NASCAR at Daytona 2016: Preview and Prediction for the Coke Zero 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistJune 29, 2016

NASCAR at Daytona 2016: Preview and Prediction for the Coke Zero 400

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Daytona strikes back.

    That’s where we go—a Saturday(tona)-night romp in Florida.

    In this week’s episode, we look back and forward, back to Tony Stewart’s “win” at Sonoma Raceway and forward to his chances at making the Chase. Despite Fox’s Darrell Waltrip saying during Sunday’s broadcast that Smoke is now in the Chase, Stewart still needs to make the top 30 in points. (He’s 32nd, just nine points behind Brian Scott in 30th.)

    Stewart’s win puts serious pressure on Chase bubble drivers. Stewart will not be top 16 in points, so his win will bump a non-winner off the grid. There are several, including Dale Earnhardt Jr., who could fail to make the Chase if they don’t get their cars in gear.

    Throat-clearing aside, here’s this week’s renewal of a preview and prediction as we return to Daytona International Speedway.

By the Numbers: Daytona International Speedway

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Coke Zero 400

    Place: Daytona International Speedway

    Date: 7:45 p.m. ET, Saturday, July 2

    TV Coverage: NBC

    Distance: 400 miles, 160 laps

    Defending Champion: Earnhardt Jr.

Current Driver Standings

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    Harvick
    HarvickCarlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

    1. Kevin Harvick, 562

    2. Kurt Busch, 527

    3. Carl Edwards, 510

    4. Brad Keselowski, 506

    5. Joey Logano, 493

    6. Chase Elliott, 473

    7. Jimmie Johnson, 469

    8. Martin Truex Jr., 469

    9. Kyle Busch, 452

    10. Matt Kenseth, 430

    11. Denny Hamlin, 421

    12. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 413

    13. Ryan Newman, 402

    14. Austin Dillon, 400

    15. Jamie McMurray, 398

    16. Kasey Kahne, 385

    ...

    32. Tony Stewart, 196

    Bold indicates race winner and italics indicate multirace winner.

The Chase Bubble Watch

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    Kahne
    KahneWILL LESTER/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The Two Above the Line

    Jamie McMurray and Kasey Kahne

    These two drivers are in serious trouble of being in the top 16 in points but failing to make the Chase.

    With Stewart’s win at Sonoma, he’ll soon represent a non-top-16 driver in points to make the Chase.

    Today that would bump Kahne off the grid despite his place in the standings.

    The Two Below the Line

    Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger

    AJ Allmendinger’s team blew it for him at Sonoma. He was probably the best car on that track, and then an uncontrolled tire on pit road took his sixth-place car and forced it to the back of the field.

    As for Blaney, he’s having a terrific rookie season, and unless he markedly improves and gets to maybe 14th in the driver standings, he’ll have a tough shot at making the Chase at this point.

Biggest Storyline: The Tony Stewart Watch Beings

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    Stewart
    StewartBen Margot/Associated Press/Associated Press

    It always was a thing, but with the win at Sonoma, Stewart must climb two more spots from 32nd place into the top 30. There’s even a "Tony Stewart Chase Watch" tab on NASCAR's official website.

    Only nine points separate him from Scott, who sits in 30th.

    Fox Sports’ Waltrip writes:

    Need I remind you what happened in 2011?  Tony barely made the Chase and told anyone who would listen that he and his team didn't deserve to be there. He said they weren't that good. He said they were taking a spot from a team probably more deserving. Do you remember what happened? Tony and the No. 14 caught fire winning five of the 10 Chase races and Tony won his third NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

    With the latest Chase format, Waltrip is right: You can’t rule him out.

Biggest Storyline: Austin Dillon Tries to Remain Grounded

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    Last year’s race finished late, or early, depending on your frame of reference. It was 2 a.m.-ish, Monday morning, and the Coke Zero 400 was wrapping up—a heated finish with Earnhardt blocking lanes on his way to the win. You knew the finish would be a mad dash—a gloves-off battle for top spot.

    I was dozing in and out of sleep. I had to be up for work at 5 a.m., so the fact the race was still going on (it started at 11:42 p.m.), and I still had to do one of these things had me foggy-eyed and sleepy.

    Then Dillon’s No. 3 car took flight while the checkered flag waved.

    "As far as my memory, I was just flying through the air, and I knew it was going to be a wicked wreck," Dillon told Chris Boyle of the Daytona Beach News-Journal. "Safety was a big issue at that point in time. For me to walk away and be unscathed was big for NASCAR. Daytona's been pretty good to me, but I don't want to fly in the air anymore."

    Needless to say, my adrenals pumped out a gallon of adrenaline, and I woke the heck up. We waited to see how Dillon—if Dillon—would surface from the apocalyptic remains of his No. 3 car.

    He was banged up, but he surfaced just fine, and only a few fans were injured in the stands—a true testament to the catch fence. That saved potentially dozens of lives at the start-finish line.

    With that behind him, Dillon can only focus on making the Chase. He has slid down the standings from seventh at one point all the way to 14th now.

    "It's been a solid start, but…we're going to have to get to Victory Lane," Dillon said, per Boyle. "We need to figure ourselves into this Chase by getting a victory. We're focused on getting a win and some major points and being aggressive in each and every race."

Biggest Storyline: RIP Amelia

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    Earnhardt
    EarnhardtCarlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Earnhardt’s best chance at making the Chase is this weekend at Daytona.

    For all his success at the plate tracks in 2015 (two wins, no finish worse than third), Junior and his precious plate car, Amelia, will not reunite in Daytona.

    After Talladega’s mess, Amelia was laid to rest in Junior’s Graveyard of Cars in North Carolina.

    MRN.com’s Pete Pistone writes (h/t Record.net):

    There have been a few runner-up finishes for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver but he’s yet to cross the finish line first. Inconsistency has plagued Earnhardt Jr. this year, which has been an up and down proposition since the season began in February at Daytona. He figures to be a player Saturday night as he always is in restrictor plate races, but make no mistake there are some nervous fans among “Junior Nation” wondering when their favorite driver will finally break through in 2016.

    Junior sits in 12th place in the points, safe for now, but should any more drivers outside the top 16 in points win a race (Kyle Larson, Greg Biffle, Allmendinger, Trevor Bayne, Aric Almirola), Junior’s winless grip looks awfully tenuous.

    That 12th is actually 13th, because Stewart will qualify soon. All the more reason to get this win and get it now.

Dark-Horse Pick: Stewart

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    Stewart
    StewartCarlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Sort of an odd dark-horse pick, but with the “win” at Sonoma last weekend and his history at Daytona’s summer race (four wins), that confidence should carry over to a possibly great performance.

    No matter what happens, win or lose, Stewart should eclipse Scott in the 30th spot and effectively punch his (Stewart’s) ticket to the Chase.

And the Winner Is...Kevin Harvick

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    Harvick
    HarvickCarlos Osorio/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Kevin Harvick is quietly the most consistent driver on the Sprint Cup circuit right now.

    He’s got a huge lead in the points (35 points over Kurt Busch in second, 52 points over Edwards in third), and he has shown a certain measure of patience and skill in every race so far.

    It doesn’t matter where he starts: He manages to get to the front of these races, and the past three times he’s been to Daytona, he hasn’t finished worse than fourth.

    Expect him to lay back for the first half off this race and then make a Harvickian move to the front when the track cools and the pressure’s hottest.

    Outback Steakhouse better order up more onions.

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