One of the biggest weekends for the sport of NASCAR in recent memory is upon us, Coke Zero 400. The Daytona night race stands as one of the most prestigious and important races on the calendar, but this year, it’s even bigger. This weekend marks the return of NBC Sports to the NASCAR world, a partnership that is scheduled to last through 2024. It is a new era for the sport, as NBC has promised to bring a renewed energy and fresh perspective to stock car racing in this country. And of course, what better place to kick off such an important new relationship than Daytona, arguably the most intense and exciting track on the circuit?
Lots of hype and lots of questions surround this weekend, and there’s little doubt that this Sunday night’s race is a crucial one for the sport.
1. Can NBC deliver with its first Cup broadcast in nine years?
NBC is no stranger to NASCAR racing. The Peacock Network played a huge role in NASCAR’s rise to mainstream status in this country in the early 2000s. In those days, NBC carried the back half of the Cup schedule, and in doing so brought viewers some of the most memorable moments in the sport’s illustrious history. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s emotional 2001 Pepsi 400 win, Tony Stewart’s first breakthrough win in the Brickyard 400, the first three editions of the Chase and many other exciting races from 2001-2006 were all carried by NBC, and they were carried in style. NBC was then known for its frank, serious and racing-focused broadcast-style, the exact opposite of the whimsical circus performance that the FOX broadcasts have become.
As such, news of NBC’s return to the sport this weekend should be music to the ears of fans all over… provided the network back up its promises. Since successfully bidding for the NASCAR contract in late 2013, NBC has been bullish in stating its desire to revitalize NASCAR and deliver the sport in a fresh new way. It’s still not entirely clear what that means, but with $4.4 billion tied up in this sport, my guess is that the network will at least be committed to putting as many resources as possible into its coverage.
We’ll finally get a taste of what all of this hype is about on Sunday night, and with an exciting race almost being a guarantee (it’s Daytona, after all) this return is set up to be a slam dunk for NBC. Perfection is not to be expected on the network’s first outing, but a solid broadcast will be utterly crucial in order to establish a good rapport with NASCAR viewers who have grown tired of the low quality broadcasts from the sport’s most recent partners (FOX, TNT and ESPN/ABC). If NBC gets off to a bad start… I probably don’t need to tell you how that could be a death knell for the sport.
2. What kind of Daytona will we see?
Every single race at Daytona in the Gen-6 era has been unique compared to the others in some way, shape or form. As the Gen-6 superspeedway package continues to evolve, the actual racing product has changed as well. The 2013 Daytona 500, for instance, saw a high-speed conga-line form around the top of the track with almost no passing. But the 2014 Coke Zero 400 was a wild affair that saw near-constant three-wide racing. The other three Daytona races in the timeframe have been different in some regard as well, and that’s ultimately what makes Sunday’s race so intriguing.
The only thing that has remained constant at Daytona in the Gen-6 era is the degree to which handling has increased in importance with each passing race at the track. In the 2013 Daytona 500, handling was largely a non-issue. In the 2015 Daytona 500, handling was a major concern for every team in the field. This is to be expected given the fact that Daytona’s still-smooth surface is continuing to age and that the teams continue to find added speed in the current aero package.
What does it all mean for Sunday night? With another four months of extra age on the track, summer heat and continued speed gains from the teams, I expect handling to be an even larger factor on Sunday than it ever has at Daytona in the Gen-6 era. And that bodes well for the racing, because when handling comes into play in a pack-racing scenario, it tends to create a lot of passing.
3. Can Michael Waltrip Racing perform at a high level once again?
If one word had to be used to describe Michael Waltrip Racing in 2015, the word I would use would be doormat. Harsh, I know, but next to Roush Fenway Racing, there is not a single team in the NASCAR garage that has underachieved more than Mikey’s squad this year. It is for that reason that the team’s sterling overall performance last week in Sonoma was so bittersweet.
