THE LEFT TURN
NASCAR Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview
This Saturday, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the high banks of Daytona for the annual Coke Zero Sugar 400. This race is one of the most prestigious races on the schedule and many fans of the sport consider it to be one of the crown jewels of the season.
The track is easily one of the most famous in all of the world due to its three and four wide racing and its unpredictability. You never know what can happen when NASCAR comes here; in fact this track has given us some of the biggest upsets in the sports history, like when Derrike Cope passed Dale Earnhardt for the victory in the 1990 Daytona 500 or when Jimmy Spencer outran Ernie Irvan for his first victory in 1994. At Daytona the only thing to expect is the unexpected and this week should be no different.
Last week, Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch had one of the most memorable battles in NASCAR History. On the final lap, Larson attempted to pass Busch in the second corner but after he failed to complete the pass, he made contact with Busch. After this Busch brushed the outside retaining wall giving Larson the lead temporarily but in turn three, Busch was able to get to the back bumper of Larson and pushed him aside as he captured his fifth victory of 2018.
While Larson was not able to hold him off, he did managed to recover and finish second. All day the racing we saw was excellent. There were 24 lead changes and lots of storylines all throughout the day such as the lapped traffic, the sweltering heat that hit the Chicagoland area and of course loose wheels. As much grief as NASCAR fans give Brian France and the powers that be, this time they got it right.
The biggest disappointment of the race had to be Aric Almirola. Early on in the race, it appeared as if he had the car to beat. He went on to win the first stage and lead more laps than anyone with 70. All the stars seemed to be aligning for him but on lap 142, a loose wheel set him back a lap. While it was a big blow to his chances he still had plenty of time to make up for it. By the final stage, he had steadily clawed his way back into the top ten but in the closing stages, due to ANOTHER loose wheel Almirola was relegated to a dismal 25th place finish. Regardless of the finish, he went out and proved that his success this year was no fluke and looks to be in prime performance to do what his predecessor Danica Patrick couldn't do and win a race this year. Look to hear about him later this season and in this article.
Alex Bowman was another driver who deserves a shoutout. He continues to exceed expectations as he went on to score his sixth top 10 of 2018 last sunday. When it was announced last year that Bowman would take over for Dale Earnhardt Jr, there was an enormous amount of pressure that came with it and he has gone out and done exactly what he is supposed to do and more. He currently sits 16th in the “playoff” points standings and continues to improve week by week. Look for Bowman to blossom into a great race car driver in the next year or so.
The favorite going into this race is once again Brad Keselowski. As I have written before, Brad is always hard to beat when there is a restrictor plate race. Some would even say he has picked up where his former mentor Dale Earnhardt, Jr left off. At both Talladega and Daytona, he has a combined total of six victories - the most amongst all active drivers. He was also third quickest in practice on Thursday and if that’s any indication as to how he will run, look for Keselowski to be one of the top contenders in the race on Saturday.
The driver that I have winning is Almirola. Over the course of his career at Daytona, Almirola has experienced both the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. He was able to score his first and only victory here in 2014 after the race ended prematurely due to rain and was also on his way to a victory in this year’s Daytona 500 before being turned head on into the wall by Austin Dillon on the final lap. He continued to run well on Thursday as he was second quickest in practice behind his teammate Clint Bowyer. Look for Almirola to finish what he started in February in the 500 and take the checkered flag on Saturday.
My sleeper pick for this weekend is Michael McDowell. Coming into this race, McDowell is listed at 100/1 odds to win and while he may not win the race this week, I think that there is a good chance that he is able to finish in the top 10. Not only was he 12th quickest in practice on Thursday but during the last two times that he has raced here, he has finished fourth and ninth. I can see him getting his best finish this week like he did last year because for one, it’s Daytona and anything can happen here and also because he is one of the more underrated restrictor plate drivers. If he and his teammate David Regan can work together to get to the front, it is very possible that we can see the Front Row Racing team get their first victory since 2013 and McDowell get the first win of his career. Look for McDowell in the number 34 K-Love Ford to have a shot at going to victory lane.
(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Refrence.com the best website for all NASCAR stats)