

    Fans were able to watch nearly all of the race and it was a pleasure, after the plethora of commercials we have been bombarded with on their watch, including grandpa and grandson battling over mashed potatoes.

    We are grateful for any coverage by NASCAR's broadcast partners that gives us more racing. ESPN has given us side-by-side coverage for the last part of races, much like has been done in IndyCar.

    How great it would be to have more of this type of coverage for the races? Perhaps we would appreciate the commercial partners more instead of resenting their intrusion.