MWR’s two cars were incredibly stout last week, as both Clint Bowyer and David Ragan had top-10 cars that were each capable of winning. Ragan’s performance in particular was especially noteworthy, as he has historically been one of the worst full-time NASCAR drivers on road courses in the CoT/Gen-6 era. That of course is not to take away from Ragan’s solid drive last week, but it does show how good MWR’s equipment was for a change.
Unfortunately for MWR, however, neither Bowyer nor Ragan was able to seal the deal with a victory on Sunday. Bowyer came close, but he was snookered by Kyle Busch late in the race, and Ragan was wrecked by an errant Carl Edwards with less than 20 laps to go. Despite the encouraging uptick in performance, MWR was left without the Chase berth it hoped to attain entering the weekend.
Now, as the series rolls into Daytona, MWR is facing its last realistic chance other than Bristol (another wild-card track) of getting a win before the Chase. Bowyer and Ragan are former superspeedway winners and two of the best on this track type. Can one of the two MWR drivers right the ship and grab an unlikely superspeedway win? If one of them is able to do so, it would help turn the tide for a team that is slowly drifting into irrelevancy. But if both come up short once again, it could very well lead to an exodus of drivers (Bowyer, who is linked to a Stewart-Haas ride in 2016), personnel (No. 55 team crew chief Brian Pattie, who has been rumored to be looking for new employment) and sponsors (Aaron’s and 5-hour Energy have each been rumored to be switching teams as soon as next year), whom all realize that Daytona is MWR’s last real chance of salvaging what is left of a lost 2015 season.
BEARDEN: Hope for Michael Waltrip Racing
4. Have the drivers learned their lesson?
For anyone that watched the Talladega race earlier this year (Daytona’s sister track), you probably still remember how that particular race finished. The last 20 laps saw the field line up single-file up against the wall, with no passing taking place until the final lap. Why did it happen? There’s many reasons why. This phenomenon tends to happen when the high line gets incredibly organized and side drafts the low lane effectively enough to essentially kill the momentum of the front few cars. Usually when that happens, one of the leading cars in the high lane will take advantage, drop low and side-draft around the leading top lane cars courtesy of their momentum, but when it doesn’t happen and the leading cars in the top lane just stay in line (usually due to not having a trustworthy drafting partner), the top lane slowly kills the low line entirely, resulting in what we saw at Talladega earlier this year.
Wow, that was a lot to type, but hopefully you all have a clearer understanding now. In terms of this Sunday’s race, the drivers will need to be extremely cognizant of the phenomenon – and, just to be clear, many things have to happen perfectly for that phenomenon to occur – I just outlined above. Lack of an awareness of that phenomenon relegated many good cars to bad finishes at Talladega, and if the drivers don’t look out, it could happen again on Sunday.
The only way to be sure that this weird top lane domination doesn’t happen late in the race on Sunday is to be aggressive. That is the name of the game with this rules package on superspeedways. If you are aggressive and your car is handling well, you will go to the front. If you lay back and “wait for the right time to go,” you will get burned. Pretty much every Gen-6 superspeedway race has proved that, so hopefully the drivers have learned their lesson: if you are not aggressive and racing for all of the track position you can attain all race long, your race will end poorly. Bank on it.
Matt Stallknecht’s Fantasy Picks for the 2015 Coke Zero 400
This year on Four Burning Questions, I will share my fantasy picks from the Frontstretch Fantasy NASCAR League, located here on NASCAR.com. Here are my picks from this week. Join the league and see if you can beat me!
- Kurt Busch ($26.50) – The best driver to never win a superspeedway race. He loves to run up front in these races and that will serve him well on Sunday.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. ($27.50) – The best superspeedway racer on the planet. Don’t be a fool, pick him.
- Matt Kenseth ($26.00) – Won the Sprint Unlimited earlier this year and has been one of the best on superspeedways in the Gen-6 era.
- David Ragan ($11.00) – David is an elite superspeedway racer who has nothing to lose and everything to gain right now. He’s a must-have this week.
- Brian Scott ($8.00) – He’s in RCR equipment. For $8, why not?
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