Beating heat, humidity, and ‘Smoke’

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What to expect this weekend at the Daytona International Speedway.

Daytona International Speedway in July isn’t Daytona in February.

The 2.5 miles of asphalt has less grip; heat and humidity test both car and driver and the race distance is 100 miles shorter. The Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca Cola (7:30 p.m. ET TNT, MRN RADIO, SIRIUSXM RADIO) is run under the lights instead of in the afternoon’s early hours.

“Usually it’s about 95 degrees with 90% humidity in July so a slick track condition is biggest change we deal with when racing at Daytona International Speedway in July compared to February,” said Kevin Harvick, the race’s 2010 winner.

Active drivers who have won both races – but not in the same season – are Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray and Michael Waltrip. The last competitor to sweep both Daytona events was NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison in 1982.

Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart continues to pursue a Daytona 500 victory. But Smoke, defending winner of the Coke Zero 400, counts four July victories in the past eight seasons. He’s the last driver to win Daytona’s July race and the NASCAR Sprint Cup title in the same season (2005).

Victory lane: race winner Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Victory lane: race winner Tony Stewart, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson – February’s Daytona 500 winner and a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion – has yet to record a victory at Daytona in July.

Also winless in July is 2003 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion and Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth, who recorded a season-high fourth victory on Sunday at Kentucky Speedway. Kenseth, third in last year’s Coke Zero 400, posted a phenomenal 2.0 average finish in last year’s four restrictor-plate races.

Saturday night’s race will be the second at Daytona for the Gen-6 race car that made its NASCAR Sprint Cup debut during February’s Speedweeks. The Chevrolet SS, Ford Fusion and Toyota Camry cars outwardly may appear the same but teams since have made dramatic strides in development.

“It was practically a blank sheet of paper,” said Busch of the Gen-6 in February. “I think we’ll see these cars handling better as these teams have learned so much more and are a lot smarter than we were back then.”

Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Earnhardt finished one-two in February’s Gen-6 debut. Last July, Stewart passed Kenseth on the final lap with Jeff Burton taking second. The race ended under caution, the result of a 15-car accident in Turn 4.

Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Bill Elliott involved in a crash
Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Joey Logano, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Bill Elliott involved in a crash

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Four different organizations have won the most recent eight Daytona July races. Joe Gibbs Racing has the best record with three victories. Active teams yet to win the Coke Zero 400 include Penske Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing.

Chase Wild Card Contenders Boast Daytona Success

Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 figures to be a wild affair. And it could become wilder yet for drivers in pursuit of a Chase Wild Card. Four drivers ranked 11th through 20th – those currently eligible to claim a Wild Card entry into this fall’s NASCAR Sprint Cup postseason – have won races at Daytona International Speedway. Tony Stewart, a provisional Wild Card holder along with Kasey Kahne, is the reigning Coke Zero 400 winner with four victories overall in the track’s July race.

Stewart, who reached a top-10 ranking two races ago before sliding back into the pack, could regain an “automatic qualifier” with a victory. He is 16th in the standings but just 22 points behind 10th-place Joey Logano.

Jeff Gordon has a golden opportunity to jump both Stewart and Kahne. The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has won the Coke Zero 400 three times – most recently in 2004. Gordon stands 12th, one and two points respectively, behind Kahne and Logano.

Pit stop for Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Pit stop for Ryan Newman, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

Former Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman ranks 18th, nine points behind Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Stewart.

Jamie McMurray is the final Daytona winner ranked among the top 20 but heads to Florida with momentum. He finished a close second to Matt Kenseth at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday and won the Coors Light Pole at Sonoma Raceway a week earlier.

McMurray has won both the Daytona 500 and Coke Zero 400. His Kentucky finish was worth two positions in the points – 21st to 19th – making McMurray Wild Card eligible. He trails Stewart by 20 points and is 42 points outside the top 10.

Talladega winner David Ragan, who won the Coke Zero 400 in 2011, is a Chase long shot. Ragan is 29th and trails 20th-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by 139 points.

