Coke Zero 400: Daytona provides big hopes for small teams

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

For NASCAR’s smaller teams the path to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup is simple: Win Saturday’s race at Daytona.

Reed Sorenson knows the stakes in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. As does Michael Annett, who not coincidently is a teammate of Sorenson's at Tommy Baldwin Racing.

For the third and final time in the regular season, drivers will compete on a somewhat even plane Saturday night. As a byproduct of the restrictor-plates that limits airflow into the engine and slows speeds, an assortment of cars is tightly packed together and no one holds a distinct advantage over another.

So underdogs like TBR have just as good a chance of victory as those with bigger organizations. And with NASCAR restructuring the Chase for the Sprint Cup field with winning as the primary criteria, a once unlikely opportunity to compete for the championship is now within grasp.

"This is probably the best chance for us to win a race," Sorenson said Friday. "Any of the restrictor plate races kind of evens the field. Everybody knows that. If one of us could get a win that would be great. And that's what the new system has kind of enabled -- a smaller team like ours to have that opportunity if you were able to win a race. So, this would be a place to do it, for sure."

The opening salvo demonstrating the capability of the smaller teams at Daytona came Friday, when David Gilliland, Sorenson and Landon Cassill went 1-2-3 in qualifying.

Like Sorenson, Gilliland (Front Row Motorsports) and Cassill (Circle Sport Racing) drive for smaller teams where -- opposed to Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and the like -- there is a shortage of resources and the possibility of victory is a rare occurrence.

"We're finally on the front row," Gilliland said. "We're excited about that. Restrictor plates are the strong suit of this organization, obviously, and it's great to get the pole."

Gilliland knows firsthand the importance of Daytona and what can happen when circumstances meet opportunity. In 2013 he pushed teammate David Ragan to victory at Talladega, which under this year's Chase format would have opened the way for Ragan to make the playoffs.

"The win last year at Talladega was big for David Ragan," Gilliland said. "We are really looking forward to tomorrow."

Saturday isn't just about upstarts looking to catch lightning in a bottle; it's also a great chance for those who are still winless to secure a position in the Chase. Among those still in search of their first victory of 2014 are Ragan, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart, each of whom have previously won at Daytona.

"This is probably the best chance for us to win a race. Everybody knows that. If one of us could get a win that would be great."-Reed Sorenson

Another winner from last year, Brian Vickers, has also been shutout of Victory Lane. Although he doesn't have a Daytona victory on his résumé, Vickers does own a restrictor-plate track win (Talladega, 2006).

With just nine races before the Chase begins Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway, Vickers feels the pressure to replicate his July 2013 win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Although Daytona may not be his last shot, it may represent his best shot.

"Obviously, that's in the back of my mind," Vickers said. "I'd be lying if I didn't say I've thought about it, but I really just try to live in the moment and focus on the moment. ... If that's not enough on a given weekend, that's just not enough."

Then there are those who see Daytona for the crapshoot it often devolves into, where attrition and luck are the predominant factors to winning. A group which includes Jimmie Johnson, whose three wins and second place in points assure him of being one of 16 Chase participants.

Laid back and relaxed, Johnson has none of the pressure that's building around Vickers with each passing week that he fails to win. Johnson can pursue victory with little concern about the consequences.

"It's easy to come down here and let it rip," Johnson said. "It's a wild card race. We understand that anybody in the draft has a shot at winning the race. We have enough wins that we can throw caution to the wind if it's strategy on track or whatever it is. Our goal is to come here and put ourselves in position to win and hopefully enter that white flag lap on that front row in those first couple of positions and have a shot at winning the race."

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