Race Weekend Central

Four Burning Questions: Junior’s Big Chance, Who’s the Next Big Surprise, and NASCAR’s Good Call

*ONE: Is this the race Dale Earnhardt Jr. breaks his winless streak?*

For months now, this is the race on the calendar I have had circled for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s breakthrough back into Victory Lane. He’s been close for sure. After all, eight top 10s, three top 5s and a pair of runner-up finishes has been enough to keep Junior Nation and Earnhardt Jr. himself satisfied. Earnhardt will be the first to tell you he’d be willing to sacrifice a win for a championship caliber season, but I don’t think he’d complain about making his return to Victory Lane at a track that has meant so much to him and his family in the past.

The stars aligned in Daytona when Dale Earnhardt Jr. got behind the wheel of the No. 3, and this 10th anniversary of his 2001 Pepsi 400 win has the same feel to it.

Earnhardt Jr. used to own Daytona International Speedway – and all of the superspeedways for that matter – at one point reeling off four consecutive top 3 finishes between 2003 and 2004, and while he hasn’t been one of the drivers who has won since the advent of the two-car tango, he’s spent the season performing well at tracks he’s struggled at in the past.

You kind of just get that feeling that the stars are going to align Saturday night. Earnhardt has been knocking on the door for a win for a while now, and he’ll be good again this weekend. Carrying the National Guard on board on July 4 weekend is added incentive of top of Daytona already being a top track on his list to return to Victory Lane. It will be impossible to top his emotional Pepsi 400 win from 2001, but a win Saturday night wouldn’t be far down the list. It’ll be a crapshoot, like every superspeedway race for the past two years has been, but with the right push at the right time, it would not be a surprise to see the No. 88 take the checkered flag.

*TWO: Will a relative unknown pull a Trevor Bayne this weekend?*

If we’ve learned anything from the two-car draft, it’s that anybody can win if pushed by the right person at the right time. Rewind to February at Daytona. We had Trevor Bayne’s surprise win in the Daytona, and just as outrageous, Danica Patrick managed to lead in the Nationwide event. Truth be told, any of the 43 drivers who doesn’t start and park has a chance to win Saturday night. But for the sake of filling up space…let’s rattle off five of the drivers who have been trending as sleeper favorites:

*Regan Smith*: Already got one Cinderella win this season (Darlington) and always seems to be upfront at the superspeedways.
*Paul Menard*: RCR power; finished 9th in the Daytona 500 and will either be the pusher or pushee with teammates as RCR plans to work almost exclusively together Saturday.
*David Ragan*: Finished 14th in the Daytona 500, but was in line for the win before late-race black flag. If not now, when?
*Trevor Bayne*: Perhaps he used all of his luck in the Daytona 500, but there’s no denying that the No. 21 has been the best pusher since the two-car draft has been used exclusively.

Others who could surprise include Bobby Labonte, David Gilliland and AJ Allmendinger.

*THREE: Did NASCAR do the right thing in leaving the Tony Stewart/Brian Vickers scuffle alone?*

In a word, yes. NASCAR has preached boys have at it, but has stepped in when things have become physical off the track or whenever those on pit road are in danger. As long as disputes are settled on the track in a manner that does not intentionally endanger those involved, or involve the other competitors, I see no problem with solving your beefs on-track. Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart at Sonoma was exactly what NASCAR was expecting when the instituted ‘boys have at it.’ When they’ve stepped in and fined or put violators on probation, it’s been when those violators stepped over the line.

*FOUR: Any chance we don’t see as much of the two-car draft this weekend?*

It’s possible, yes. But not probable. It’ll be interesting to see if Daytona has aged much since February or if the higher heat makes the track slicker, but in order to win either today’s Nationwide race or Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 you’re going to have to push or be pushed. I do believe the two-car draft will eventually fade away at Daytona as the track, which is narrower than Talladega, becomes more rigid and slick. But, I don’t see that happening in the next 2-3 years.

Does it make the race less exciting? That’s up for debate. NASCAR will preach that it results in a record number of lead changes and closer finishes, while drivers complain about the lack of visibility and fans about the lack of quality passes until the final ten laps. Regardless, I think it will be here for at least a few years or until NASCAR steps in.

“Contact Mike Lovecchio”:https://frontstretch.com/contact/14358/

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