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Coke Zero 400 Preview

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One week after seeing an average speed at 80 mph at Sonoma where the drivers made left and right turns on the road course, the Sprint Cup Series takes it up a notch with speeds at over 200 mph at Daytona International Speedway this Saturday night for the Coke Zero 400. It's all left turns, it's real fast and the restrictor-plates make almost all the cars equal meaning that up to 35 of the 40 drivers can realistically win.
Through 16 races we've seen 11 different winners, and all of them are candidates to win this week. To start the handicapping process you'll want to look at what happened during Daytona Speedweeks in February and then you'll also want to include what happened May 1 at Talladega Superspeedway. Daytona and Talladega race very different from each other, but since they're the only two tracks that use the plate package, it's a good measuring tool.
Or, maybe better yet for handicapping Daytona, you just throw some darts or pull a car number out of a hat. The randomness of cars getting involved in another drivers mess is greater for the two plate races. They go rows of cars with side-by-side racing at insane speeds and when one car wiggles just a bit it can take out dozen cars easy. There's just no where for the drivers to go when this happens.
Because of that randomness and the cars being equal, you're going to get nice odds on just about every driver, or at least the top drivers that are usually in the 8/1 range. If looking to get someone like Danica Patrick at 500/1 odds, you're out of luck this week. All the regular long shots have their odds reduced to around 60/1 just because they really can win. Even Danica can win. It's her best shot -- she's finished eighth twice at Daytona.
Now I certainly won't have a ticket on Danica to win, but she's the perfect example of how anyone can win. We've seen the likes of Trevor Bayne, David Ragan and Aric Almirola all win at Daytona since 2011. Ragan's other career Cup win came at Talladega in 2013 and he was pushed to the front by teammate David Gilliland who finished second -- a spectacular exacta if we had that.

Side Note: Nevada sports books will actually have pools like horse races for NASCAR races by football season as US Fantasy has been approved by the state to take Fantasy-type wagers at sports books. The take-out in the pools are expected to be much better than horse racing with only 10 percent juice to be divided between the book operators and US Fantasy. More on that developing story in a few weeks.      
The driver we have to key on first is Denny Hamlin, who the Sprint Unlimited non-points race and then the Daytona 500 a week later. Hamlin led a race-high 95 laps in the 500, continuing a strong three year run in plate races. His winning car is on display for fans in Daytona, but the package used can be replicated easily by his team and we should expect Hamlin to be almost as good as he was during Daytona Speedweeks.
The favorite to win Saturday is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who won this race last season giving him four Daytona wins for his career. He's led 593 laps in 33 starts and has compiled an impressive 13.3 average finish. He's desperate for a win this season and looks to be the 12th different driver to win a race this season. However, his two plate races this season are the perfect example of how volatile these races are and how the race favorite still has to have his rating downgraded compared to a normal race on a 1.5-mile track. He was 36th in the 500 and dead last at Talladega thanks to being involved in an early crash.
You can expect all of Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates to be almost as good as him. Matt Kenseth led 40 of the final 41 laps in the 500 before being shuffled back to 14th late on the last lap. Kyle Busch would finish third and Carl Edwards fifth. Martin Truex Jr., who uses JGR equipment, was runner-up. The only non-JGR driver to crack the top-five was Kevin Harvick in fourth.
Tony Stewart's Sonoma win on Sunday makes him eligible to be one of the final 16 drivers participating in the seasons final 10 races during the Chase for the Championship. All he has to do now is get himself into 30th-place and he'll be on his way to re-producing the same type of storyline as Kyle Busch last year when he won at Sonoma and it helped propel him to the season title. Stewart is currently in 32nd-place after missing the first eight races, but only needs to make up nine points over the next 10 races.
Before the win, Stewart was listed at 100/1 odds to win the 2016 Chase. That number has dropped to 40/1 now that he's so close to making it. How he'll perform from here on out is still a mystery because it was only his third top-10 in eight races and one of those he needed a mid-race replacement driver to finish at Talladega. However, this win could be a jump start for him, a psychological boost of sorts after all the tragedy he's endured physically and emotionally the past three seasons.
Sunday's win ended an 84-race winless streak. His last win was at Dover in 2013. Stewart hopes his 2016 story ends up just like Busch's did last year. Following Busch's Sonoma, he would go on to win three of the next four races in July and then eventually winning his first title. Stewart is looking to win his fourth title and what a story it would be if he were to ride off into the sunset a champion in his final season like Peyton Manning or John Elway.
Even if he hadn't won last week he'd still be a good candidate to win Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. He's never won the Daytona 500, and he missed his final attempt this year because of an off-season road racing accident, but he is a four-time winner in the summer race at Daytona, the last one coming in 2012. He's also led 668 laps over 34 Daytona starts which is most among all active drivers. Brian Vickers drove his No. 14 to a 26th-place finish in February.
As a reminder to what happened at Talladega in May, Brad Keselowski led a race-high 46 laps to win for the fourth time there -- he still doesn't have a win at Daytona. Kyle Busch was second, Austin Dillon third, Jamie McMurray fourth and Chase Elliott led 27 laps finishing fifth. As for the long shots, Ryan Blaney was ninth and Trevor Bayne was 10th and led 22 laps. Among all those names, Elliott looks like a great candidate to win this week. He should start on the pole again just like he did in the 500 and at Talladega. 

Happy Fourth-of-July to all!
Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8/1)
2) #20 Matt Kenseth (12/1)
3) #24 Chase Elliott (15/1)
4) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (12/1)
5) #22 Joey Logano (12/1) 

NASCAR Expert Picks
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