coke zero 400

NASCAR: Back in the pack

Jul 5, 2013
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We’re back to one man at the top. Since we’re not yet in the 10-race Chase that ends the Sprint Cup season, the points leader isn’t the true first place driver. That honor belongs to the man with the most wins, as he’ll get bonus points for each of those wins when the standings are reset for the Chase. This means that first place Jimmie Johnson, despite leading the regular season standings, isn’t in the driver’s seat. That distinction goes to Matt Kensethwho capitalized on Johnson’s mistake last week at Kentucky to grab the win and collect his fourth trophy of the season.

Johnson dominated much of the race, which was run on Sunday after rained washed out Saturday’s scheduled start time. But, on a late restart, Kenseth gambled and took no tires in the pits, letting him lead the field to the green flag and thereby dictate the start. Johnson didn’t handle it well ended up spinning in turn one, putting him at the back field and relegating him to an eventual ninth-place finish. As he’s done multiple times this year, Johnson complained about the restart, saying Kenseth needed to be penalized for slowing the field down before taking off. The incessant whining from the five-time champion is really starting to tarnish his reputation, and he’d be better off keeping his mouth shut and just racing.

Early in the race, Kurt Busch dove to the apron to pass Brad Keselowski and completely botched the move. As he came back up the track, he spun Keselowski and sent him back across the race track, where he was plowed viciously by Greg Biffle. The crash means that the 2012 champion is now outside the top 10 in points with no wins on the season, not a good place to be if you’re trying to make the Chase. Denny Hamlin, after starting another decent run, blew a tire and slammed the wall, continuing to put nails into the coffin that is his chance at the Chase.

This week

Saturday night, we’re pack racing again, as the series heads back to Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400. The race is an Independence Day weekend tradition, and the 400-mile distance, as opposed to the 500 that make up the season’s opening race at the track, changes strategy completely and requires more urgency from drivers and crews. This year’s Daytona 500 was less action-packed than previous years because drivers were still learning the new cars and being cautious. But our second restrictor plate race of the year, at Talladega, was wild, and I think that we’ll see the same thing Saturday night. Not only do drivers know the cars better now, but Daytona is one of the best opportunities to grab a much needed win and cement yourself a Chase spot.

Last year

In 2012, Tony Stewart found himself in the lead when the field was frozen on a wild last lap crash and took home the checkered flag.

Storylines

  • All eyes will be on Danica Patrick this week as she returns to the track where she got the pole in February and eventually finished eighth. It’s the lone bright spot in Patrick’s as-yet abysmal rookie season, and she finds herself 27th in the standings, below even Mark Martin, who hasn’t even started every race in 2013.
  • The nature of pack racing means anybody can win at Daytona, and that’s exactly what drivers like Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon will be hoping to capitalize on. Both drivers have no wins in 2013 and grabbing one would go a long way toward making the Chase.
  • The Coke Zero 400 is a fourth of July tradition for NASCAR, and the spectacle of it is only matched by Daytona’s other race on the schedule, the Daytona 500. Independence Day, 200 mph, and beautiful cars under the lights. You really can’t beat it.

Who to Watch

  • Although he screwed up late last week, Jimmie Johnson was dominant again at Kentucky, and continues to pace the field every week. He won the Daytona 500 in February, so he obviously knows how to get speed from the new car on the restrictor plate tracks.
  • Kasey Kahne showed speed in the Daytona 500 but was taken out early by Kyle Busch. The #5 team has been fast all year, and I think he’ll stay away from Kyle this weekend and run up front.
  • You can’t talk about restrictor plate racing without mentioning Dale Earnhardt Jr. He hasn’t won on a plate track in quite some time, but it’s still silly to ever count him out at a place like Daytona.

Who Will Win

Let it be known that after week after week of completely wrong predictions, I finally got one right last week in taking Matt Kenseth. I have a feeling this is the start of a win streak.

Jeff Gordon finally recorded his first back-to-back top 10 finishes this year with an eighth place result at Kansas, and is now only two points out of the top 10. He’s had fast cars all year and just not the luck to go along with it, but I think that finally turns around Saturday and he goes to victory lane.

Sprint Cup Standings (after 17 of 36 races)

1. Jimmie Johnson

2. Carl Edwards -38

3. Clint Bowyer -41

4. Kevin Harvick -66

5. Matt Kenseth -82

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr. -98

7. Kyle Busch -110

8. Martin Truex Jr. -120

9. Greg Biffle -121

10. Joey Logano -131

Robert Rich is a digital marketer living in Dallas, TX. He knows more than you'll ever want to about NASCAR, professional wrestling, and all those modern rock bands you listened to during your angsty high school years. Follow him on Twitter: @RobertRich.