By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Of the 10 races remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, Daytona International Speedway could be the one that flips the entire championship hunt on it’s side.
With Tony Stewart’s unexpected victory this past weekend in Sonoma, there are now 11 winners in the first 16 Sprint Cup Series events this season. That total could easily be 12 after this weekend, as Daytona is a complete crapshoot, where even the biggest underdog has a decent shot at contending for a victory.
That being said, who are some not-so-top-tier drivers who can be expected to surprise and earn themselves a Chase berth by winning the Coke Zero 400?
Landon Cassill is not only one of the most talented drivers in the underdog pool, but he is an accomplished restrictor plate racer. Cassill finished 12th in the 2014 Daytona 500 and 13th in this event last season. Additionally, Cassill scored a career-best fourth place finish at Talladega in the fall of 2014.
“I’m looking forward to Daytona. The car we’ve had at superspeedways this year has been the best drafting car that I’ve driven. I feel like the Fords run really well at the speedways, too,” Cassill said in a team release. “We ran really well at Daytona in February, and we ran well at Talladega but didn’t get the finish we wanted. I think it just shows our potential.”
Cassill will be piloting the No.38 Taco Bell Ford Fusion for Front Row Motorsports this weekend.
Casey Mears’ lone Sprint Cup Series win didn’t come at Daytona, but the 2.5-mile superspeedway may very well be his best track on the circuit. In 24-career starts at Daytona, Mears has two top-five finishes and six top-10s. Aside from a 32nd-place effort in this year’s Daytona 500, Mears has finished 11th-or-better in every Daytona Cup Series event since the Summer of 2013.
David Ragan will be one of the best restrictor plate racers in the entire field Saturday night. Both of his Sprint Cup Series victories have come at Daytona and Talladega, and he always seems to find a way to be in the mix when the series visits one of those two tracks. Ragan has recorded four-career top-10 finishes at Daytona.
Ragan will also have the extra motivation of carrying a special paint scheme designed by a 16-year-old patient of the Shriner’s Hospital for Children this weekend.
Regan Smith drives for one of the most underfunded teams in the Sprint Cup Series — Tommy Baldwin Racing — but he should definitely be considered a threat for the win this week. Smith finished an impressive eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500. Overall, Smith has three-career top-10 finishes at Daytona.
“I enjoy the challenges that Daytona International Speedway presents for a driver, spotter and team,” Smith says. “After finishing 8th last race at Daytona, we celebrated with a Top-10 Kids Eat Free Monday at Golden Corral. We’d love to do that again this week!”
Smith of course, is still considered by many to be the winner of the Talladega race in the fall of 2008, although he was stripped of the win after crossing below the yellow line coming to the checkered flag.
Chris Buescher, who is in the middle of his rookie campaign in the Sprint Cup Series, doesn’t seem like a logical pick when you look at his performance at superspeedways this year. The last time he was in a restrictor plate race, Buescher was sent flipping at Talladega, now he looks to change his luck.
“We’re going to try to get our speedway program turned around this year,” Buescher said. “We’ve had some bad luck in the first two races this year, but surely we’ve used up our bad luck by now.”
If luck can fall on Buescher’s side, he has proven in the Xfinity Series to be a worthy plate racer. His career-best finish at Daytona and Talladega in that series is second.