Fantasy NASCAR race preview: Coke Zero 400

by Eric McClung on July 5, 2012 @ 13:45:06 PDT


After numerous tweaks to the race cars, NASCAR finally squashed the two-car tandem that had taken over the traditional pack racing that had long been the norm at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, the only two restrictor plate race tracks on the schedule. While a two-car draft can still be executed successfully, it can no longer be sustained for an extended amount of time. Regardless of driving style, the wrecks that typically unfold in plate races will ensure plenty of fireworks are in store for this Independence Day weekend.

Practice sessions: Thursday, July 5 at 4:00 pm ET, 6:35 pm ET
Qualifying: Friday, July 6 at 4:10 pm ET
Race: Saturday, July 7 at 7:30 pm ET
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Shape: Tri-oval
Length: 2.50 miles
Laps: 160
Turns 1-4: 31 degrees
Front stretch: 18 degrees
Back stretch: 3 degrees

Drivers to keep an eye on

Matt Kenseth | No. 17 Zest Ford | Roush Fenway Racing

Over the last year Kenseth has established himself as the top driver in restrictor plate races. After a runner-up performance in last year's Coke Zero 400, Kenseth captured his second career Daytona 500 in February. Since then he scored a third-place finish at Talladega in May after leading 73 laps, more than three times the nearest driver. Despite his pending departure from RFR at the end of the season, Kenseth finds himself leading in points and appears to have the full support of the organization.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 National Guard "An American Salute"/Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

Even though all seven of Earnhardt's victories on restrictor plate tracks came between 2001-07, he has remained a fixture in these events. Since joining HMS in 2008, Earnhardt has three runner-up finishes between DIS and Talladega, including this year's Daytona 500. In those 18 combined starts Earnhardt owns 11 finishes inside the top 15 and four top-fives in the last 10. Given the remarkable consistency this season that finally ended his long winless streak, Earnhardt may not be waiting very long for victory No. 2 of 2012.

Kevin Harvick | No. 29 Budweiser/Folds of Honor/Rheem Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

In seven starts since 2009, Harvick has one win, a runner-up performance and a total of five finishes inside the top 10 at Daytona. During that time he was also impressive at Talladega, finishing first, second and fifth in three straight starts at the site. After finishing seventh in last year's Coke Zero 400, Harvick scored another P7 this year at the Daytona 500. In May, Harvick crashed at Talladega, but it remains his only DNF and finish off the lead lap thus far through 17 races.

Brad Keselowski | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Championship Racing

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

By looking solely at Keselowski's history at Daytona you'd think he can't get it done at restrictor plate venues. In half a dozen starts he's without a top-10 and owns three DNFs due to crashes. However, Keselowski has been sharp at Talladega with two wins, including the May race, and another top-five from October of last year. Keselowski leads all drivers this season with three victories and is playing with house money given his all but guaranteed spot in the Chase. Clearly it's just a matter of time before he breaks through at DIS.

Kyle Busch | No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing

A year ago Busch finished eighth and fifth, respectively, in the two races held at Daytona. So naturally his 17th-place result in the season opener was something of a disappointment. However, Rowdy's runner-up performance at Talladega in May is proof positive he has not lost his restrictor plate prowess. In fact, Busch ranks first among all drivers at Daytona in driver rating, average running position and percentage of laps spent running in the top 15.

Jamie McMurray | No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet | Earnhardt- Ganassi Racing

At one point during the 2009-10 seasons McMurray was considered the best driver on restrictor plate tracks. During that time he won one race at Talladega, the 2010 Daytona 500 and finished as the runner-up in the following Talladega race. Much of that luster wore off during the 2011 season when McMurray went without a top-15 finish in the four races held across the two venues. However, Jamie Mac scored an 11th-place finish at Dega back in May and could be regaining his form in plate races.

Jeff Burton | No. 31 Wheaties Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing

Mired 20th in points, Burton appears en route to a second consecutive disappointing season that sees him fall well outside the Chase. Yet Burton's lone bright spots this season have come in restrictor plate races. His fifth-place result in the Daytona 500 remains Burton's personal watermark for 2012 while his 10th-place finish at Talladega is his only top-10 over the last 13 races. There's obviously a lot of risk with starting Burton but plate races appear to be his lone strength right now, giving him sleeper potential.

Trevor Bayne | No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford | Wood Brothers Racing

Since winning last year's Daytona 500, Bayne was unable to avoid crashing early in the last two DIS events. At Talladega he's remained solid with a 15th-place result in the 2011 Chase race while finishing eighth last May. After qualifying seventh at Michigan International Speedway, his last start of the season, Bayne suffered an engine failure just seven laps into the race. If he can avoid another equipment issue or being collected in a wreck, Bayne is more than capable of another solid finish in a plate race.

Temper your expectations

Ryan Newman | No. 39 Aspen Dental Chevrolet | Stewart-Haas Racing

Since winning the 2008 Daytona 500, Newman has failed to record a top-20 finish in eight straight starts at DIS. The issues are similar at Talladega, where he's gone six straight races without such a performance. Newman is no fan of restrictor plate racing so the slump comes as no surprise. This season Newman has gone 11 starts without a top-10 finish and will likely make it an even dozen.

Jeff Gordon | No. 24 Pepsi Max Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports

In nine starts at Daytona since 2008, despite starting fifth or better on five occasions, Gordon has only managed a pair of top-10s with six finishes outside of the top 25. During that span of time Gordon's numbers at Talladega are unfortunately very similar. Even though he's won a dozen restrictor plate races in his career and has placed sixth or better over the last three weeks, Gordon has failed to finish well at these type of venues in recent years.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.

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