NASCAR Daytona 2013: Coke Zero 400 viewer's guide

Sean Gardner

Previewing tonight’s NASCAR race at Daytona with a look at drivers and stories of note.

As NASCAR takes to Daytona for its annual Fourth of July weekend event, here's a look at the storylines and drivers to follow when you turn on TNT for coverage.

Storylines

Can Toyota go the distance?

Joe Gibbs Racing dominated the Daytona 500, leading over half the laps, and at one point the cars of Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch ran 1-2-3. But the day ended in disappointment, as its Toyota engines failed, sidelining Kenseth and Busch, while Hamlin lost the draft and finished 14th.

As the Sprint Cup circuit returns to Daytona, the speed JGR had in February has returned with it. In time trials, the team swept the front row, with Busch and Kenseth qualifying first and second. Overall, Toyota captured five of the top seven spots.

But the question tonight is the same one that has lingered over the JGR/Toyota camp all season: Can its motors stay intact and make it to the finish? If the answer is yes, then Busch and Kenseth will challenge for the victory.

Can Danica replicate her Daytona 500 performance?

If Danica Patrick is going to win a race in her rookie campaign, it would likely occur at either Daytona or Talladega. She almost did just that in February, as she was running third on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and could have won with a bit more experience on maneuvering in the draft.

Accordingly, Patrick said Friday she plans to be more assertive in the final stages and won't be content just finishing in the top 10. With a fast car — though not the one she competed with in the 500, as that was wrecked at Talladega — she should be among the contenders this evening.

Will there be another restrictor-plate surprise?

Because the draft is the great equalizer, restrictor-plate races have a long history of producing surprise winners. Most recently, David Ragan pulled a shocker at Talladega in April when he seemingly came out of nowhere on the white flag and powered his way by Carl Edwards.

But while there have been many unlikely winners at Talladega and in the Daytona 500, the July Daytona race is relatively devoid of surprises. In the last 10 years, this race has seen just two first-time winners -- Greg Biffle (2003) and David Ragan (2011) — and has typically been dominated by Tony Stewart, who has four victories in NASCAR's midsummer classic.

Worth Noting
  • A victory tonight by Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson would make him the first driver since Bobby Allison to sweep both Daytona races in a single season.
  • Where you qualify generally doesn't mean much in a restrictor-race. Case in point: Stewart started 42nd in this race and still went to Victory Lane. However, eight of the 10 July Daytona winners have started 15th or better.
  • The notable names still looking for their first victory in a plate race include Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin.
Favorites

1. Matt Kenseth

As noted above, last week's winner at Kentucky had the car to beat in the 500, and he proved to be quick again this weekend. While he may not receive the same acclaim as others for his prowess in plate races, Kenseth has emerged as one of the best and most consistent drivers at Daytona and Talladega.

2. Tony Stewart

In a form of racing known for its unpredictability, Stewart has shown a knack for being at his best in this race. He's a four-time July Daytona winner and if he can make it to the finish, it's almost a certainty that he'll be in the mix.

3. Kyle Busch

There's a lot to like about Busch's chances tonight: He's driving a Toyota, he's won here previously (2008) and he secured the pole position in qualifying.

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