Plate Proficiency Eludes Earnhardt In Recent Seasons

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a top pick to win whenever the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series goes restrictor-plate racing. Seven victories at Daytona and Talladega – including a win in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 - have earned Junior a contender’s mantle. Statistics, however, can be deceiving.

Race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates
Race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

All of Earnhardt’s plate wins took place nearly a decade ago, during a time in which Dale Earnhardt Inc. and its Chevrolets was virtually unbeatable at NASCAR’s most formidable layouts. The organization, which paired Earnhardt and Michael Waltrip, won 11 of 16 races held at the two tracks from 2001 through 2004.

Both drivers are winless at both tracks in subsequent seasons.

Earnhardt’s Coke Zero 400 record has been relatively ordinary since taking the wheel of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in 2004. Earnhardt, 15th a year ago, averages a finish of 14.0 as an HMS team member – his best a fourth in 2010. His No. 88 Chevy has led just a single lap in Daytona’s July race since 2009.

The drought, however, could be coming to an end. Junior looked like the plate driver of yesteryear in February as he chased Daytona 500 winner and HMS teammate Jimmie Johnson to the checkered flag. The runner-up finish was Earnhardt’s best at Daytona since the 2010 Daytona 500.

A Reversal Of Fortune At Penske Racing

Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski began 2013 as a favorite to hoist the championship trophy at Homestead in November. Joey Logano came over to Penske Racing from Joe Gibbs Racing during the most recent offseason with expectations of running decently and working closely with his new teammate, Keselowski.

Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Ford
Brad Keselowski, Penske Racing Ford

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

However, with nine races remaining before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup is set not many people expected Logano to be in better position to make the Chase than his champion teammate. An early wreck in Sunday’s Kentucky race that took him off the track temporarily relegated him to a 33rd-place finish and dropped him from ninth to 13th in the standings. A solid fourth-place finish at Kentucky jumped Logano from 14th to 10th in the points standings, the last guaranteed spot in the Chase.

Keselowski, with zero wins this season, sits outside the two Wild Card spots reserved for the two drivers between 11th and 20th in the standings with the most victories. Currently, those spots belong to Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart.

In eight starts at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, Keselowski has one top five and two top 10s. His best finish came in the 2013 Daytona 500 where he finished fourth. Logano has two top fives and three tops 10s in nine starts at Daytona. He finished third in the July 2011 race. In this year’s Daytona 500, his first race with Penske, he placed 19th.

Penske Racing drivers have found Victory Lane at Daytona only once in the NSCS, but it was a big one: the 2008 Daytona 500 with Ryan Newman.

Danica Returns To Make More History

Danica Patrick has big shoes to fill – her own.

During the season-opening Daytona 500, she unfurled a long list of superlatives: first female pole winner in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series; best finish by a female (eighth) in the Daytona 500; first NSCS top-10 finish by a female since Janet Guthrie in 1978; became the 13th driver to lead laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500.

Patrick already holds the record for best finish by a female in NASCAR national series competition (a fourth at Las Vegas in 2011 in the NASCAR Nationwide Series). Now she looks to break the record for best finish by a female in NASCAR premier series competition, currently held by Sara Christian (fifth).

Pole winner Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet
Pole winner Danica Patrick, Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

She returns to Daytona 500 with a good bit more experience, running her first full season and competing for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.

Her races since the season opener, however, haven’t exactly been as successful. Since the Daytona 500, she has notched two top-15 finishes – a 12th at Martinsville and a 13th at Michigan. She has kept out of trouble, registering only two DNFs – accidents at Phoenix and Talladega.

Currently 27th in points, Daytona provides Patrick an opportunity to vault back into the top 25 (she’s currently 16 points behind Denny Hamlin).

In her last six races at Daytona, in both Cup and the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Patrick has scored a Driver Rating over 100 three times.

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

After missing last week’s race at Kentucky, Bobby Labonte ended the second-longest active start streak in the series. Jeff Burton, with 609 consecutive starts, is now second behind Jeff Gordon’s 706 straight starts. … Joey Logano, who scored his 49th top 10 last weekend, aims to become the 117th driver to reach 50 career top 10s. With his next top 10, he’ll tie Charlie Glotzbach on the all-time list.

NASCAR

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