NASCAR Weekend Preview: Daytona International Speedway

during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway on July 7, 2018 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

The intensity and gamesmanship is increasing weekly with nine races remaining to set the 16-driver Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field and Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) has typically provided a dramatic summer twist in this title hunt.

Twice in the last five years – including last year with Erik Jones and 2014 with Aric Almirola – winning the summer Daytona race represented a driver’s automatic entry in the Playoffs – both times the drivers jumped over several otherwise higher ranked drivers for the Playoff berth.

A solid and safe position in the standings is obviously valued, but this season especially, “safe” is difficult to come by.

Nine positions among the championship Top-16 changed just this week as a result of last Sunday’s dramatic race at Chicagoland Speedway.

Chicago race winner Alex Bowman guaranteed his Playoff spot with a victory. But the bigger shakeup happened farther down in the standings – with all 11 positions from 12th to 22nd changing in one form or another – all potentially affecting the crucial Playoff cutoff mark.

Stewart-Haas Racing’s Clint Bowyer took the biggest tumble – falling four positions from 12th to 16th in the standings after a frustrating 37th-place finish at Chicago in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

On the upside, Jimmie Johnson’s fourth place at Chicago vaulted him three positions upward in the series driver standings. Now instead of sitting one position off the cutoff in 17th – as he was before the Chicago race – he’s now 14th and looking ahead – only 15 points behind 13th place Kyle Larson.

As with Johnson, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver Larson is still looking for his first win of the 2019 season, but his runner-up finish at Chicago was good enough to move him up two positions in the standings.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron, who led nine laps and ran up front for much of last week’s race, also benefitted from the effort. His eighth place at Chicago places him 12th in the championship, 27 points shy of 11th place Aric Almirola – the highest standing in the series championship the second-year driver Byron has ever achieved.

On the downside, Daniel Suarez lost two championship positions – falling from 13th to 15th following a 24th place showing at Chicago. He trails 14th place Johnson by two points but holds only a three-point cushion on 16th place Clint Bowyer.

Similarly, Ryan Newman lost two places in the standings, falling from 16th to 18th. He now trails Bowyer in the last Playoff transfer position by 20 points.

XFINITY SERIES AT DAYTONA

The championship situation in the NASCAR Xfinity Series continues to be an intense game of one-upmanship between three of the brightest young racing stars.

Friday night’s Circle K Firecracker 250 Powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) may be a good opportunity for a new driver to celebrate in Victory Lane and earn a shot at this year’s title.

Entering the race, three drivers – Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer and Christopher Bell – have combined to win 11 of the season’s 15 races, including Custer’s win at Chicagoland Speedway just last week. A member of this trio has hoisted trophies in the last nine consecutive races.

But Daytona International Speedway always presents a unique challenge/opportunity. Only one time in the last decade has an Xfinity Series regular won this summer Daytona race – William Byron in his 2017 Xfinity championship season. Last year, Cup star Kyle Larson held off Xfinity title contender Elliott Sadler by a mere .005-second in the closest July race finish in history.

Ironically, Reddick’s win in February of 2018 – also over Sadler – marked the closest finish in NASCAR national series history – a photo finish .0004-second. The driver of the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet is the only one of this year’s Triumphant Trio to have won an Xfinity race previously at Daytona. He has a pair of top-10 finishes in five starts here.

Bell, who drives the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has two top-10 finishes in three Daytona starts and his team is undoubtedly eager to rebound from a disqualification last week at Chicago that dropped him from second to third in the title standings.

Custer, the driver of the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has yet to earn a top-10 in five starts at Daytona. His best showing is 14th and he’s done that twice – in February, 2018 and 2019.

