Here are some storylines, notes and drivers to watch for tonight's NASCAR Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway:
Starting Up Front Is Important
In a race regarded as wide-open, you wouldn't think that where you start would have an impact on where you finish. However, the stats show where you line up on the grid factors large into who is celebrating at the end of the night.
Since 1989 (a span of 23 races) eventual winners of this race have started in the top 10 a remarkable 19 times. In 22 of those 23 races, the eventual winner has started somewhere in the top 15. The only exception was Greg Biffle, who after starting 30th won this race in 2003 in what was a fuel-mileage affair.
Handling Is Key
The first images that usually come to mind when thinking about Daytona center on speed. And while speed has certainly become synonymous with the 2.5-mile oval – speeds topped 200 mph in practice – tonight's Coke Zero 400 won't necessarily be won by the driver with the fastest car. Instead, because of the heat combined with the current aero package, handling will be a key factor in deciding the outcome. After all, if a driver can't get his car to handle, it's almost impossible to run in tandem with another – meaning, you're quickly going to get shuffled to the back.
Packs Early, Tandems Late
The pack may be back and will be the predominant type of racing we'll see throughout the evening. But, as was the case in the Daytona 500 and again at Talladega in May, to have any chance to win a driver needs to have someone to work with. This is especially true in the closing laps when drivers tend to pair up in an effort to separate themselves from the pack –it's the very reason why Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't able to pass Matt Kenseth in the closing laps in the 500 and why Kyle Busch couldn't get back around Brad Keselowski at Talladega.
Expect to see pack racing rule the day early but, in the end, drivers are going to partner up like teenagers at junior high dance.
Another Daytona Romp For Roush?
Restrictor-plate racing was once an area of weakness for Roush Fenway Racing. In fact, it was 13 years before a Jack Roush-owned car ever won a plate race. But as they often do in NASCAR, things have changed and RFR is now a powerhouse on the plate races. In this race last year, David Ragan drove to victory with teammate Matt Kenseth pushing him. And in February, while Kenseth scored the win in the 500, both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards posted finishes inside in the top 10.
• If Matt Kenseth can win tonight, he will be the first driver since Bobby Allison in 1982 to have swept both Daytona races in a single season.
• Two drivers in tonight's field – Greg Biffle (2003) and David Ragan (2011) – scored their first Sprint Cup Series victory in this race.
• Casey Mears' eighth-place qualifying effort represents the first time in 55 races he will start a race inside the top 10.
1. Matt Kenseth
As noted above, starting up near the front is important, as is driving a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. Well, starting on the pole and driving a Roush Ford happens to be Matt Kenseth, who coincidently won here in February. Add everything together and it's clear cut why he's the No. 1 favorite.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He hasn't won a plate in nearly eight years; regardless, few navigate the draft and the challenges of restrictor-plate racing better than Dale Earnhardt Jr. And like he did in the 500, when he finished in the runner-up position, Earnhardt Jr. should again factor in the outcome.
3. Greg Biffle
Three things to like about Greg Biffle tonight: 1) He drives a Ford for Jack Roush; 2) He qualified in the top 10; and 3) In two plate races this season he has finished third and fifth.
Here's what you need to know about Paul Menard at Daytona: Since he started driving for Richard Childress Racing prior to the 2011 season, Menard has yet to finish outside the top 10. That sounds like sleeper potential to me.