NASCAR Drivers Return To Daytona For Coke Zero 400

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series marks its arrival at the halfway point of the season by returning to where it all began. The Daytona International Speedway is host to tonight’s Coke Zero 400, the 18th race on the 36-race schedule and once again Matt Kenseth is the top story.

Kenseth, who won the Daytona 500 back in February, hasn’t won a race since, but he’s put together a remarkably consistent season that includes a dozen Top 10 finishes, eight of those in the top five and he’s atop the standings. He’s made one of the year’s biggest splashes off the track with his plans to leave Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season and now he’s grabbed the pole for tonight’s race—something of a surprise, given the leader’s usually shaky performance in the qualifying runs.

>But if there’s anything the lessons of the past teach us it’s that pole position means little at Daytona, as TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill, reminded me again this morning. “It’s packed racing and if one car messes up, a whole bunch of cars will be in trouble,” he said, reiterating a theme that he’d covered when we were at this same track in February.

Still, some drivers have had more success here than others over the years. Kenseth also won here in 2009 and Kevin Harvick has scored two wins at Daytona over a five-year stretch. “You have to be a good drafter,” Bill said, referring to a racing gambit where a car essentially rides the tail of the one ahead of them. “And then slingshot around them.” Harvick’s playoff position is secure for now, but he’s still out for his first win of the year and Bill went on to add that because of Daytona’s prestige this is a race that drivers place a higher premium on winning outright, not just building point totals for the long haul.

Two drivers who haven’t had a problem winning races are last year’s champion, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. Stewart’s got two wins and Keselowski is the only driver on the circuit to bag three wins so far in 2012. But if they’re not winning, they’re not in contention and have become the equivalent of the hitter in baseball who doesn’t help the team when they aren’t hitting home runs. Stewart and Keselowski run 9th and 10th in the standings, the last two rungs for automatic qualifiers for the final Sprint For The Cup starting in September.

“A lot of drivers are hoping Stewart and Keselowski don’t fall out of the Top 10,” Bill told TheSportsNotebook. With the provision for two additional wild-card entries, and those entries being predicated more on outright wins than point totals, the two drivers would be locks for a wild-card berth and bump off Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, who would get those berths if the season ended today. And as we’ve noted in previous race previews, another driver to watch is Carl Edwards. At 11th in the standings, his point totals are in line for a wild-card spot, but no one gets one of those spots without winning a race, and last year’s second-place finisher has yet to do so this season. But one win by Edwards—or him passing Stewart and/or Keselowski on points—and the whole dynamic on the fringes of the playoffs.

However you slice it, it makes for intriguing storylines as we return to Daytona tonight. The race will be telecast at 6:30 PM ET on TNT. The network that says it knows drama is hoping for some more of it tonight.