Five other drivers scored their best result of the season at Daytona earlier this year, including Justin Allgaier – a five-time race winner in 2018 – that is still looking for his first victory of the year. He finished runner-up this February.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: Coke Zero Sugar 400

The Place: Daytona International Speedway

The Date: Saturday, July 6

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV: NBC, 7:00 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400 miles (160 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 50),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 100), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 160)

2018 Race Winner: Erik Jones

What to Watch For: There have been nine different winners in the last nine Coke Zero Sugar 400 summer races at Daytona. … Last year Erik Jones scored his career first victory in the race. Twice more in the last decade a race winner has earned his career first win in the summer Daytona race (David Ragan, 2011, Aric Almirola, 2014). … Jimmie Johnson (2013) is the last driver to have swept a season’s races at Daytona. Bobby Allison did it previously in 1982. Denny Hamlin won at Daytona in February. … Fireball Roberts won the inaugural summer race in July, 1959. … Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch have the most Daytona starts (36) among active drivers. … Five active drivers made their first Cup start at the track – Brendan Gaughan (’04), Alex Bowman (’14), Daniel Suarez (’17), William Byron (’18) and Matt Tifft (’19). …Only four drivers in Saturday’s field have won previous pole positions for this race – Elliott, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Paul Menard. … Two active drivers won their first career pole position at Daytona (Harvick, Feb.,2002 and Menard, July, 2008). ….Johnson leads active drivers in Daytona wins (3). Richard Petty is the all-time winningest driver (10). … Tony Stewart is the last driver to win consecutive Daytona summer races (2005-06).  … The pole position is the winningest starting spot on the grid at the track (nine wins). … The deepest in the starting field a winner has started is 42nd (Tony Stewart, July, 2012). … Martin Truex Jr. has made the most starts (28) at Daytona without a win. …. Wood Brothers is the winningest team at the track with 15. Hendrick Motorsports has 14. … Kyle Busch has the most Daytona runner-up finishes (4) among active drivers. Buddy Baker holds the all-time record (8). … Tony Stewart holds the single race record for domination, leading 151 of 160 laps en route to the 2005 July win. … Kurt Busch has the most top-fives (13) and most top-10s (17) among active drivers. … The closest Margin of Victory in the July race is .005-seconds when Jamie McMurray beat Kyle Busch in 2007.  …Seven times the Daytona race winner has led just one lap. Jones did that last year. …Among the three current manufacturers, Chevrolet has the most Daytona wins (46) followed by Ford (37) and Toyota (4). … Toyota has won the last two Daytona races (Erik Jones, July, 2018 and Denny Hamlin Feb., 2019). … Over the last 10 races at DIS, Ford has five wins, Toyota has three and Chevrolet, two.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Next Race: Circle K Firecracker 250 presented by Coca-Cola

The Place: Daytona International Speedway

The Date: Friday, July 5

The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET

TV: NBCSN, 7:00 p.m. ET

Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 250 miles (100 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),

Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 100)

2018 Race Winner: Kyle Larson

What to Watch For: Kyle Larson is the defending race winner, earning the trophy by a scant .005-second over Elliott Sadler last year – the second closest finish in the race’s 17-year history. ….There has never been a back-to-back July race winner. … Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only driver to win both Xfinity races in a season at Daytona – earning the double in 2003. … William Byron (2017) is the last fulltime Xfinity Series driver to win the July race and the first since Martin Truex Jr. won it in 2005. … The July, 2012 race featured 42 lead changes – an all-time high for Xfinity competition at Daytona. … Chevrolet leads all manufacturers with 38 wins in the 55 races. Chevy has won seven of the last 10 Xfinity races.  …The farthest back a July winner has started on the grid is 23rd – Aric Almirola won from there in 2016. … The polesitter has won four Xfinity races at Daytona, the last being Clint Bowyer in July, 2009. …The front row of the grid has produced the most race winners (11). … Dale Earnhardt holds the record for most consecutive Xfinity wins at Daytona – winning five straight from 1990-94. Dale Earnhardt Jr. won four of five between 2002-04. …No driver has scored his career first Xfinity Series win in the July, Daytona race. … Five winless driver in 2019 scored their career best showing at the track. For 10 of the past 17 July Daytona winners, the victory at Daytona was his first of the season. … There are only three former Xfinity Series Daytona winners entered this week (Michael Annett, 2019, Tyler Reddick, 2018) and Joe Nemechek, the only former July race winner (2002). …. Kyle Larson’s .005-second win over Elliott Sadler in last year’s race is the closest MoV in the summer race history and second closest in series track history. Tyler Reddick won the 2018 February race in an essential tie – 0.0004-second. …. The driver who led the most laps has won the race only once in the last five years – Larson led a race best 40 laps in his win last year.

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