NASCAR at Daytona 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for Coke Zero 400

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJuly 3, 2014

NASCAR at Daytona 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for Coke Zero 400

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    It's Fourth of July weekend, which for NASCAR fans only means one thing: It's time to go back to Daytona.

    The summer race at the Daytona International Speedway is the Coke Zero 400. This year, defending champion Jimmie Johnson will come to town along with a throng of competitors who hope to create fireworks of their own on Saturday night.

    Held under the lights, the Coke Zero 400 is a restrictor-plate race, meaning anything can happen. With the Chase for the Sprint Cup heating up, drivers without a win this season will be hungry for the opportunity to correct that.

    So enjoy the long weekend, put up your feet and celebrate Independence Day with an exciting race at Daytona. Here's everything you need to know, including favorites, dark horses and a prediction.

By the Numbers: Daytona International Speedway

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Place: Daytona International Speedway

    Date: Saturday, July 5

    Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

    TV: TNT, 6:30 p.m. ET (Countdown to Green pre-race show)

    Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), SiriusXM Ch. 90

    Distance: 400 miles (160 laps) 

    Defending Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson

    Defending Pole Winner: Kyle Busch

    Race Record: Bobby Allison, Mercury, 173.473 mph, 7-4-80

    Qualifying Record: Cale Yarborough, Ford, 203.519 mph, 7-2-86

    Races Won from the Pole: Eight

    Youngest Daytona Pole Winner: Austin Dillon (2-23-2014—23 years, 9 months, 27 days)

    Oldest Daytona Pole Winner: Mark Martin (7-2-2011—52 years, 5 months, 23 days)

    Youngest Daytona Winner: Trevor Bayne (2-20-2011—20 years, 0 months, 1 day)

    Oldest Daytona Winner: Bobby Allison (2-14-1988—50 years, 5 months, 23 days)

    All-Time Winner: David Pearson (five)

Key Storylines

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    Bob Brodbeck/Associated Press

    Can Someone Outside of the Top 16 in the Chase Race Win?

    This is the 18th race in the Sprint Cup Series, and time is running out for drivers outside of the top 16 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings to get a victory that will guarantee a spot for them in NASCAR's postseason.

    This race is particularly important for Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Austin Dillon, Brian Vickers and Marcos Ambrose, the players ranked No. 17-21 and therefore just outside the Chase cutoff.


    Who Can Avoid a Crash?

    Daytona is of course a restrictor-plate race, which means the cars will be traveling much closer together and crashes are far more likely.

    Bob Pockgrass of Sporting News says that the goal for all of the drivers at Daytona should simply be to "be there at the end and see what can be made out of the draft in the final 10 laps."


    Will Josh Wise's Car Cause Any Protests?

    Wise's car is causing quite the commotion this week. Wise—who captured headlines when his relationship with the dogecoin group on Reddit propelled him to win the Sprint Fan Vote to get into the Sprint All-Star Race in May—will sport promotional signs supporting democratic candidate Charlie Crist's campaign for Florida governor. 

    The GOP has filed an election complaint over the sponsorship, which it says exceeds the donation limit for state races. However, Crist's campaign says it is OK since it was an in-kind donation to Crist's political committee and therefore not subject to limits.

    Likely, it won't affect anything outside of causing a lot more people to talk about Crist. But it's a story worth keeping an eye on.

Drivers to Watch

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    Brad Keselowski

    Keselowski got his second win of the season last week at Kentucky, and, as usual, he made quite a splash along the way.

    Ed Hinton of ESPN tried to sum up the controversial star:

    To put him in a nutshell, he is the guy who should have dominated the Nationwide race Friday night but lost with one momentary mistake, speeding on the pit road ... and the guy who did dominate, and did win, the Cup race at Kentucky on Saturday night ...

    ... And then lacerated his hand on a broken champagne bottle in Victory Lane, playing as usual, and had to go get four stitches in the infield care center before he could show up for the in-depth interview with reporters at the track.

    That is all just SO Brad.

    The 30-year-old is headed into Daytona with a boatload of confidence and an eye on finishing on top this season. He has two top-10 finishes at Daytona in his career.


