NASCAR Race Weekend Central

4 Burning Questions: Can Tony Stewart Go Back-to-Back at Daytona?

1. Can Tony Stewart Go Back-to-Back?

Tony Stewart stunned the NASCAR world in January when he announced he’d broken his back just weeks before starting his final tour on the Sprint Cup Series circuit. He stunned it again when he returned just three months later, showing up basically unannounced to race at Richmond International Raceway. And he saved his biggest surprise for this past weekend, winning at Sonoma Raceway and thereby getting the much-needed win aspect of his road to the Chase out of the way.

And he could very well win again this weekend.

It’s no secret that Stewart dislikes plate racing, and his Daytona 500 drought was a story every year, but the July race at Daytona has always been good to him. The Hoosier has four career victories in the night race, with his most recent coming in 2012. With momentum on his side and a history of winning at this race, Stewart could very well win consecutive races for the first time since 2011.

But he’ll have to weigh the risks that come with running in the middle of the pack before he can pull into winner’s circle. Plate racing has been a dangerous beast over the past few years, and Stewart A) doesn’t want to re-injure himself in a wreck that could be avoided, and B) definitely doesn’t want a huge hit in the points. Sure, drivers can overcome bad finishes to make the Chase – Kyle Busch did so last year – but why test the idea?

If Stewart decided to go for it, though — and he most likely will, as he’s a racer — the field should watch him as closely as they do Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

2. …Or Might We See a 12th Different Winner?

Speaking of Earnhardt, it’s kind of crazy to think that he hasn’t won yet this season, right? It’s not like he’s going through another slump – he has five top 5s and six top 10s this season. But he has yet to spray victory champagne. So what better time to do so than Independence Day weekend on one of his best tracks?

Earnhardt is the defending winner of this race, and while he hasn’t been nearly as good on the plate tracks this year – spinning out unassisted on more than one occasion – he has the speed and confidence to go and get it.

There are other drivers, too, that could spoil the party away from the Matt Kenseths and Brad Keselowskis of the field. Jamie McMurray has always been a good plate racer, as has Trevor Bayne. All it takes is one stroke of luck and if they find themselves up front late, watch out. The same is true of Chase Elliott and David Ragan. Imagine Ragan taking his BK Racing team into the Chase.

More than likely, if we see a 12th winner in 2016, it will be a driver like McMurray or Elliott, or perhaps Austin Dillon could spoil the show. For many of these drivers, this is going to be their best shot at qualifying for the playoffs.

3. Will We See a Tame Daytona or An Angry Daytona?

Plate racing has always been full of wrecks, but it wasn’t nearly on the same scale as it is today. Case in point: at Talladega Superspeedway this spring, only five cars weren’t involved in some sort of incident, and three left the ground in some way. In this race last year, a last-lap crash sent Dillon airborne into the catchfence, the most damaged car in a multi-vehicle wreck that mostly occurred after the race had been completed.

But at this year’s Daytona 500, there were only six yellow flags and each one involved no more than three cars.

So which kind of race will we see this weekend? If you have to put money on it, bet on the former. There’s just too much at stake for something not to happen.

Race wins. Chase berths. Good points days. Impressing sponsors. Getting your car on TV.

The night race at Daytona has always had its fair share of carnage, and this year will probably be no different. I won’t go as far to say that a car will leave the ground – Daytona’s Cup races have actually been pretty good about that in recent years, Dillon’s crash being the notable exception. But something like this video? Absolutely on the table.

4. Can David Ragan Win in His Substitute Gibbs Role in XFINITY?

Ragan is at it again, substituting for a high-profile driver or team.

This time, he returns to Joe Gibbs Racing to race the No. 18 in the XFINITY Series event at Daytona, a race originally set to be run by Matt Tifft but changed when it was announced on Tuesday that Tifft would be undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor.

Ragan and Gibbs have a history together, with Ragan running nine races in place of Kyle Busch while the eventual champion sat out early 2015 from injuries sustained in the season-opening NXS race at Daytona. He scored a single top 5 during that run.

His car this weekend is every bit as good as the one he drove last year for Coach. Scratch that: it’s actually better. It’s won six times this season between Busch, Denny Hamlin and Sam Hornish, Jr. Given Ragan’s plate-racing prowess – two Cup wins and one NXS win – that number could easily increase to seven by the time the night is over.

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