Daytona Story Lines
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on July 5, 2014 | 1:57 P.M. EST
Will Daytona International Speedway be the home to another surprise this weekend? (Photo: Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - What a weekend it’s been at Daytona International Speedway. It makes one wonder if there could be another unique outcome in tonight’s Coke Zero 400.
The action started with Dakoda Armstrong winning his first career Nationwide pole. Then David Gilliland won his first Sprint Cup pole since 2007. Kasey Kahne followed that by scoring his first Nationwide win since 2007, nipping teammate Regan Smith at the finish.
So, what will happen tonight? Could there be another upset or surprise finish?
Restrictor-plate racing gives more drivers a chance and makes it easier for that unexpected finish. Three years ago, David Ragan scored his first Sprint Cup win at this track. Greg Biffle’s first win came in this race in 2003. Same with John Andretti in 1997.
Fifteen drivers enter tonight’s race searching for their first series win, including Gilliland, second-place starter Reed Sorenson, Danica Patrick, Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson.
Another seeking his first career win is Landon Cassill. He starts third. He finished 12th in the Daytona 500 and 11th at Talladega.
“We’ve got good equipment,’’ Cassill said. “I just need to show the other people out there how good my car is.’’
An unpredictable finish is just among the story lines for tonight’s race:
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Would you believe it if you were told that Stenhouse had the best average finish among active drivers at Daytona?
Believe it. He has an average finish of 12.5 in four starts. He’s also finished in the top 10 in his last three restrictor-plate races, placing third at Talladega last fall, seventh in the Daytona 500 and 10th at Talladega in the spring.
Stenhouse said entering this weekend that he had this race circled after his recent performances on the plate tracks. Could this be the night he scores his first Cup win?
The belief is that once the green flag waves at a restrictor-plate race a crew chief is not much more than a spectator because they can’t have as much influence in the race.
That’s not true. Pit strategy can be critical. A fuel gamble allowed Regan Smith to race for the win in Friday night’s Nationwide race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. credits crew chief Steve Letarte’s strategy with helping him win this year’s Daytona 500.
Drivers talk about how difficult it can be to pass because it’s easy to get trapped in the pack. That’s where strategy comes in. Earnhardt was stuck running 10th early in the 500, but Letarte had him pit under caution just a few laps after a previous caution where the field pitted. The ploy helped Earnhardt get off cycle and get to the front where he stayed the rest of the race.
“You need to be ... putting fuel in your car as often as you can so that the last time you have to come down pit road to get in that window, you only need to put a few gallons in the car,’‘ Earnhardt said. “ It’s where most of the field is putting 12 to 22 gallons in on that stop and you are only putting in what you need, and you beat them off pit road. And there you are – in position to win.’’
Denny Hamlin finished second in the Daytona 500 and won at Talladega this year, but outside the restrictor-plate races this has not been a memorable season for him.
Hamlin enters tonight’s race having finished 26th or worse in the each of the past three races, including a last-place finish at Kentucky when he crashed after 27 laps.
He’s a driver who could use a change of fortune and it could come in this race.
Winless this season, Stewart has finished second and first the past two years in this race. He’s won the July Daytona race four times. He’s due. He could use a win because he’s not in a Chase spot at this point. Maybe tonight is his night.
It’s bound to happen and seems as inevitable as the sun rising in the East. The question is who will be collected in the big crash and see their hopes of winning dashed.
Motor Racing Network – "The Voice of NASCAR" – will have live coverage of the Sprint Cup race from Daytona Int’l Speedway. Air time for Saturday's Coke Zero 400 is 6:30 p.m. (ET), with live streaming at MRN.com.