NASCAR Sprint Cup Series action returns to Daytona International Speedway for the 58th Annual Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola. The grid for race no. 17 of the season will be set by utilizing the two-round, single-car format. With 41 drivers on the entry list, one will be eliminated at the end of the qualifying session.
Daytona is also one of the two restrictor-plate tracks the Sprint Cup series pays a visit to every year. The 2.5-mile superspeedway consists of 31-degree banking in the turns while the tri-oval and back straightaway are 18 and two degrees respectively.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the defending race winner and although he does not have a win yet this season, he is the favorite this weekend. He currently sits 12th on the Chase grid. After a massive rain delay, Earnhardt Jr. captured last years victory leading a total of 96 laps. So far in 2016, the driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports has earned five top-five finishes and six top 10's and has led 53 laps. He has four wins at Daytona including the 2014 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr. ran into a little bad luck during this year's '500' earlier in February. He is determined to not let that happen again this weekend. "When you don’t run well, you hate it. We spun out at Daytona and Talladega and we have a pretty good understanding of why our car has been unstable," he said during today's media availabilty at DIS. "We brought a new car that’s hopefully going to be a much better race car for us. We went back to our set-ups that seemed to work so well. The guys are always working and trying to find speed and we that really made the car unstable so we dialed some of that back out and went back to our older set-ups and hopefully that is going to be all we need to be competitive and be able to get up there and be aggressive."
After edging out Furniture Row Racing's Martin Truex Jr. at the start/finish line during this year's Daytona 500, Denny Hamlin is looking for the Daytona sweep. The No. 11 Fed Ex Toyota driver at Joe Gibbs Racing led 31 laps during 'The Great American Race' back in February. Hamlin finished third in last year's Coke Zero 400 but led 10 laps. His current 2016 stats, along with one win, which has him sitting 10th in the Chase standings, include five top five and seven top 10 finishes.
Hamlin explained during today's media session that he enjoys racing at Daytona and he's been in close competition with Earnhardt Jr. during the past few races on the Florida speedway. "It’s been a great – for some reason, it was about five years ago that something happened on the restrictor plate race tracks where I just – it clicked and I got it," he explained. "I can name a few instances it’s really helped me, but I don’t want to necessarily say that, but I just feel comfortable. I feel like I know what I’m doing and the results have showed it. I’ve just been very fortunate on superspeedways and the bad finishes that I’ve had it’s not because something I feel like I did. It was something that I could caught up in, so I’ve been fortunate. It’s been a great battle with the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr.) probably the last four years with me and him. There’s been a lot of one-two finishes with us and hopefully I’d love to complete the sweep winning the Unlimited, the 500 and the July race. I feel like I gift basket-ed him that dual win on Thursday this year, so I’d like to get him back here in July.”
While Truex Jr. is looking for a better result, he's not dwelling too much on his blink-of-an-eye, runner-up finish in the '500'. "If anyone wonders if that loss grates at me that is not the case," Truex Jr. said in a Furniture Row Racing media release. "The only time I might think about it is when I see a photo or video of the finish."
Moving forward, the No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Chevrolet knows what he has to do to contend on Saturday night. "The strategy doesn't change - our plan is to once again be in position at the end to win the race," he said. "We all know the potential downfalls at these restricted-plate superspeedways. But strategies vary among teams. We have our own plan for Daytona and will stick with it until something tells us that we need to alter the plan.”
Truex Jr. currently has recorded one win, one top five and three top 10s as well as one pole. He sits in eighth place in the Chase standings.
Kyle Busch currently sits on top of the Chase grid with three wins and 452 points. The driver of the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota finished in the top three in this year's '500' and 17th in last year's '400'.
Here are a few others to keep an eye on:
- Aric Almirola won the 2014 Coke Zero 400, leading 29 laps before the race was cut short due to rain. The No. 43 Smithfield Ford driver finished 12th back in February and returns to his home state of Florida. "Daytona International Speedway is a special track for me," Almirola said in a Richard Petty Motorsports media advance. "Coming to the Firecracker 400 was part of our family vacations every year when I was a kid. I remember sitting in the same grandstands watching every race, and they're all special memories. So to go there and be a driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is pretty awesome."
- Keeping with the holiday theme, No. 46. Pilot Flying J Chevrolet driver Michael Annett will be sporting a red, white and blue paint scheme. Annett is a former winner on the superspeedway, winning the ARCA event in February of 2008.
-After winning last week's Sprint Cup race on the road course in Sonoma, Tony Stewart will be making his final start at Daytona. The No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet driver for Stewart-Haas Racing won the Coke Zero 400 back in 2012.
While MRN and Sirius XM Channel 90 have radio coverage, NBC takes over the television broadasting reins for the first time this season. Qualifying is scheduled for tomorrow (Friday) at 4:10 PM ET on NBC Sports Network. The Coke Zero 400 Powered By Coca-Cola begins 7:45 PM ET on your local NBC affiliate.