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Coke Zero 400 Preview
Let's start out by shaking each others hands as a congratulatory sign of affection for all of us being fellow Americans as we pass another Independence Day. It really doesn't matter whether you're friends or not, or whether you like a particular person, it's simply about everyone having the freedom to be who they truly are -- both faults and greatness, and live it.

I often reflect back in time to Philadelphia and Boston from the late 18th century and how all our founding fathers risked treason for the betterment of our colonies. And everything we stand for now as the leader of the free world can be tied back to those great moments in our brief but glorious history.

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Don't ask me how I'm going to tie all this into my weekly NASCAR piece, but NASCAR does have a pretty good fireworks display going on Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway for the Coke Zero 400, formerly known as the Firecracker 400.

What I can say about NASCAR as it relates to our country is it certainly has a place in a large portion of our hobbies. It's followed weekly from spring till fall -- not too hard to follow in the standings -- and has a certain element that has grown over time that does embody America, whether it's roots of old moonshine runners or political candidates using races as forums to say 'vote for me'.

To me NASCAR is every bit American as baseball and football. They're our sports. Americans created them and we've watched them intensely waiting for some type or drama to include both the thrills of victory and agony of defeats on a regular basis. No other country is so driven by sports, and so often, as Americans.

Anyway, Happy Fourth or July to all. No let's talk about who is going win Sunday night's race.

I don't know whether I'm happy or sad to see racing at a restrictor-plate race because on one hand I love that anyone can win like no place elese. But on the other hand, I hate it because it's impossible to narrow down five to six drivers to win or bet driver matchups.

In fact, when plate races come around, I don't bet match-ups at all because practices in the four plate races don't tell any part of the story for race day like they do at the 32 other races. So the advantage plays on certain drivers and weeding those guys out before practices happen are completely gone which gives a huge advantage to the house.

Now to be fair to the sports books, they offer better value on drivers for plate races than you'll see on a normal basis. Take Kevin Harvick for example: He's 5/1 or less in normal races, but this week he's 12/1 as he tries to win his first race at Daytona since 2010. Harvick finished second to Joey Logano in February's Daytona 500.

This will be the third race of the season with cars using plates -- the Daytona 500 and the Geico 500 at Talladega were the first two. What we saw in each of those races was Hendrick Motorsports be very strong with Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishing third at Daytona and winning at Talladega.

Joey Logano won the Daytona 500, but it was Hendrick drivers leading the most laps led by Jeff Gordon's race-high 87 laps led, followed by Jimmie Johnson (39) and Earnhardt Jr. (32).

Those drivers all figure to be strong again, but you can probably suggest that there are up to 35 drivers that have a legitimate shot at winning. There is nothing wrong with taking a longer shot like Jamie McMurray and David Ragan at 40/1 because we've seen them constantly run well in plate races. McMurray's got four of his career wins with plates on and Ragan's only two victories came in plate races.

The past three years of plate races has seen Joe Gibbs Racing excel with Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth running extremely well. In Hamlin's past three starts at Daytona, he's finished second, sixth and fourth. You should be able to get 12/1 odds on him this week.

However, the best driver over the long haul at Daytona has been Earnhardt Jr. who has a 13.06 average finish in 31 career starts that includes three wins. For a track that is so volatile, Earnhardt Jr. has been the most consistent and has done it during all the different type of changes NASCAR has made with its aero-package. Junior just sees the air of the draft a little better than everyone else, even though teammate Jeff Gordon has six Daytona wins in 45 starts.

The last time we saw Junior win this summer holiday race was 2001 and it was his first win on any track since his father passed in the 2001 Daytona 500. Yes, to this day it still seems too good to be true -- the story book ending, but those DEI cars were way more advanced at that time than anyone else and they continued a huge run on plate races for the next four years. Everyone is now equal more than ever, but Junior is still getting the job done very well, and right now, this season, he's doing it better than most in plate races.

So enjoy the weekend, have some apple pie, say hello and congratulations to your fellow Americans and lets get that No. 88 Chevrolet to victory lane.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (10/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
3) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)
4) #48 Jimmie Johnson (12/1)
5) #20 Matt Kenseth (12/1)

  
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