Coke Zero Sugar 400

Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile high banked layout will mark the halfway point in the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series season. It's the third race of the season on the two tracks between Daytona and Talladega formerly known as restrictor-plate races.

However, it's only the second race using this current race package with cars featuring aero ducts, taller spoilers, and engines producing 550 horsepower. Denny Hamlin won the season-opening Daytona 500 but was using last season's package.

When setting up my personal ratings for this week's race that features lots of unknowns because of the package debut at Daytona, I started with what happened in April's Talladega Superspeedway race that saw 37 lead changes among 15 drivers. What stood out the most was Chevrolet appearing to have an edge with the new package as six of the top-eight finishers drove the Camaro, including the first three finishers.

Hendrick Motorsports had a 1-2 finish in the Geico 500 with Chase Elliott winning the first race of the season for Chevrolet and teammate Alex Bowman was runner-up. Bowman stepped up last week in the final half of the Chicagoland race to lead 88 laps and win his first career Cup race.

I gained tons of respect for Bowman in the final seven laps when Kyle Larson reeled him in to erase a 3.4-second lead and eventually make the pass. It looked like the race was over and Larson had the much better long-run car. I thought there was no way Bowman could bounce back, but within two laps there was Bowman trading paint with the rear side panel of Larson's No. 42 and then did a little side-drafting to slow Larson's momentum and make the winning pass to retake the lead with five laps to go. It was big league stuff, but almost as important was that Hendrick Motorsports and Chevrolet got a win on a 1.5-mile track that only two organizations had won on in the first races on those types.

“I'm still pretty speechless," Bowman said of his first win. "I was able to go home and enjoy it even more with my friends and team and we won the race! I am just so thankful for Hendrick Motorsports, Axalta, Nationwide, LLumar, Valvoline and Chevrolet for believing in me. They stuck behind this team and it means so much. I am extremely thankful for this opportunity with this No. 88 team and Greg Ives. Greg is a great crew chief and I am so happy to get my first win with him.”

So the scoreboard for the season has Joe Gibbs Racing with 10 wins, Team Penske with five wins, and now Hendrick with two wins. The biggest surprise not on the scoreboard has been Stewart-Haas Racing with no wins after having seven wins through the same juncture last season led by Kevin Harvick's five wins.

The new package at Talladega also was a stark contrast to the Daytona 500 that used last season package with restrictor plates. Joe Gibbs Racing finished 1-2-3 led by Hamlin's second career Daytona 500 win, but at Talladega, they had a rough day with Kyle Busch doing the best finishing 10th. Last seasons Coke Zero 400 winner Eric Jones finished 19th, Martin Truex Jr. was 20th and Hamlin was involved in an accident and only completed 80 laps finishing 36th.

“We had a great race earlier this year in Daytona, but this weekend will be entirely different,’’ Hamlin said. “Just like all the other teams, we have learned a lot about ourselves in the weeks since the Daytona 500 and we will be fighting for a repeat win, but we are ready and preparing for the challenge that is coming our way.’’

Hamlin is a great starting point in regards to a betting strategy at 10/1 betting odds. It's hard to keep someone out of the equation who has led laps in 19 of his last 24 Daytona starts and finished sixth or better in seven of his last 11 starts there. He gets out to the front to avoid "the big one" behind him, but he couldn't avoid being in a six-car wreck at Talladega with the new package. And that's kind of the dilemma here: new package results at Talladega versus past history in plate races, specific past history at Daytona, and current form from the entire team ranging from the driver, pit crew, car chief, and crew chief.

Kyle Busch has four wins on the season and 15 top-10s in 17 starts, but in 28 Cup starts at Daytona his only win came in the 2008 July race. Part of the delight of races at Daytona has been how equal most of the cars are giving just about any driver a chance to win. The edge Busch has on most tracks evaporates at Daytona and Talladega.

An observation to note from April's Talladega race was that it appeared the Chevrolet and Ford teams ganged up on the JGR Toyotas. They let them hang out to dry in the draft several times. The JGR cars didn't have any friends and when Kyle Busch got to the lead it didn't last long -- led three times for four laps. There's no reason to believe things will be any different Saturday night. It worked well for Chevrolet then, why not this week too.

The best Talladega performance for Ford was Penske's Joey Logano, winner of the 2015 Daytona 500. He kind of did what he wanted throughout the race and got the front nine times while leading 37 laps. His teammate Brad Keselowski has similar stuff and led twice for 10 laps before finishing 13th.

Keselowski is the active leader with six wins combined between Daytona and Talladega, but his only Daytona win came in this July 2016 race. Logano and Keselowski have been posted as the co-favorites with 8/1 odds at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook for good reason.

I'm expecting the SHR cars to run well and it's not just a desperate Harvick who has two Daytona wins, but it's also because of 2016 Daytona winner Aric Almirola who had the best performance at Talladega among the organization with ninth-place while leading three times for 27 laps. Almirola, a Tampa, Florida native, was leading on the last lap during the 2018 Daytona 500 but got bumped out of the and by Austin Dillon. The Superbook has Harvick at 10/1 odds and Almirola at 14/1.

There's a lot to go over before placing a wager but I'm leaning towards the current form angle coupled with Talladega results and my own personal greed of being attracted to great value on the odds board. Hendrick and Chevrolet are on the rise and that includes Jimmie Johnson who finished fourth last week at Chicagoland.

“Chicago was a huge step forward for this No. 48 team. Huge," Johnson said. "I’m proud of the organization. Everyone is working hard. This gives us some momentum, but this weekend in Daytona is such a different animal, you know. We go down there, want to be fast, hope to be lucky and good. We obviously had great cars in February, had fast cars at Talladega, you just have to hope not to get caught up in anything.”

Being a seven-time Cup Champion and winning 83 career races does tremendous things for a driver's ego and confidence, but not winning in the last 76 races is almost equally as crushing on the negative end. Last week's nice run was a big boost for the team and I'm certain HMS has some fast cars with nice set-ups ready to challenge for the Daytona win using this package.

Johnson won the non-points Clash prior to this seasons Daytona 500, but that was using the old package with restrictor plates. He's a three-time winner at Daytona and the Superbook is offering 25/1 odds to win Saturday to end the worst drought of his career.

The desperation angle is something I like as well. He's staving for a win. He's going to take every chance he gets to bump anyone between him and the checkered flag to get a win. No more Mr. Nice Guy and no more Mr. Corporate NASCAR driver. I'm expecting a revived Johnson to battle his teammates for the win and you better believe neither Elliott, Bowman, or William Byron are safe from a bump and run if Johnson is behind them late in the race.

Go get 'em, Champ!!!

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #48 Jimmie Johnson (25/1)
2) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (10/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
5) #9 Chase Elliott (10/1)