    Matt Kenseth

    Kenseth has had success in restrictor-plate races before, winning at both Daytona and Talladega, and he thinks this track sets up well for his Joe Gibbs Racing team this year.

    As Micah Roberts of Sporting News reports, Kenseth is focused on staying out of trouble this week:

    'I felt that Speedweeks at Daytona earlier this year went really well for JGR since Denny (Hamlin) won the Shootout and one of the qualifiers, with us winning the other qualifier race,' said Kenseth. 'I really felt that Denny had the car to win the (Daytona) 500 as well and he went on to finish second. Hopefully we can stay out of trouble this weekend because we see so many times at the superspeedways how one person makes a mistake and you can end up easily getting caught up in it.'

    Kenseth is currently ranked No. 5 in the Sprint Cup standings, but he's still looking for his first win of the season.


    Denny Hamlin

    As Kenseth mentioned above, Hamlin is also certainly a driver who could find success this weekend.

    Hamlin has been phenomenal this year in the plate races, winning Talladega and finishing as a runner-up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the Daytona 500. If he avoids crashes, he could very well cross the finish line first.

History of Daytona International Speedway

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Groundbreaking at Daytona International Speedway first took place in 1957. The track opened in 1959 and has been home to the most prestigious race in NASCAR, the Daytona 500, ever since.

    The summer race in Daytona—then known as the Firecracker 250—debuted that year as well and has been traditionally held around the Fourth of July.

    NASCAR founder William France Sr. built the track with a banked design to permit higher speeds and to allow fans a better look at the cars.

    In 1998, lights were added to the track, and since then the Coke Zero 400 has been held at night.


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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    Jimmie Johnson

    After a slow start to the season, Johnson is now surging. He has finished in the top 10 in his last seven races, a streak that includes three victories. He's No. 2 in the standings and looking to pass his teammate Jeff Gordon at the top.

    Johnson swept both races at Daytona last year and finished fifth at the 500 this year. The guy just knows how to win.


    Kyle Busch

    Busch has had success on the Daytona track before, with one win, five top-fives, six top-10s and one pole.

    He was the runner-up last week in Kentucky, and he's part of the Joe Gibbs Racing team that is aiming high this week. He finished a disappointing 19th at the 500 to start the season, so No. 18 will be looking to vastly improve upon that this weekend.


    Kevin Harvick

    Harvick finished third in this race last year and won it back in 2010, so he should be confident heading into the holiday weekend.

    Additionally, the No. 4 won the Daytona 500 in 2007 and has six top-fives, 11 top-10s and one pole victory at this track. After crashing at the 500 earlier this year, Harvick's focus will be on running a clean race.

Dark-Horse Pick

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Don't overlook Greg Biffle.

    The 2003 champion of this race is having a pretty good season, sitting at No. 13 in the Sprint Cup standings. He has had success in restrictor-plate races this year, finishing eighth at the 500 and second at Talladega, even though he led the most laps.

    According to Speedway Media, Biffle is hoping to relive his glory days this weekend:

    I’m looking forward to this weekend. Hopefully we can get a top-10 finish or a win. Daytona under the lights is always exciting and was the site of my first win, a long time ago.  I’m hoping to back it up with another this weekend.

    To give him another intangible edge, Biffle's Ford will be in a patriotic condition for this weekend, with a bald eagle on the front and plenty of red, white and blue. 


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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Perhaps it's a boring pick considering he's the odds-on favorite and he won the Daytona 500 this year, but it's just hard not to go with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for this race. 

    Junior is having one of the best seasons of his career, with two wins and 12 top-10 finishes. He's currently No. 3 in the standings, right behind teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson.  

    Micah Roberts of Sporting News says Junior has turned back the clock this season:

    He's won two races this season which is the same amount he won for Hendrick Motorsports from 2008-13 and he leads the series with nine top-five finishes. What makes Junior so good this season, besides getting great cars, is that he has his swagger back and he's having fun.

    Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 10 for the past five races, a streak that includes three top-five finishes and one victory in Pocono. No. 88 is simply on a roll. 

    It helps that he loves Daytona, with three wins, 11 top-fives, 17 top-10s and one pole in his pocket.

    Look for Junior to be lifting his arms in victory once again this weekend.