Dropping the Hammer: NASCAR Beaching It Up at Daytona

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IJuly 3, 2009

When you think of perfection during the summer, it might be a beach, basking in the warmth of the sun as you relax on your chair, or lounging in the pool with a glass of lemonade.

For those around a certain 2.5-mile super-speedway in Volusia County, perfection during the summer is the sound of 43 stock cars at the Daytona International Speedway, battling wheel-to-wheel at speeds in excess of 195 miles per hour.

There's nothing like the white-knuckle action of Daytona, when these courageous drivers battle it out around the 33 degrees of banking of this mammoth track.

What other track, aside from Talladega, produces racing where the competitors travel into the corners going four abreast?

Add to the fact that this is Independence Day Weekend and you have a race that even our forefathers couldn't script any better. What better way to celebrate America's birthday with the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola (400 miles, 160 laps) of full-throttle competition?

As if that wasn't enough, fans will get the summer sampler that the NASCAR Nationwide Series are preparing to eat and drink up, with their Friday night race in the form of the Subway Jalapeno 250 powered by Coca-Cola (250 miles, 100 laps).

Two races, full throttle, restrictor-plate style spells out one thing for the fans: an exciting weekend of racing for all to enjoy! So with that, let's take a look at this weekend's NASCAR action at Daytona!


On Your Side: Nationwide "Ensures" Excitement at Daytona

While it may not have the rich history and tradition of its sister Sprint Cup series with July and Daytona, the 250-miler (Friday night, 7:30 p.m. EDT on ESPN2) has served as a precursor to the Saturday night showdown.

Just like the Cup ranks, the same factors play into a Nationwide Series race at the plate tracks: "The Big One," drafting partners, "making deals," hung out to dry or clotheslined, and of course, the dreaded yellow-line rule.

Even the non-racing fan knows what "The Big One" refers to. It's the wreck that everyone hates but can't stop looking at because of the highlight reel material it has, with parts flying over the place, sheet metal crumpled up to bits, and tempers flaring over destroyed, multi-million dollar speed machines.

It's the high speed game of chance and chess all into one, with each competitor having to trust one another as they negotiate the narrow lanes and near, three-stories of banked corners in a relatively short, sprint-to-the finish race.

With the exception of the 2007 race (postponed to a Saturday afternoon matinee), the series has raced at DIS, Friday night style since 2002.

Among the all-time winners for this second, spectacular event are Joe Nemechek, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Mike Wallace, Martin Truex, Jr., Kyle Busch, and Denny Hamlin.

Of that list, only Wallace and Truex, Jr. (though he was somewhat double dipping it with the Cup series on a limited schedule) have been the true insurance agents who have won this event.

As the old adage goes, "expect the unexpected."

Just because you may think this will be another round of the Joe Gibbs Racing collective against Roush Fenway Racing's brigade doesn't mean you should count out team owners like James Finch, Rusty Wallace, Rick Hendrick, or even Roger Penske (can he be considered an "underdog" in any racing series?).

There will be storylines to follow, including Junior's quest to win three July spectaculars in the N'wide level, the tight rookie battle that has Brendan Gaughan being chased by Justin Allgaier and Michael McDowell by only a 15-point margin, and of course, if one of the true insurance agents can beat the "frauds" who compete part-time or for the full season.

Handling, which will also be mentioned in the Sprint Showdown segment of this preview, will also play a pivotal role for who has the car to contend to a car that can barely defend itself against the hordes of drafting packs that are always a part of the racing at Daytona.

With that said, here's a look at some "surefire" picks for Friday night!

Surefire Claims to Victory Lane

The man who'll probably be on the top of most race fans' list with Victory Lane material is most likely Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has won at this facility on five occasions (three in the spring, twice in the summer).

While he has experienced quite the season of struggles in the Sprint Cup series, nothing says homecoming and home-cooking like Daytona for the 34-year-old Kannapolis, N.C. native.

