Photo: Jerry Markland/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Coke Zero 400 at Daytona Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Following last Sunday’s road course race at Sonoma Raceway, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads back to where it all began, Daytona International Speedway, for this weekend’s 58th running of the Coke Zero 400, the third restrictor plate race of the season.

From 1959 until 1987, the 160 lap, 400 mile shootout at the World Center of Racing, then called the Firecracker 400, was held on July 4th, even if the holiday fell in the middle of the week. Beginning in 1988, the race was moved to the first Saturday in July closest to the July 4th holiday. Starting with the 1998 running of the event, the race was moved under the lights, where it has remained ever since.

Throughout the history of the event, the Coke Zero 400 has provided countless memorable races, from Richard Petty winning his 200th race with President Ronald Reagan in attendance in 1984, to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. scoring his first win at the track in the first race back in Daytona after his father’s death in 2001, to photo finishes galore.  Given the nature of the racing at Daytona and the unpredictability of restrictor plate racing, Saturday night’s race should provide plenty of water cooler moments once again.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1959

Track/Race Length: 2.5-mile tri-oval (160 laps, 400 miles)

Banking: 31 degrees in turns, 18 degrees in tri-oval, 6 degrees on straightaways

Stage Lengths: First two stages: 40 laps each; Final Stage: 80 laps

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 70 mph

February 2017 Race Winner: Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford (Started eighth, one lap led)

July 2016 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford (Started fifth, 115 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Bill Elliott (42.783 seconds, 210.364 mph – 02/15/1987)

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings:

  1. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 94.7 – 1 win
  2. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 94.2 – 4 wins
  3. Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 90.6 – 1 win
  4. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 89.7 – 1 win
  5. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 87.8 – 1 win
  6. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 87.6 – 3 wins
  7. Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 86.8 – 2 wins
  8. Ryan Blaney – No. 21 Ford – 82.7 – Best finish: 2nd
  9. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 82.3 – 2 wins
  10. Kasey Kahne – No. 5 Chevrolet – 81.9 – Best finish: 2nd

From the Driver’s Seat

“The July race at Daytona is special for a lot of reasons,” said Kevin Harvick. “I think when you look at the night race at Daytona, it kind of marks the halfway point of the year and you know that you’re going to Daytona. It’s not the Daytona 500, but it’s still Daytona, and everybody wants to win a race at Daytona no matter what it’s in or what it’s for. Daytona just has that special place in our sport and everybody wants to win there.”

“Plate racing is something that you have to be aggressive at just for the fact that if you’re not aggressive, it always seems like you’re not going to be where you need to be. Nine times out of 10, I believe that the aggressor is going to be the guy who comes out on the good side of things just for the fact that you’re making things happen and you’re not waiting for something else to happen. When you wait for something else to happen, that’s usually when you get in trouble because it’s usually someone else’s mess. You can still get in trouble if you’re aggressive, but it seems like, with this rules package and the way things are, it’s best to stay aggressive and try to stay up front.”

Last Year’s Results

After a late race caution pushed the race into overtime, Brad Keselowski, who was the dominant car throughout the night in the 2016 Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, won his first race at the track by holding off a hard charging Kyle Busch and the rest of the field over the final two laps.

Along with the Daytona win being Keselowski’s first win at the track, it was also his third win of the season and second straight win at a restrictor plate race after being victorious at Talladega in May of last year. When all was said and done, Keselowski kept his No. 2 Ford out front for 115 of the 161 laps in the race.

“Those guys were doing a heck of a job,” said Keselowski. “Kyle and Kurt worked together really well, and my teammate Joey Logano was a huge part of this today.  We had two great cars here with Team Penske and worked together really well.  Joey has won here and he’s really a pro, especially on that restart.  He gave me that push I need to get to the front and here we are at Daytona in Victory Lane.  I don’t care if it’s not the 500.  It’s Daytona.  This is huge.  I love this place and here we are in Victory Lane with the Detroit Ford.”

Keselowski had come close to winning at Daytona before, but could never close the deal. After his win one year ago, he explained just how that felt over the years.

“It’s been a kick in the you-know-what.  I got down on myself here.  We came down here for the 500 and quite honestly we ran like dog crap, but my team worked on it.  I didn’t give up on them.  I believe in my team and my team believes in me and we went to work and we put together a better car, and it really showed today with a great effort from the whole team.  I’m really proud of everybody.”

Following Keselowski and Kyle Busch to the finish was Trevor Bayne, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, and Michael McDowell to round out the top-10 finishers.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Thursday, June 29

  • MENCS Practice (3:00 to 3:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • MENCS Final Practice (5:00 to 5:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Friday, June 30

  • MENCS Qualifying (4:10 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Saturday, July 1

  • MENCS Coke Zero 400 at Daytona (7:30 pm – 160 laps, 400 miles – NBC)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.