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Coke Zero 400 Preview
We get our third of four restrictor-plate races on the season with Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile, high-banked layout. Dating back to the spring Talladega race last season, Ford has won the past five plate-races. Will a Chevrolet or Toyota break the run this week? How about a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota finally winning a race on the season?

JGR's Denny Hamlin won last years Daytona 500 and that's the last non-Ford to grab a plate win. The last three winners in 2016 were by a Team Penske Ford, including Brad Keselowski's win in this race where he led 115 laps. He also won at Talladega in the spring and led the most laps at Talladega during the playoffs.

Stewart Haas Racing's Kurt Busch won the Daytona 500 in February in the teams first attempt in a Ford after departing Chevrolet following last season. It was also the elder of the Busch brothers first plate win in his 64th attempt at it. He was considered the best plate racer to never win a race. In his last nine plate races he's got an 8.7 average finish. The next most consistent is Penske's Joey Logano with a 13.1 average that includes three wins.

At Talladega in May, Ricky Stenhouse captured his first career win, but it was Kyle Busch (finished third) and Denny Hamlin (11th) who led the most laps. Keselowski led the third most laps (31) and finished seventh.

Obviously Ford has something clicking in the plate races and one of their drivers is a good place to start, but also note that Busch's winning car is on display at Daytona for the entire year. His teammates Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick have always been good in plate races. You've got the Penske cars, including Ryan Blaney who finished second in the Daytona 500, and you've also got Roush Fenway Fords showing power.

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There's lots to mull over this week. Up to 32 cars have a legitimate chance to win with the plates on, but there will be one driver I'll surely be rooting for as a fan and bettor as I watch NBC's first race broadcast of the season. This could be Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s last race at Daytona as he's set to retire at the end of the season.

For me, the Dale Jr angle is a big deal. There's a possibility that he could race at Daytona again someday, so this might not be the final time he starts at Daytona, but the link between he and the track make the possibility he won't ever race at Daytona enough to care that this might be his last. Make sense?

As a refresher, this is the track where his father died on the last lap of the 2011 Daytona 500. The cars Dale Earnhardt Sr. owned driven by Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr were running 1-2 when it was Dale Sr who was blocking for them which ultimately caused his fatal accident. I was there that day and it was the most emotional part of any sport I had ever been involved with. No words from my friend Fred and I on the way back to our Orlando hotel because we knew it was bad omen when the safety crew posts curtains around a wrecked car. We got word he passed from the radio while stuck in traffic.

After that, I immediately became a fan of Dale Jr and rooted for him to do well. I couldn't imagine the emotions he had to deal with. His father was the most popular driver is NASCAR, the biggest name in NASCAR and all of his fans jumped onto the back of Dale Jr. We were all rooting for him to do well, but he was a mess in the ensuing weeks.

We would see the third Dale Earnhardt Incorporated car driven by Steve Park win at Rockingham the week after the Daytona 500. A week later, Dale Sr's biggest rival, Jeff Gordon, would win at Las Vegas and then a week after that a rookie named Kevin Harvick, who took over Dale Sr's RCR car and put No. 29 over the famed No. 3, would win by a bumper at Atlanta. Dale Jr struggled. His head wasn't in it and it was quite understandable.

Junior went through the first 16 races of the season with little purpose or desire which is why when the Daytona summer race (Pepsi 400) happened, I figured it was the perfect scenario for everything to go Dale Jr's way. A redemption of sorts on the track that took his fathers life. I wrote about it all in this very space for VegasInsider.com and suggested a wager on Dale Jr at 12-to-1 odds was a great bet.

He ended up leading 116 of the 160 laps and took the lead over for good with five laps to go. His teammate, Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 in February would return the favor and be pushing him the entire way and made it impossible for anyone to catch and pass Junior. Waltrip sure as heck wasn't going to try and pass, either. It still remains one of my favorite races of all-time. Who sheds a tear when someone wins a car race? I've only done it once and that was it.

Dale Jr. would go on to win two more races that season and then for the next few years he would be considered the best restrictor-plate driver in NASCAR. He's won four times at Daytona, including this race in 2015. His 10 plate wins are the most among active drivers -- Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson have the second-most with five wins each.

I've bet him to win there again this week and it's not just nostalgia and hopes to see something magical at Daytona happen again. Dale Jr. is the biggest name is NASCAR right now. Of course I want to see him go out a winner and make the playoffs. But there's much more to it.

The question with Dale Jr. is whether or not his mind is into it and I got an answer to that last week at Sonoma. He's never won on a road course in his career, but he had the real look of determination last week. It began with an outstanding set of practices on Friday, great qualifying on Saturday and then a sixth-place finish on Sunday. I was impressed and it was at that moment I said to myself that this guy is going to win at Daytona next week.

Next week is here, let's do this!

Top-5 Finish Prediction

1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (12/1)
4) #41 Kurt Busch (15/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)

  
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