Well, believe it or not, after the race on Saturday night we will officially be halfway through the 2012 NASCAR season. This Saturday also marks the first “double” stop of the year, seeing as the Cup series raced here back in February for the Daytona 500. The events at restrictor plate race tracks are really almost impossible to predict, and really I find it a bit of a waste of time putting a whole bunch of time/effort in your fantasy rosters on weeks like this. That being said, it’s a good thing to pay attention to how drivers are talking about their car this week. I also find the events at Daytona and Talladega an excellent time to pick drivers you normally wouldn’t (especially in allocation leagues). Practice speeds mean nothing this week, and neither does qualifying. The driver that wins the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night will do so because they were at the right place at the right time (along with good horsepower underneath the hood).
During The Last Race At Daytona…Well after a rain delay and Juan Montoya nearly burning the place down, the 2012 Daytona 500 champion was finally crowned: Matt Kenseth. He led 50 of the 202 laps that night and was followed to the line by fan-favorite Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who passed Greg Biffle right before crossing the line. Denny Hamlin, who led the most laps that night (57), finished 4th, and Jeff Burton rounded out the top 5.
Practice Schedule…Like I said before, practice means absolutely nothing this week. For those that play Yahoo! Auto Racing and want to base their picks on it, though, we do get to see the cars on track before locking down our rosters. There will be two practices on Thursday (at 4:00 pm and 6:30 pm) and then Yahoo! rosters are due early Friday morning. At 4:00 pm on Friday, qualifying will be held and then the Coke Zero 400 is set to start around 7:15 pm on Saturday evening. Maybe TNT will step up their game this weekend (I wouldn’t hold your breath) with a few races under their belt because so far, in my opinion, their coverage has been downright terrible.
My Top Five For The Coke Zero 400:
1. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Yes, I know this pick is cliché, but my reasoning goes farther than just “he’s good this year and he’s good on the plate tracks.” If you read my 2012 Daytona 500 Preview earlier this year, you know about Junior’s streak he has going on at this track. Let me refresh your memory: last season (odd year), Junior finished 24th and 19th in points-paying races at Daytona; in 2010, he finished 2nd and 4th; in 2009, 27th and 39th; in 2008, 9th and 8th; in 2007, 32nd and 36th. As you know, Earnhardt brought the #88 home 2nd in the season-opening race this year. He also finished 9th at Talladega in May. I think he’s too valuable at other tracks this season to use Junior in an allocation league, but he should be a great pick so I’ll let you make that decision.
2. Jeff Gordon – It’s really crunch-time for this team. If they want any chance at making the Chase this year, Gordon is going to have to put the #24 in victory lane here soon. One thing that I like drivers to have going into restrictor plate tracks is momentum, and with his 5th-place finish at Kentucky last weekend, Gordon has now finished 6th or better in each of the last three Sprint Cup Series races. He started on the pole at Talladega earlier this season but finished 33rd. Still, Jeff leads all active drivers with six career wins at Daytona and has finished 6th and 3rd in the last two July races here. It’s nowhere near a guaranteed pick, but I think Gordon has a great shot to get a win on Saturday night.
3. Matt Kenseth – Not only did Kenseth win here back in February, but he followed that up with a solid 3rd-place effort at Talladega in May. He also led 73 laps that day. One thing that I have noticed over the years is that if a driver is having a good year on the restrictor plate tracks, for some reason it generally stays like that for the entire season and all four stops at Daytona and Talladega. Kenseth finished 2nd in this race last season and, believe it or not owns six top 10s in the last eight points-paying races at Daytona. The other two races ended with Matt in 15th and 34th. While we’re all waiting for him to announce where he will drive in 2013, it wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see Matt Kenseth in victory lane once again at Daytona on Saturday night. Remember that he won his Duel race here back in February as well.
4. Greg Biffle – As I said before, when a driver is doing good on the restrictor plate tracks, it’s hard to go against them. Once again, case in point: Greg Biffle. He finished 3rd in the season-opening Daytona 500 and followed that up with a 5th-place finish at Talladega in May. Overall, The Biff hasn’t been great at this track throughout his career, but he does have a victory here (back in the July race in 2003). I will warn you, though: Greg has a tendency to do better in the Daytona 500 than in the July race here. Over the last five years, his average finish in The Great American Race has been 14.2 while his July average finish has been 24.8. In allocation leagues specifically, I wouldn’t use Biffle this week because he is too valuable on the intermediate tracks.
5. Denny Hamlin – Denny led the most laps in the Daytona 500 this season and when you look at his stats here, it’s obvious that he knows how to get to the front: in each of the last six races at Daytona, Hamlin has led led at least one lap, with a total of 136 over the two-and-a-half years. Remember, if you’re out front, it’s highly unlikely that you will be caught up in a wreck (not saying that we’ll see many on Saturday, because I honestly don’t think we will). He has finished inside the top 5 in four of the last seven Sprint Cup races and I think Hamlin will be a major player on Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400.
A Few “Outside The Box” Picks For The Coke Zero 400:
Brad Keselowski – It’s kind of hard to believe that Bad Brad hasn’t found success at all at Daytona. As you probably remember, he got the win earlier this year in May at Talladega, his second Cup victory at the track. His plate racing skills haven’t translated to much at this track, though. In six career points-paying races at Daytona, Keselowski has a best finish of just 15th and four finishes of 29th or worse. For our sake, I hope other fantasy racers look at that and stay away from BK this weekend, because I think he’s going to be good. He’s coming off the win last weekend in Kentucky, and that begs the question: is Keselowski now an elite driver? I also like when a driver has confidence coming into a plate race.
Kurt Busch – You know, I kind of jumped the gun earlier this season with this team in the Daytona 500. They’ve been together for half of a season now and I think they’re starting to gel a lot more (see Sonoma race a couple weeks ago). We all know that these Finch cars have horsepower on the plate tracks, and Busch is a real good racer on them even though he hasn’t won a points-paying race at either Daytona or Talladega. Don’t forget that he was running 2nd with 8 laps to go at Talladega earlier this year and then got spun by Brad Keselowski.
Marcos Ambrose – Ambrose is nowhere near great at restrictor plate racing, but there are a few things that I really like about picking him this week. He brought the #9 Ford home in 13th back in February, and posted his career-best finish at this track (6th) during his rookie year. Marcos started in the top 5 at Talladega as well and brought his car home in one piece in 14th. Finally, and what I really like most, is that Ambrose hasn’t finished worse than 13th in Sprint Cup action since the end of may. Hard to believe, huh? If you want to pick someone this week that could get you a bunch of points–and one that not many other people will go with–pick Ambrose. Just hope that him and Aric Almirola can work well together.
A Favorite To Avoid For The Coke Zero 400:
Tony Stewart – This is not at all a “avoid like the plague” for Smoke this weekend. We all know he’s good at plate racing and he could easily take the checkered flag on Saturday night. However, I’d like him a whole lot better if this was, say, 2006. In the July races at Daytona since that time (starting in 2007), Tony has finished 38th, 20th, 1st, 25th, and 11th. In this year’s Daytona 500 he started 3rd but finished 16th, and at Talladega in May he ended up four laps down in 24th. He will be a popular pick on Saturday but you probably won’t find Smoke on my rosters.