NASCAR + Daytona = Fourth of July weekend extravaganza

This weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads from the West Coast and turning right, to the East Coast and turning left. From Sonoma Raceway to Daytona International Speedway, the season rolls on. And restrictor plate racing is bound to produce fireworks.

WHAT: Coke Zero 400 (160 laps, 400 miles. Stages of 40, 40 and 80 laps)

WHEN: Saturday, July 1, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly just past 7:30 p.m. on NBC

WHERE: Daytona International Speedway (2.5-mile tri-oval) located in Daytona Beach, Fla.

FAVORITES: Kyle Busch (+650), Brad Keselowski (+700) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (+850)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Photo: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Brad Keselowski continued his dominance on restrictor plate tracks one year ago, earning his third win of the 2016 season, fifth on a restrictor plate track, first in his career at Daytona and 100th for Team Penske. Keselowski led 115 of the 160 laps in his statement victory around the 2.5-mile tri-oval and held off Kyle Busch, who came home in second-place.


THE LINEUP

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will lead the field to the green flag (because of course) for the Coke Zero 400. The No. 88’s pole-winning lap of 47.127 seconds (190.973 mph) means that Earnhardt Jr. qualifies for “The Clash” next season. Despite Earnhardt’s announcement of a retirement at the end of this season, he left the door open at a possible run in the annual exhibition race.

I’ll talk to the boss (Rick Hendrick) and see what he’s got in the shed,” Earnhardt Jr. said to NBCSN following following his run. Stay woke, Earnhardt Jr. fans. His days at Daytona might not be up after all.

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott will roll off second, with Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne and Kevin Harvick rounding out the top five starters. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Blaney and Danica Patrick round out the top 10.

Some other notable starters include Jimmie Johnson in 12th, Kyle Busch in 16th, Kyle Larson in 21st, Martin Truex Jr. in 25th and Darrell Wallace Jr. in 31st.


JUNIOR’S LAST HURRAH?

Being his swansong season, this marks the last planned visit to the famed Daytona International Speedway for one of the greatest drivers in the track’s history, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junebug leads active Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers in wins, top-fives, top-10’s and laps led at Daytona. He also happened to win this race back in 2014. But when asked about his final race at DIS last weekend, he left the door open regarding a potential return at the track.

Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

“I am just retiring from full-time racing,” Earnhardt Jr. said in his media availability last Friday afternoon from Sonoma Raceway. “I am going to run some XFINITY races next year. I don’t know that I won’t ever run the Daytona 500 again if the right deal comes along. All these tracks you have memories at all of them, Daytona included.”

Earnhardt Jr. currently sits 22nd in the points standings, over 130 points behind Clint Bowyer, who occupies the final spot for the playoffs as of now. Realistically, he will not be able to point his way into the postseason, meaning he must win. Daytona marks the best opportunity for the No. 88 to do just that. And being his final scheduled race at the track that’s been so good to him for the entirety of his career, it just might happen. How cool would that be?


RESTRICTOR PLATE ACES

Keselowski looks to repeat after his dominating victory in this race one year ago. He owns three top-fives and four top-10 finishes in his career at Daytona and looks to become the first driver since Tony Stewart in 2006 to win back-to-back Coke Zero 400’s.

Denny Hamlin has one win, six top-fives and seven top-10 finishes in his career at DIS. His driver rating of 89.7 is fourth-best in the series and his average running position is third best as well. A victory for Joe Gibbs Racing and Hamlin would do wonders for their seasons this weekend.

Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

And we’ve already touched on Earnhardt Jr. The dude is a monster at plate tracks. Don’t forget about Jamie McMurray, Harvick or the Busch brothers, either. They’re all solid as well. Kurt has a win, but Kyle and Jamie Mac need ones badly. Maybe they’ll come on Sat. night.


STILL A CRAPSHOOT … SORT OF

Whenever you’re at Daytona or Talladega, you hear the phrase “it’s anybody’s race.” That’s somewhat true. But as of late, it’s been more of a “usual suspects” gathering in victory lane.

10 of the last 11 races at Daytona have been won by power five teams Aric Almirola is the one exception in 2014, where the Coke Zero 400 was called early due to rain. Trevor Bayne and David Ragan also earned wins since 2010, but otherwise, it’s been all the big guns.

So, don’t be surprised if a smaller name winds up in victory lane when the checkered flag flies on Saturday evening, but those restrictor plate aces are a solid bet to win, too.


PREDICTION

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

As stated this week on Victory Lane, I’m going with one of those restrictor plate aces and picking Hamlin to win the Coke Zero 400 this weekend. I think the No. 11 gets his first victory of the season, the first points paying victory for Joe Gibbs Racing of 2017 and vaults himself into the playoff field. Plus, isn’t picking Dale Earnhardt Jr. too mainstream?