Although it officially falls one event shy of marking the season's halfway point, July's annual Pepsi 400 weekend under the lights at Daytona International Speedway sure feels like "halftime." For teams in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, returning...
Although it officially falls one event shy of marking the season's halfway point, July's annual Pepsi 400 weekend under the lights at Daytona International Speedway sure feels like "halftime."
For teams in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, returning to the site of February's season-opener usually prompts first-half assessments, goal adjustments and second-half outlooks. This season, that process is magnified thanks to the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," the new and unique down-the-stretch competition that will decide the series champion.
The Pepsi 400 marks 10-to-go until race No. 26 at Richmond, after which the top 10 drivers in the point standings and those drivers within 400 points of the leader will begin the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup." Their arena will be the season's final 10 races, and with 10 races remaining until race No. 26, drivers know they must maximize all opportunities.
"You know heading into Daytona that there are going to be accidents and if you want to be around at the end and have a chance to win, then you can't be in the middle of the accidents that happen," said Dale Jarrett (No. 88 UPS Ford).
For Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet), the return to Daytona marks the return to the track where he swept both the Daytona 500 and the NASCAR Busch Series' Hershey's Kisses 300 in February. He'll also pull double-duty this weekend, making his final NASCAR Busch Series appearance of the year in Friday's night's Winn-Dixie 250 presented by PepsiCo. But racing within friendly confines means a little extra this week, particularly in light of the "Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup," and the fact that Earnhardt Jr. lost the points lead to Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) two races ago.
Earnhardt Jr., who trails Johnson by 27 points, would like to pirate his Daytona 500-winning car out of the Daytona USA museum.
"Maybe I'll stop by and say 'hello' to it while I'm there," Earnhardt Jr. says, "but we're pretty excited about the car we'll race."
So is Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge), whose first-half success has been one of this season's surprises. Engine failure limited him in the Daytona 500, but entering the Pepsi 400, he's 12th in the point standings.
"I think even if you are in the top 10 you're feeling the pressure because of how close you are to the 400 points or 10th in the points," Kahne said. "There's definitely going to be more and more pressure. It's going to create some pretty wild, crazy racing. I imagine some stuff is going to be going on in the next 10 races you wouldn't normally see this early in the season."