Photo: Justin R. Noe/ASP, Inc.

Up to Speed: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Following last Sunday’s instant classic in the Windy City, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads back to where it all began, Daytona International Speedway, for this weekend’s 59th running of the Coke Zero Sugar 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

What: Coke Zero Sugar 400, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Race No. 18 of 36

Where: Daytona International Speedway – Daytona Beach, Florida (Opened: 1959)

When: July 7, 2018

TV/Radio: NBC, 7:00 pm ET / MRN and Sirius XM NASCAR Channel 90

Track Size: 2.5-mile tri-oval

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

Race Length: 160 laps, 400 miles

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

Pit Road Speed: 55 mph

Pace Car Speed: 70 mph

February 2018 Race Winner: Austin Dillon – No. 3 Chevrolet (Started 14th, one lap led)

July 2017 Race Winner: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. – No. 17 Ford (Started sixth, 17 laps led) 

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

Top-10 Highest Driver Ratings at Daytona:

  1. Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 91.7
  2. Ryan Blaney – No. 12 Ford – 91.2
  3. Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 90.2
  4. Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 89.4
  5. Darrell Wallace, Jr. – No. 43 Chevrolet – 88.1
  6. Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 87.3
  7. Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 86.3
  8. Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 82.7
  9. Kasey Kahne – No. 95 Chevrolet – 80.8
  10. Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 79.8

From the Driver’s Seat

“July in Daytona is always hot, and the handling in the cars will be a big part of this weekend,” said Kasey Kahne. “You want your car to handle really well there, especially with the ride height rules where the cars are so low now, I think a lot of people will fight loose if you go too extreme with your set-ups. A focus will be to work on handling in order to be able to run wide-open at all times to be able to have the fast car you need.

“Staying out of trouble, while also being able to stay low off of both corners when you’re in the middle of the pack, those are things that teams will work on during practice at Daytona. With the high temperatures that we face in the summer months, it just always seems to wear on you a little more being in the heat of the cars, but that’s part of racing in the summer months and you learn to deal with the warmer temps.”

Last Year’s Results

With his second win of the season and second in as many restrictor plate races, Stenhouse became the fifth driver to obtain multiple wins this season, giving himself some added insurance for the playoffs.

While some might have listed Dale Earnhardt, Jr. or Brad Keselowski as the favorites entering the night, it was Stenhouse that came out on top in the end, making a case that he is the new restrictor plate master.

Starting sixth, Stenhouse was the only driver that started in the top-10 and finished the night there as well.

The Olive Branch, Mississippi native led four times for 17 laps and even had to avoid the airborne car of Kyle Larson en route to victory lane and Saturday night’s win now makes him the all-time NASCAR wins leader in the state’s history, breaking his tie with Lake Speed.

“Wow, these guys,” said Stenhouse. “I kept my Talladega car and told them to build a new one. They build the Fifth Third Ford that was really fast. We won the Firecracker 400! This is awesome! I have been coming here since 2008. I actually came in 2006 one time with Bobby Hamilton Jr. and it is cool to put it in victory lane and get our second win this year. I love it! Thank you to the fans for coming out here. Everyone at NASCAR. What a great weekend.”

“This validates what we did at Talladega. I want to first off thank all the troops that have fallen for our country, for our freedom. That is most important right now. Thank the good Lord for letting me come out here and do what I do for a living and work with this great group of guys.

“We have been working hard at Roush Fenway and this pushes us further along. Fifth Third, Fastenal, Sunny D, Little Hug Fruit Barrels, This Ford Performance team has been amazing. Ford has been dominant. Roush Yates Engines and Doug Yates. I told him to bring his daughter in here because she is my biggest fan and I told her I would meet her in victory lane. I had a 4th of July party planned but it just got a little bit bigger.”

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Thursday, July 5

  • MENCS Practice (2:05 pm to 2:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • MENCS Final Practice (4:05 pm to 4:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Friday, July 6

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

Saturday, July 7

  • MENCS Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona (7:00 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.