Driving his JR Motorsports' No. 5 Fastenal Chevrolet for the Friday night race, look for Junior to flex some of his plate muscle amongst the leaders and possibly for that checkered flag.

While Roush Fenway Racing and restrictor plate competition may not get along most of the time, there are occasions when this Ford team's performance at these tracks are absolutely phenomenal.

David Ragan showcased his emerging skills as a future NASCAR star when he drove his No. 6 Discount Tires Ford Fusion to a sounding victory at Talladega in April, a race that saw plenty of moments of excitement and heart-pounding crashes.

Topping the speed charts this evening, don't be surprised to see Ragan's white and black Ford claw and might his way to the front.

You may also want to keep an eye on Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. Busch has shown his worth on the plate tracks, winning in the top two NASCAR series at these facilities and his fearlessness to mix it up with the veterans up front.

Meanwhile, Logano has to be still be absolutely floored about his first Cup win last Sunday at his "hometown" track in Loudon, NH. You can't blame the kid, who probably is feeling an emotional high about his christening as a winner.

Now, Logano must show that he is "as good as he was in his last race," which was a win at Loudon in the Cup car and a runner-up at the hands of his teammate Busch in the N'wide race last Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Then there's the usual but reliable agents, who may not get all the glitz and glamor of their fraud counterparts. However, they must not go unnoticed.

Mike Bliss, Brendan Gaughan, and Jason Leffler are all potential candidates to upstage their Cup cousins if they look to make some headway in the points picture as well as for the trophy on Friday night.

And last but not least, watch for Brad Keselowski to showcase and audition for a Cup ride next season starting with this event—can anyone say Hendrick satellite operation?

Top 10 In Points

1)  Kyle Busch           2581
2)  Carl Edwards        2419
3)  Brad Keselowski    2338
4)  Jason Leffler        2261
5)  Joey Logano        2040
6)  Mike Bliss            1910
7)  Justin Allgaier       1864
8)  Brendan Gaughan  1844
9)  Steve Wallace      1823
10) Jason Keller         1810

Sprint Showdown: Grab a Coke, Smile For Four Hundred Miles

Originally called the Firecracker and once sponsored by Pepsi, this summer showdown at Daytona, now known as the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola (Saturday night, 8 p.m. EDT on TNT)

Originally designed to showcase other racing series, this 400-miler has become quite the classic in its own right, with dark horses and champions crowned in Daytona International Speedway's July tradition.

From Fireball Roberts' win in 1959 in what was originally a 250-miler to last year's exciting victory by Kyle Busch in the 400-miler, Daytona tends to showcase the best and sometimes bring a smile to the underdogs of racing.

Guys like Sam McQuagg, Charlie Glotzbach, Pete Hamilton, Greg Sacks, and John Andretti are some of the faces of the drivers who had their biggest moment in NASCAR with a win in this Independence Day festivity.

There's always the talk about having a drafting partner, which is imperative on-the-track, as well as down pit road, when you need that other car to get you back up to speed exiting off your box.

Just how much drafting is too much drafting?

When a competitor pushes the car out front too hard, that often leads to what fans love and hate in the form of "The Big One," or the crash that seemingly eliminates half the field.

Fan favorites to offshoots are often collected in that mess, which certainly change the complexion of the race picture.

That's when the true, hard, gritty racing begins—drivers selling each other out for another drafting partner, close-quarter moves, paint trading, and alliances that are only as good as the total number of minutes that Megan Fox is shown in Transformers 2.

Will we see a repeat winner in the form of Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, or Tony Stewart? Or will the race showcase a first time winner or the underdog victory?

Contacts to Call

Jeff Gordon is the active, all-time winner for this race amongst his full-time competitors. Winning this race on three occasions in 1995, 1998, and 2004, the No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet just has a love of the slick track conditions that are so conducive to the month of July at Daytona.

Pretty much locked into the Chase, Gordon would love to win on Saturday night to trim his somewhat lengthy defecit from "Chase leaders" Mark Martin and Kyle Busch, who have won three times this season.

