Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series at Daytona
NASCAR returns to Daytona International Speedway this weekend for a lower-calorie version of the Daytona 500: the Coke Zero 400. It's like the original, but while it tastes slightly off, it's still surprisingly satisfying.
As is the case with these restrictor-plate races, the field will be tightly packed and susceptible to the big crash. It makes the winner's recipe equal parts skill and luck. Tony Stewart, a four-time winner of this race, said last year, via Jeff Gluck of USA Today, "These things are such a crap shoot..."
Seventeen races are in the books, with six drivers winning multiple races. Brad Keselowski added his name to the multi-race winners with his dominating performance at Kentucky Speedway in the Quaker State 400. Can he win in back-to-back weeks the way Jimmie Johnson did earlier this year?
Read on to see about that and several other storylines leading up to NASCAR's second date with Daytona.
Does Keselowski Have the Upper Hand?
Brad Keselowski bled his own blood after winning the Quaker State 400 Saturday night. Andrew W.K. would've approved of how hard Keselowski partied after the race. While shaking a bottle of champagne all too vigorously, Keseloski broke the bottle and sprayed bubbly and blood all over the place. Dexter would've had a field day.
That's the gear-shifting hand, but he appears to be in good spirits about it, telling NASCAR.com's Pat DeCola:
The frontstretch bumps are a concussion, and Victory Lane is bleeding of the hand. I guess I don't have enough to lose upstairs to worry about the first one. You know, I did the typical guy thing. I said 'It's not that bad, it's not that bad,' and I shook it a couple times and there was blood flying everywhere. Then I thought, 'This is pretty bad.' And then I started kind of walking through my mind, 'Is this for real?'
Yep, it's for real, and so are his driving skills of late. Keselowski moved past Matt Kenseth into fourth place in the Sprint Cup standings and has finished first, second or third in four of the last five races.
Keselowski told DeCola the hand won't be an issue at Daytona, one of the easier tracks to navigate.
Will Smoke or Harvick Reclaim Daytona Glory?
Drivers should be very concerned about Tony Stewart heading into this weekend's Coke Zero 400. Dating back to 2005, he has won four Coke Zero 400s. His most recent win came in 2012, when he passed Kenseth on the final lap.
Not only does Stewart have the four wins (a few of which he'd likely trade for one at Daytona in February), but teammate Kevin Harvick has won a Coke Zero 400. That win came back in 2010 when Harvick was a member of Richard Childress Racing.
In the past nine races, a Stewart-Haas driver has won five Coke Zero 400s.
It's been well-documented that Harvick's team has had some problems in the pits of late. As recently as last week at Kentucky, a poor pit stop cost Harvick some 14 spots. He eventually finished seventh on the night. Again, a fast car was compromised by shoddy pit stops.
Returning to a place of great success could mean Stewart's first win of the year or Harvick's third.
Can Kenseth Stop the Bleeding?
If Keselowski can stop the bleeding in his right hand, then Kenseth can stop his slow decline down the Chase Grid. Once as high as No. 1 in the points standings, he is now fifth, having just been passed by Keselowski this past week at Kentucky.
Kenseth has never won the night race at Daytona, though he has won the Daytona 500 twice. In 2012, he was defeated on the final lap of the Coke Zero 400 by Tony Stewart. After that race, he told The Associated Press (h/t ESPN):
It seems like we always end these things in green-white-checkers, and whenever you do, really anybody that's in the front few tandems has a shot to win the thing. It's so unpredictable. You do things those last two laps that you'd never do the rest of the race. It's really hard to figure. You sit out there and ride around and be leading the whole race and come down to one of the green-white-checkers and have no idea where you're going to finish.
Such is life in the restrictor-plate races.
It's been said for weeks, especially in these very slideshows, that Kenseth needs to get himself a win to lock up a spot in the Chase. As he continues his slide down the standings, it puts even more pressure on him to get this done. The fact that it's a track where he's had some success is an added bonus for the driver of the Dollar General Toyota.
Can Junior Complete the Daytona Sweep?
Now in 2014, Hendrick Motorsports could have yet another sweep of the Daytona races if Dale Earnhardt Jr. can pull it off.
Earnhardt had a great race last Saturday at Kentucky. Everything leading up to the race, however, was far from a winning effort. He was 14th and 19th in the Friday qualifying sessions before ultimately qualifying 29th for Saturday night's race.
His team made many adjustments on the fly, using notes gathered from the other HMS teams. Whatever it did worked, as Earnhardt powered through the leaders and finished fifth.
That's a lot of momentum to build on at a track where Earnhardt has had a lot of success. He's won one Coke Zero 400 and two Daytona 500s. He sits third in the standings, and Daytona could be a race in which he leads all of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates yet again.
A few other drivers may have something to say about that, though.
Hendrick Motorsports Set for a Big Night
Johnson has had a pretty quiet couple of weeks, accumulating two top-10s. The broadcasts didn't spend much time following him, though, so a viewer could get the impression that he wasn't doing much. But he finished 10th at Kentucky last week and enters the Coke Zero 400 as its defending champion.
A year ago, Johnson became the first driver in 31 years to double up by winning the 500 and the 400 in the same year. His teammate, Jeff Gordon, has won this race three times in his career, so between the four Hendrick Motorsports drivers, there are five wins in the Coke Zero 400.
"It's tough to (dominate) at a plate track. I think I showed strength early. I don't know if I made a bad move tonight, and I'm really proud of that. I got 'White Lightning' into victory lane," Johnson told Jeff Gluck of USA Today last year.
Given the history of HMS in this race, Hendrick Motorsports could run all of its drivers in the top 10, maybe even higher.
Kasey Kahne has finished ahead of Johnson the last two weeks and appears to be turning his season around.
All signs point to a big day for Hendrick.
Can Kyle Busch Build off His Runner-Up Effort?
Kyle Busch has had one of the most inconsistent seasons to date. In the FedEx 400, he started second, only to finish 42nd. In this past Saturday's Quaker State 400, he started 18th, had a loose car and finished second.
The past few weeks have been lackluster for Busch. Going back to the Coca-Cola 600, where he finished ninth, he's had finishes of 42nd, 12th, 41st, 25th and Saturday's second.
The race his team put together at Kentucky could mean one of two things (and he's been guilty of both this year) for Daytona:
1. He'll completely tank at Daytona.
2. He'll pair up this race, maybe not with a win, but a with respectable top-10 or top-15 finish.
"You know, really good, and we haven't been great this year, so this is certainly a step in the right direction," he told Fox Sports following the race at Kentucky. "Feels nice to have a solid run, lead some laps, and although we faded at the end, we gave it a valiant effort. So hopefully we can take some of this and move forward with it."