The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back to Daytona International Speedway on July 4 to kick off the traditional second half of the season. NASCAR still hasn't moved away from the use of restrictor plates at superspeedways, so the engines will once again be starved for oxygen, creating tight packs of cars racing one another. Even with the restriction though, the cars still run at very high speeds, and drafting off others is the key to success.
Successfully finding a partner to work with and minimize wind resistance is the key to moving forward through the congested pack. The aerodynamics of the new generation car makes the turns a handful for drivers racing mid-pack mired in turbulence. If a driver ends up falling out of the draft, it will run one or two seconds slower per lap.
The new car design has also proven that it is very difficult to catch up and latch back on. Losing the draft just once can effectively end a driver's day. Handling is a big factor at Daytona, as well. Daytona isn't as wide as Talladega Superspeedway, which means the drivers will need the cars to turn well or they may find themselves knocking into the wall, another car or the "Big One."
Location: Daytona Beach, Fla.
Length: 2.50 miles
Turns: 31 degrees
Front stretch: 18 degrees
Back stretch: 3 degrees
Drivers to keep an eye on
Dale Earnhardt Jr. | No. 88 National Guard ACU Camo Chevrolet | Hendrick Motorsports
The Earnhardt name has become synonymous with Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. has won both major events at NASCAR's marquee track and is almost always a contender in any race there. He has scored two wins, six top-fives and 11 top-10s in 19 career Daytona points races. Those impressive numbers don't include the additional wins he scored in Budweiser Shootouts or Gatorade qualifying races. Simply put, Earnhardt is usually on everyone's fantasy roster for superspeedway races. He earned his place on your roster via his track record, and this weekend's Coke Zero 400 might end up being his fourth top-10 result of the season despite the struggles he has endured so far this year, which included a 27th-place finish in the Daytona 500.
Clint Bowyer | No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Richard Childress Racing used to be a dominant force on superspeedways. That aura has faded as other teams have stepped up the competition, but RCR is never a team to discount, least of all Bowyer. He finished fourth in the Daytona 500 in February and would like to score his fourth top-five of the season this weekend. In the three 400-mile events he has competed in at Daytona, Bowyer has never finished outside of the top 10. His average finish in those three races is 8.7. Bowyer is typically strong at Daytona and is even stronger in the 400-mile races there. Fantasy players should choose Bowyer with confidence this weekend.
David Ragan | No. 6 UPS Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Ragan has struggled in 2009. His big expectations have fallen flat, but he now returns to the scene of his only top-10 this season. He finished sixth in the Daytona 500. Of five career Daytona points races, Ragan has notched two top-fives and three top-10 finishes. Just one of those five races resulted in a DNF. His teammate Matt Kenseth won the Daytona 500 this season, signaling that Roush Fenway Racing is ready to start winning on restrictor-plate tracks like their competitors. Ragan should be in line for a strong run if he can work smartly and avoid trouble throughout the 400 miles.
Elliott Sadler | No. 19 Stanley Tools Dodge | Richard Petty Motorsports
Sadler is a driver who has struggled often in 2009, and the past few seasons as well. At Daytona, though, he somehow manages to get his name in the mix. He finished fifth in the Daytona 500 to earn his only top-five of the year thus far. In 21 career Daytona starts Sadler scored four top-fives and eight top-10s. His career average finish at the track is 17.3, which is pretty good considering the four DNFs he also has on his resume. Look for Sadler to rise above his struggles of 2009 and add another top-10 to his 2009 tally.
Robby Gordon | No. 7 MAPEI/Menards Toyota | Robby Gordon Motorsports
Gordon performed very well in last year's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. He finished sixth that night, and for some reason he appears to finish better in 400-mile races at Daytona than the Daytona 500. His average finish in the last five 400-mile events at Daytona is 16th. That is a very good average finish for Gordon, who is not considered one of the best superspeedway racers. Outside of a road course, a 400-mile race at Daytona may be the best place to seriously consider Gordon. He could use a spark to his 2009 season, and it could come this holiday weekend.
Temper your expectations
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Target Chevrolet | Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing
Montoya has been slowly climbing up the Sprint Cup points and held down the last Chase spot for two weeks now. With three top-10s and a 12th-place finish in the last four races it is easy to see why. Montoya has proven to be fast but inconsistent at Daytona International Speedway. He spent a bit of time up front in this year's Daytona 500 and ran as high as third before finishing 14th. Montoya has made great strides in Sprint Cup equipment, but he hasn't quite figured out the long superspeedway races just yet. Until that consistency arrives, don't expect him to score his fourth top-10 in five starts.
Greg Biffle | No. 16 3M/Scotch-Brite Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
Biffle finished 20th in the 2009 Daytona 500 and was hardly ever in contention at the front of the field. His highest position throughout the day was 12th. Biffle did score a win in the 2003 Pepsi 400, but in 13 career starts at the track he only has that one top-five and three top-10s in points races. The Coke Zero 400 doesn't offer too much hope to Biffle. While he is usually a decent choice at other race tracks, Biffle may not be the best available option at Daytona.
Denny Hamlin | No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota | Joe Gibbs Racing
Outside of a little inconsistency this season, Hamlin has been strong. He is sixth in points and will be a serious contender for a spot on the Chase as the regular season winds down. Don't let that success lull you into having confidence in him in this weekend's Coke Zero 400, though. Hamlin scores wins and top finishes at Daytona International Speedway but has never done so in a points race. In seven career points races at Daytona his average finish is 26.7. He won two non-points races and even has some steady top-10 results, but he hasn't put it together over 400 or 500 miles.
Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
From 10 career points races at Daytona International Speedway Vickers has only bagged two top-10 finishes. More than half of those starts have resulted in DNFs. Vickers' average finish at the track is 21.4. Like Denny Hamlin, Vickers has seen some success in Daytona races that aren't part of the regular season but has yet to get it done on the big stage. One of his six Daytona DNFs came in this year's Daytona 500 where he finished 39th. Simply put, Vickers hasn't been the strongest driver at Daytona since leaving Hendrick Motorsports. While that doesn't mean he can't score a top-10 in the Coke Zero 400, the statistics aren't encouraging.
Jeff Burton | No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Burton endured a very rough weekend in the Lenox Industrial Tools 301. He was caught out by a spinning car and eventually limped home in 31st place. Daytona used to be a happy place for Burton, but recently the results have waned. His average finish in the last five Daytona points races is 19.4. That is lower than his career average finish at the track of 17.8, which shows his performances have been subpar. Burton has been very inconsistent in 2009 and hasn't finished better than 26th in the last three races. While a Richard Childress Racing car could be a good choice for this weekend's race, Burton probably shouldn't rise to the top of that list.