Matt Stallknecht · Friday July 5, 2013
July is here, summer is in full swing, and that means one thing in the world of NASCAR: the Daytona night race is right around the corner. The sport’s annual midsummer classic, the Coke Zero 400 will be contested this Saturday night, marking the official halfway point of the Sprint Cup Series season. The big story in 2013 thus far has been the evolution of the Generation 6 race car, and this weekend, we will see our first true test of how it’s evolved since the beginning of the year. The race this weekend will be the first time that the Gen-6 will have visited a track for a second time, and as such, we will be able to gain some insight on how far the teams have come since February. There’s much to cover this week, so I’ll just cut right to the chase and deliver you fine readers the Four Burning Questions you should be asking heading into this weekend.
1. Will the high line dominate like it did in February?
I’m sure more than a few of us would prefer not to remember this year’s farcical Daytona 500, but for the purpose of this column, we’ll have to examine it for a brief moment. The defining characteristic of that race (and Speedweeks 2013 in general) was the absurd advantage that the high line had over the low line over the course of the race, such that passing was impossible a few laps after a restart. In the Talladega edition of this column, I explained that the narrowness of Daytona coupled with the insane side draft that was being produced at that time was largely responsible for the death of the low lane in that race. The question, of course is… will such a thing happen again on Saturday?
The answer is tough to gauge. Looking back to the last restrictor plate race at Talladega, we can see that the teams made significant improvements to their cars between then and the 500, as seen in the increased competitiveness of that race (which, in my opinion was the best Talladega race of the past three years). But Daytona and Talladega are such completely different tracks that it’s tough to say whether or not the change in the complexion of the racing was due to improvement in the cars or the nature of Talladega itself. The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.
My best prediction for Saturday night is that it won’t be a high-line fest like it was in February. The track will be slicker, the cars have been improved to suck up better in the draft, and the drivers have learned quite a bit since February in terms of how to properly pass with these cars. It doesn’t take much in terms of changes to the cars and the drivers’ skills to turn the racing from a bland, high-line fest into a competitive multi-lane battle with lots of passing. Plate racing is very fluid and malleable in that sense, and if you watch closely (or watch plate races from previous years) you can see how the competition evolves over the course of the year. Keep an eye on the practice sessions leading up to the race to get the best gauge on what the racing will look like Saturday night.
2. Will an underdog shine in Victory Lane, a la David Ragan at Talladega?
Anytime the series heads to a restrictor plate track, much is made about the ability for an underdog to come out of nowhere and steal a win. The problem, of course is that while underdogs shine a bit more at the wider and less handling-intensive Talladega track, they don’t have nearly the same amount of success at Daytona. If you remove the farcical, non-racing tandem events at Daytona of 2011 (which saw Trevor Bayne and David Ragan win, although I’d argue Ragan isn’t much of an underdog at plate races given how consistently successful he is at them) we haven’t seen a real “underdog” win a race at Daytona since John Andretti won the summer event in 1997. Some people like to sit and argue that Michael Waltrip was an underdog winner, but given the fact that he was an honest to goodness top-flight restrictor plate driver (yet a mediocre one everywhere else) to begin with, driving some of the best plate track cars of all time, his wins were not exactly shocking.
The fact of the matter is that Daytona is a ridiculously tough place to win. It takes a total team effort and a top-notch performance on the part of the driver to win here. Why is that, you ask? Because no matter what aero package or car is used, the narrowness and handling characteristics of Daytona make it a place in which it is difficult to pass unless you have a good car. When you throw in the difficulties of pack racing, on top of that, you have a recipe for a race that is difficult for anyone, let alone an underdog to head to the front. The best drivers and teams tend to win here, and the stats bear that out (To illustrate, consider the fact that Tony Stewart has won four of the last eight summer Daytona races.)
What does this mean for the little underdog teams? With the lone exception of perhaps Ragan (who is one of the best plate racers in the sport and can overcome his equipment to some degree), none of them have a snowball’s chance in hell at winning on Saturday. They do not have equipment that is good enough to pass effectively under the current aero package (which is harder than usual to pass with at Daytona), and they don’t have the raw speed to garner and maintain track position if they somehow manage to obtain it. Do not be fooled into thinking that what happens at Talladega can be totally applied to Daytona. Look for one of the big teams (HMS, JGR, RCR etc.) who have an ace restrictor plate driver (Matt Kenseth, Dale Jr., Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick) plus a lot of horsepower to find Victory Lane on Saturday night. Bank on it.
3. Should Denny Hamlin even be racing this weekend?
Let’s get one thing out of the way here: Denny Hamlin’s season is shot at this point. Kaput, done, stick a fork in him. Sorry No. 11 fans, your driver is not making the Chase this year. There is a glimmer of hope in the No. 11 camp that their driver can beat the odds and put himself in Chase contention, but frankly, he has simply fallen too far away from the top 20 to be a threat at this point.
For these reasons, it is all the more puzzling as to why Hamlin is even bothering racing this weekend. Hamlin sustained a hard hit at Kentucky last week which culminated in a lengthy stay in the Infield Care Center. While nothing was ever made official, he seemed to be hinting that he was experiencing some degree of concussive-like symptoms. Given that the veteran already has a busted back, one that will require surgery to fix, at what point will Hamlin finally give up the ghost and own up to the fact that his 2013 season is lost?
Denny Hamlin should not be racing this weekend, plain and simple. The man has a laundry list of injuries that have worsened since he came back from his early season hiatus, and one wrong hit at a blazing fast track like Daytona could do even more damage to his body than has already been sustained. Quality subs, from Brian Vickers to Mark Martin to Elliott Sadler stand at the ready and are easily obtainable.
Hamlin will be an interesting one to keep an eye on Saturday night nonetheless. Seeing whether he goes full bore and battles hard in the pack, versus hanging back and trying to avoid getting wrecked will give us a pretty clear indication of where he feels his health stands at this point.
4. Could Saturday be Furniture Row Racing’s coming out party?
One of the most fascinating storylines that has slowly developed over the past five years or so in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has been the continued evolution of Denver, Colorado’s Furniture Row Racing. Five years ago, in 2008, FRR was one of the biggest jokes in the garage. Their equipment was subpar, they routinely missed races, and were generally seen as one of the two or three worst teams. Slowly but surely, however, they have blossomed from a bottom-tier organization into one of the most formidable teams in the garage. Their win in the 2011 Southern 500 essentially put them on the map, but recent developments have made the team a true week-in/week-out contender.
When Kurt Busch was added to the driver’s seat, in late 2012, their performance elevated to an unforeseen level. Busch’s No. 78 machine has routinely been one of the two or three fastest cars every single weekend for the past two months of the season, and have narrowly missed out on chances to win races. They have the speed, they have the backing, and they have the driver. It’s time to get win No. 2.
That victory could very well come this weekend. It’s well known throughout the garage that FRR’s cars have perhaps the most raw speed of any team not named Hendrick Motorsports or Joe Gibbs Racing. And as we all know, raw speed is one of the key components to success at a wide-open track like Daytona. The team’s driver, Busch, is one of the top plate racers in the garage, and is long overdue for a win at this track. Suddenly, conditions seem perfect for another FRR victory. But this time, no one will be surprised if they pull into Victory Lane.
Keep an eye on the No. 78 machine Saturday night.
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