Daytona II: Sereies round 18 preview

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Daytona Harvick Returning To Daytona Atop Series Standings DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Harvick started the season by rolling into Daytona International Speedway's Victory Lane. Granted, his ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Daytona

Harvick Returning To Daytona Atop Series Standings

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kevin Harvick started the season by rolling into Daytona International Speedway's Victory Lane. Granted, his repeat victory in the Budweiser Shootout back in February awarded no points in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings.

But there was another benefit.

The win branded Harvick (No. 29 Shell Pennzoil Chevrolet) as a potential championship contender, while serving notice that the slump experienced by Richard Childress Racing teams in 2009 was very old news.

Coming into Saturday night's return to Daytona, the Coke Zero 400, Harvick has plenty of points, enough to be leading the series standings. He also has plenty of confidence when it comes to racing on the 2.5-mile Daytona high banks. In addition to winning the Budweiser Shootout the last two years, he also captured the sport's biggest prize, the Daytona 500, in 2007.

Harvick leads four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) by 105 points coming into Saturday night's event, which is the 18th race of the season and the second in the "Race to the Chase" -- the 10-race stretch that precedes the "Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup."

Harvick's lead carries a surprising footnote: he has battled to the top of the points while winning only one race other than the shootout -- at Talladega Superspeedway in April.

Consistency has carried him thus far. He has a serieshigh 12 top-10 finishes. His seven top fives are tied for second- best this season. The points-paying highlights in addition to his Talladega win: runner-up finishes at Auto Club Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway and third-place runs at Richmond International Raceway and Infineon Raceway.

Last year at this juncture in the season, Harvick was 27th in the series standings. Now he comes to Daytona's annual summer classics as one of three RCR drivers in the top 15. (Jeff Burton is eighth, Clint Bowyer 15th).

"It's awesome to see the 180-degree turn that the whole organization has taken," Harvick said, "and that credit has to go to Richard for making the management changes and the structure changes throughout the organization to use the tools that we have correctly. And he kind of stepped back and really just let everybody do their job .... let all of the crew chiefs really work on the competition side of it. Really, it's just Richard making the key moves towards the end of last year to get everybody headed in the right direction."

Earnhardt Rally Has Him On Cusp Of Top 12 Return

Racing at Daytona International Speedway will always carry extra significance for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Aside from the obvious emotional aspect, there is the simple competitive fact that Earnhardt handles the high banks with a skill level reminiscent of his late father.

This week, the younger Earnhardt (No. 88 National Guard "8 Soldiers & 8 Missions"/AMP Energy Chevrolet) returns again to DIS, amid a serious rally that has brought him up to 13th in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings -- only three points out of 12th place.

Nine races remain before the start of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, NASCAR's version of "playoffs" which feature the top 12 drivers in points after 26 races of the 36-race season.

In addition to Saturday night's Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt will also compete in Friday night's NASCAR Nationwide Series event, the Subway Jalapeno 250 Powered by Coca-Cola. He'll drive the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet, a reprised edition of the car his father drove to two of his seven NASCAR Sprint Cup championships. Earnhardt has said this will be the last time he'll race in a car bearing his father's former number.

Earnhardt has won 12 races at Daytona International Speedway. The last two of those victories came in February 2008 when he won.

'Chasing The Chase' ... 12th-Place Position Target Of Many

Carl Edwards (No. 99 SUBWAY Ford) occupies the 12th-place position this week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings. And while that spot is precarious it's definitely preferred compared to some alternatives.

Nine races remain before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins; the top 12 drivers in the standings after the Sept. 11 Richmond race will qualify for the Chase.

Coming into Daytona, only 122 points separate 10th-place Greg Biffle (No. 16 3M SCOTCH BRITE Ford) from 15th-place Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet).

Zoom in and things get even tighter: Edwards leads Dale Earnhardt Jr. by only three points, Ryan Newman (No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet) by 15 and Bowyer by 16.

Daytona 500 Champ McMurray The Latest To Dominate Plate Racing

Jamie McMurray (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet) comes back to Daytona International Speedway this week as reigning Daytona 500 champion. Fairly big deal, right?

Well, there's more to this high-banked story. Over the last few seasons McMurray has established himself as perhaps THE man to beat when it comes to restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. It's also significant to note that McMurray's success at those tracks has come while driving for two different teams, one fielding Fords, the other Chevrolets.

It started back in 2007, when McMurray broke a dismal winless streak of 165 races while driving for Roush Fenway Racing, winning the Coke Zero 400 by 0.005 seconds over Kyle Busch (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota).

That margin of victory remains the closest finish at Daytona since the advent of electronic timing and scoring in 1993 -- and tied for the second-closest finish overall.

Two years-plus later, in his final weeks of driving for Jack Roush, McMurray pulled off another upset, winning Talladega's fall race. Soon thereafter he joined the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates organization. That new deal started nicely, with the Daytona 500 victory. In April, McMurray nearly won again at Talladega, finishing a close second to Kevin Harvick.

"It would be really special to sweep [at Daytona], but just to win another race would be big," McMurray said.

Take It To The 'Bank': Stewart, Busch Brilliant At DIS

One never can tell where Tony Stewart or Kyle Busch will finish up in any given race this season.

The two men are among the top driving talents in the world, yet can't seem to string together any lengthy consistency.

Take Stewart for instance. After starting the season with three top 10s over the first five races, he plummeted.

From race No. 6 at Martinsville, until race No. 11 at Darlington, Stewart had six consecutive finishes outside the top 15 for the first time in his career.

The swoon dropped him from fifth in the series standings to a low-water mark of 18th.