Kyle Busch would like nothing more but another win at "The World Center of Racing," especially with his somewhat inconsistent season.

Either enjoying a feast or experiencing a famine, the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota team are in a position where a win is obviously important, but starting a streak of top fives and tens are probably more paramount than anything else for this bunch.

Tony Stewart, who currently leads the Sprint Cup points standings, absolutely enjoys racing in the summer at DIS. Having won the 400-miler in 2005 and 2006, the driver of the No. 14 Burger King Chevrolet would love to give his new sponsor another dip into Victory Lane (having previously been there with the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. during his Daytona 500 win in 1998).

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is traditionally a pick at these plate tracks, having won this event in 2001 and the Daytona 500 in 2004.

Seemingly having some of his father's skills at the plate tracks, a good finish or a win would certainly ease the pain and heartaches that this team has experienced in 2009.

Don't forget to keep an eye on guys like Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Elliott Sadler. Fantasy race owners, any of these five drivers are pretty good sleepers for the victory on Saturday night.

In the case of Kenseth and his No. 17 team, a Daytona sweep would certainly be a huge confidence booster for this organization, which hasn't had much reason to talk about this season.


Top 10 In Points

1)   Tony Stewart:   2524
2)   Jeff Gordon:      2455
3)   Jimmie Johnson: 2355
4)   Kurt Busch:       2254
5)   Carl Edwards:    2157
6)   Denny Hamlin:    2132
7)   Ryan Newman:   2127
8)   Kyle Busch:       2108
9)   Greg Biffle:        2106
10)  Matt Kenseth:   2054


Rob's Rant...

Both the N'wide Series and the Cup gang have reached their halfway points of their seasons. While it is safe to say that the N'wide title is pretty much Kyle Busch's to lose, on the Cup side, it's anyone's race.

While media pundits have already dubbed Stewart, Gordon, and Johnson as the "Big Three," don't count your favorites out of challenging them for the Chase.

If guys like Kyle Busch or Mark Martin grab a few more wins and stay safely within the top 12 in points, they may mount a respectable charge on the No. 14, 24, and 48 teams come Chase season.

While I do feel sorry for what happened to Bill Weber and I will not comment further about his deal with TNT, I will say it was a breath of fresh air listening to Ralph Sheheen calling the race last Sunday at Loudon.

He has an enthusiastic voice without going too overboard, and talks like one of us—the fans.

Sheheen was a heckuva pit reporter during CBS Sports' last years covering NASCAR, getting his first break with the network and sport in the 1997 Daytona 500. He was diligent, informative, and easily understandable to any one watching the race at home.

The same can be said about his performance for TNT Sports last Sunday in the booth with Kyle Petty and Wally Dallenbach.

Perhaps Sheheen's gig as Weber's replacement for the rest of their races in 2009 may serve as a huge sign of things to come for that network or for any media partner who's looking for a stout personality.

Lastly, and I'm probably going to get a lot of hatin' about it (and undoubtedly cast an unpopular view among the writers and fans) but seriously people, get over the hate and bitterness over a foreign automobile manufacturer competing in NASCAR.

Yes, I know, NASCAR is all-American and should showcase the GM models, the Ford Motor Company, and Dodge line of vehicles in the sport. Yeah, I've heard that case made several times.

But Toyota is here to stay, people. And yes, they're based in Japan.

However, the last time I checked, of all the four manufacturers competing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series, only the Toyota Camry is assembled right in the good ol' United States in Lafayette, Ind.

The Chevrolet Impala is made in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, while the Ford Fusion is assembled in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico.

How about the Dodge Charger? Try Brampton, Ontario, Canada.

So the next time you wanna go off on me or another race fan who may drive or support the Toyota brand of cars, on and off-the-track, you may want to see where these cars are made.

Get over the history, the hatred, prejudice and preconceived notion of what's supposed to be ONLY in NASCAR or your sport.


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