When you mix restrictor plate racing with close quarters, a playoff spot on the line, Fourth of July weekend and put it all under the lights, you’re bound to get some fireworks – on and off the racetrack. That’s what we’re going to see this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the 2.5-mile tri-oval for the Coke Zero 400 for a good old fashioned Saturday night showdown at 8:00 p.m. ET (NBC). The Xfinity Series will also be in action, as the Subway Firecracker 250 will go green just past 7:30 p.m. ET (NBCSN) from the World Center of Racing in Daytona Beach, Fla. on Friday.
The Coke Zero 400 will be the third of four restrictor plate races in 2016 (Talladega on Oct. 23 in the Chase will be the final one). Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski have won the Daytona 500 and GEICO 500, respectively, so far this season. Restrictor plate ace Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the defending winner of the Coke Zero 400. He looks to get back to his winning ways at Daytona after his beloved car, Amelia, won’t be returning to the track for the first time.
This race last season was also the scene of one of the most violent, scary, heartstopping and breathtaking wrecks in NASCAR history. Austin Dillon was sent flying into the catch fence after crossing the finish line on the frontstretch. The fence was torn apart, as was his No. 3 car, and a few fans were injured (all were eventually okay). Dillon, thankfully, was able to walk away from the scene unscathed. That wreck wasn’t “The Big One” by any means, considering it only involved three or four cars. This begs the question: will drivers play it relatively safe and not push the limits? Or will they do the opposite, knowing this is a race where truly anyone can win, forcing a colossal accident?
The aforementioned Keselowski and Earnhardt Jr. are the clear-cut favorites to find victory lane, as they’ve dominated the restrictor plate races for the better part of three years. However, last week’s winner, Tony Stewart, will definitely be in the mix. Daytona is his best track statistically, and you better believe he wants to leave DIS with one more win in his pocket. His teammate, Kurt Busch, has never won a restrictor plate race, and Kevin Harvick won this race in 2011. Danica Patrick, the other driver at Stewart-Haas Racing, won a pole at DIS in her rookie season, so we know she can be fast at Daytona. Like I said – anybody can win at DIS. You never know.
Speaking of anyone winning, don’t count out Landon Cassill. Before the 2015 season began, I wrongly predicted that he would come out of nowhere, win at Talladega or Daytona and make the Chase. Well, Cassill has been running better than usual this season, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he found victory lane. After all, his team, Front Row Motorsports, found victory lane a few years back at Talladega with David Ragan and David Gilliland finishing 1-2.
Prediction: Since it’s July FOURTH weekend, and my birthday, I think that Kevin Harvick is going to go “4 The Win”, and get his second win of 2016 this weekend in his No. 4 Busch Chevrolet.
Note: My parents surprised me with the ultimate birthday present on Wednesday night (YES): I’M GOING TO DAYTONA! Be sure to follow me on Twitter on both accounts, @WDBM_Sports and @DaveyCenter, to keep updated on everything from the World Center of Racing. I can’t wait to get down to Florida and (hopefully) see my boy Kevin Harvick pull through for me! The weather doesn’t look too great right now, but let’s pray it holds off for the NASCAR drivers to put on a show. Enjoy the races and the Fourth of July weekend, everybody!