Over that span, Stewart's numbers collapsed. He had an average finish of 23.8, a Driver Rating of 76.6, an Average Running Position of 17.0 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 38.4%.

The 2010 valleys have peaked of late, though. He's currently on a four consecutive top- 10 streak, and back in the top 12 (ninth).

Likewise, his stats have been robust during the successful stretch. Over the last four races, Stewart has had an average finish of 4.8, a Driver Rating of 101.1 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 79.8%.

Then there's the curious case of Busch. He also succumbed to unpredictable ups-and-downs throughout the first 17 races.

Busch started the season with four consecutive finishes outside the top 10.

Then starting with race No. 7 at Phoenix, he ripped off eight consecutive top-10 runs -- which included wins at Richmond and Dover.

During that prosperous period, Busch boasted an average finish of 4.3, a Driver Rating of 117.5, an Average Running Position of 6.6 and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 90.8%. But then, once again, down times arrived for Busch. He has had three consecutive finishes outside the top 10, including a 39th at Infineon Raceway.

During the three-race slump, which dropped him from second to third in the points standings, Busch had an average finish of 23.3, a Driver Rating of 72.8 and an Average Running Position of 21.0.

But there's good news on the immediate horizon: Daytona International Speedway. Both Stewart and Busch excel there. Stewart owns some of the top statistics in the series at Daytona: a series-best Driver Rating of 104.5, an Average Running Position of 12.2 (third-best) and 54 Fastest Laps Run (third).

Predictably, Stewart's overall numbers at restrictor plate tracks since the inception of Loop Data in 2005 are strong. In 22 plate events (all at Daytona and Talladega), Stewart has a Driver Rating of 96.7, an Average Running Position of 13.4, 103 Fastest Laps Run and a Pass Differential (passes minus times passed) of plus-225.

Though his finishes aren't always spectacular, Busch has become one of the top restrictor plate racers in the series.

In 2010, he might be the best -- despite finishes of only 14th and ninth in the Daytona 500 and Talladega, respectively.

Yet his Driver Rating in those two races is a series-best 104.5 and his Average Running Position is a series-best 9.3.

Johnson 'Slump' Negated By Potential Chase Top Seed

Jimmie Johnson's supposed "slump" has been erased by consecutive victories at Infineon Raceway and New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That's an interesting back-to-back performance, coming at two disparate layouts -- Infineon's 1.99-mile road course and New Hampshire's 1.058-mile virtually flat oval.

A couple of statistical nuggets added to the accomplishment. Johnson hadn't won at New Hampshire since his second fulltime season in 2003, when he swept the track's two races. Also, Infineon marked his first win on a road course in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

His run of poor finishes -- three outside the top 30 in a five-race span -- has faded from memory, replaced by this: Johnson now has five victories and is in position to start the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup as the top seed. (See graphic, Page 2.)

When the Chase begins, all 12 drivers who qualify have their point totals reset to 5,000. They then get 10 bonus points for each pre-Chase victory, which creates Chase "seedings." Johnson and Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota) each have five wins to date and a potential of 50 bonus points -- a total of 5,050 to start the Chase.

Johnson currently gets the nod as prospective top seed, due to the "next-best finish" tiebreak. He has one second-place result and Hamlin has no seconds.


What slump?

Wide-Open: Restrictor Plate Openings For Coke Zero 400 Largest Ever

NASCAR has mandated that carburetor restrictor plates used for the Coke Zero 400 will have openings of 1 1/32-inches -- the largest openings since the one-inch mandate in 1988, the first year the horsepower-reducing plates were used in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Daytona International Speedway.

The plates, with four openings, restrict air flow to the engine and thus slow stock cars down. Larger openings mean better flow ... and higher speeds.

Combine that with the recently reintroduced spoiler and a slightly different aerodynamic package compared to the Daytona 500 in February -- resulting in cars picking up additional drag -- and the table is set for some interesting racing on the high banks.

"At Daytona, the cars are going to move around a lot," said current series point leader Kevin Harvick, on Tuesday's NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference.

"The cars are going to slide and you're going to see a lot of people handle really good in the beginning and not handle so good halfway through the run.

"So you'll see a lot of cars coming and going, a lot of passing and pushes and shoving with the new plate. I think our sport has just become a lot more aggressive because the competition is so much closer. With the leash let off everybody, everybody wants to gain that position and you have to get aggressive to pass because the competition is so close. Sometimes you make mistakes and you run into guys and people get mad and things escalate from there.

"It seems to get more exciting every week and it seems like we come home with more bent fenders every week, so that's okay. As long as it's good to watch and everybody is racing hard, that's what it's all about."

Up Next: Chicagoland Speedway

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will start the second half of the season next week, with a Saturday night (July 10) event at Chicagoland Speedway -- the 400.

Mark Martin (No. 5 Chevrolet), still winless on the year coming into Daytona, will be the defending race champion.

This year marks the 10th race at Chicagoland for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Kevin Harvick won the event its first two years, 2001 and '02. Tony Stewart (No. 20 Old Spice/Office Depot Chevrolet) is the only other multiple (2004 and '07) Chicagoland winner.

Fast Facts

The Race: Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola
The Place: Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval)

The Date: Saturday, July 3
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

Race Distance: 400 miles/160 laps

TV: TNT, 6:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128.

2009 Polesitter: Tony Stewart
2009 Winner: Tony Stewart

Schedule Prior To Race Day:
Thursday -- Practice, 4-5:20 p.m. and 6:35-8 p.m.
Friday -- Qualifying, 4:10 p.m.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Tony Stewart , Kevin Harvick , Greg Biffle , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , Jack Roush , Denny Hamlin , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin
Teams Richard Childress Racing , Chip Ganassi Racing , Roush Fenway Racing