The Pepsi 400 is the seventeenth race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup schedule. The Nextel Cup Series returns to the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway for the second and final time in 2006. Daytona has been a fixture on the Nextel Cup circuit since Lee Petty won the first Daytona 500 in 1959. The second-longest oval track in the series, the superspeedway is a tri-oval with 31 degrees of banking in the turns, 18 through the tri-oval, and 3 on the straightaways. This year’s field will include the 2005 polesitter and defending race winner Tony Stewart.
48 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the Top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. 2006 owner points will determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team's time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Daytona is 210.364 mph, set by Bill Elliott in 1987, before restrictor plates were mandated to slow speeds. Ken Schrader holds the plate qualifying record at DIS with a lap of 196.996 mph in 1989.
The Nextel Cup Series points race is hotly contested so far in 2006. Jimmie Johnson's point lead over second-place Matt Kenseth grew to 101 following Johnson's 10th place finish at Infineon Raceway last week. Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. round out the Top 5. Meanwhile, Tony Stewart continued to slide in points, down to seventh after body damage and engine trouble at Infineon. At this point in the season, ten drivers are currently eligible for the Chase for the Nextel Cup. New in the Top 10 this week is Jeff Gordon, whose win at Infineon boosted him to eighth. Denny Hamlin dropped from ninth to eleventh in points after Infineon, and is now the first driver outside looking in at the Chase, nine points behind 10th-place Kevin Harvick.
What To Expect
The restrictor plate “pack” should be relatively quiet for roughly the first third of the race – teams won't risk equipment to get to the front early. In fact, look for many top teams to hang near the back of the pack early on, trying to avoid the “Big One,” the multi-car crash that is a byproduct of the close racing at restrictor plate tracks. A plate race rarely reaches its conclusion without it. Add a little night racing mentality to the mix, and this is usually an exciting race.
Not to say that fuel strategy can't come in to play. Greg Biffle used it to grab his first Cup win, but the smaller fuel cells used on plate tracks make fuel strategy secondary to tire strategy. Handling is more important at DIS than Talladega, so setup will figure in the win, too. Possibly the most important strategy of all, though, is choosing a drafting partner. The driver who finds friends on track and works with them until the closing laps is usually the victor here – even if it means hanging a friend or teammate out to dry in the draft.
Who to Watch
Jimmie Johnson has certainly shown that he has learned from his previous plate racing mistakes, winning both Cup races held on plate tracks in 2006. If having a whale for a passenger doesn't slow him down (Johnson has a special Shamu paint scheme this week), he could make it three for three. But don't count out teammate Jeff Gordon, whose Infineon win should boost the team's confidence, and whose two plate wins last year testify to his prowess. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is always a favorite in a plate race, too, with six straight Top 10 finishes on restrictor plate tracks, not to mention a fan favorite in the stands. His team has shown vast improvement this year, as Earnhardt, Jr. has again run decent on every type of track; but he especially shines at Daytona.
Tony Stewart won this event last year and is better at Daytona than Talladega. A win could halt the No. 20 team’s recent slide and turn momentum in their favor heading into the summer stretch. Rookies Denny Hamlin (who won the non-points Budweiser Shootout at DIS in February) and Martin Truex, Jr. (who has multiple DIS Busch Series wins) may play spoiler roles.
Did You Know:
- Ken Schrader leads all active drivers with 22 Top 10 finishes at Daytona? Richard Petty holds the all-time record of 37.
-Only nine times has a Daytona winner come from outside the Top 15 on the starting grid? Bill Elliott won from 38th place in 1988, the deepest in the field a winner has started. 23 winners have started on the pole.
- There have been eleven different polesitters in the last eleven DIS races?
You Don't Sayâ€¦
“I'm not really any different. I'm just excited about having the opportunity to win this race and really optimistic after the first race we had here. Everybody's got a shot to win this thing. It's a matter of putting yourself in the right place at the right time. As far as my attitude goes, we go into each week trying to win races. We really do. I haven't changed. We've had some downers this year, and we've fallen in the points more than we wanted to. Now we've got a hole to dig out of to make The Chase. It changes things a little bit. You start the season off with a clean slate, and now that we've fallen back in points we can't afford to lose any more. Getting out of this race clean is going to be real important.” driver Casey Mears, who finished second at Daytona in February, on how his mindset has changed coming into this race
“I know that I'm known for kind of hanging out in the back during the first part of the race, but you're also starting to see other guys do the same thing. I think everyone is starting to realize that you can't win these plate races if you aren't there at the end. Rather than mess around in the middle of the pack where a lot of that jockeying for position is going on lap after lap, I choose to pace myself. That doesn't mean I am just riding around though, either. I will play around a little and figure out what my car is capable of doing, how it does sucking up to another car, and I'll try that with different cars just to see where it is going to work the best. Having said that, however, I don't want to do anything that is going to put my car in a position that could create a problem early in the race. It is 400 miles, even though we'll see guys out there racing like it is only 20 miles.” driver Dale Jarrett on his restrictor plate racing strategy
"All kids love Shamu. I know I did growing up in San Diego. Saturday night, I'm bringing Shamu to the beaches of Daytona, and hopefully introducing him to Victory Lane." driver Jimmie Johnson on Shamu the whale, who will be featured on a special paint scheme for Johnson's car at Daytona
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