NASCAR centerpiece: Dancing with the cars

Rob Sneddon

ONE TO WATCH: David Gilliland

WHY HE MATTERS: His average plate-race finish in 2011 is sixth.

WHAT HE SAYS: “Credit goes to NASCAR for making these (plate) races more competitive. It gives us a chance.”

WHAT THE NUMBERS SAY: He’s yet to crack the top 20 this season on non-plate tracks.


Dancing with the cars

At Daytona, it takes two to tango — or tangle

Restrictor-plate races have never felt more removed from the rest of the Sprint Cup schedule than they have this season. With the advent of “tandem drafting” — pairs of cars running nose to tail throughout the field — Daytona and Talladega demand a counter-intuitive approach. A winning strategy requires as much cooperation as competition. Drivers take turns pushing each other all afternoon, knowing that in the end only one of them can win. After Talladega’s thrilling photo finish in April, winner Jimmie Johnson was so aware of the role that his “pusher,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., had played that he offered to share the trophy with him. “You have to change your mentality when you come to a track like this,” Johnson’s crew chief, Chard Knaus, said afterward. “Usually you're going for the win (as an individual) every single time, but today we just wanted to get one of those (Hendrick Motorsports) cars in victory lane.”

Does that mean Knaus wouldn’t mind seeing those two Hendrick teammates trade places at Daytona, with Johnson pushing Junior across the stripe? “I think we’ll take the exact same approach and see how it shakes out at the end,” Knaus said. “If we get to Daytona and the roles are reversed, (then) we will follow him across the line with sparks and fire ablazing.”

In other words: Keep your eyes on the No. 48 and the 88 cars Saturday night.

Which other pairs might bear watching if the 400 comes down to a green-white-checker finish? Here are some intriguing possibilities.

Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick

OK, so this combination isn’t likely. They’re not teammates — Busch drives for Joe Gibbs, Harvick for Richard Childress. They race different makes — Busch a Toyota, Harvick a Chevrolet. And they’re definitely not buddies, each having served a month’s probation after an incident at Darlington. But one thing the two have in common is an affinity for plate racing, each having won this event within the last three years. And if circumstances (read: “The Big One,” the type of multi-car wreck for which plate races are notorious) conspire to eliminate their more logical running mates, they might decide to bury the hatchet for their mutual benefit. At least until the last lap.

Jeff Burton and Mark Martin

Sprint Cup’s two eldest statesmen are a combined 1 for 87 at Daytona. Each might conclude that the other represents his best opportunity to get to the front and avoid the kind of misfortune that tends to plague them on plate tracks. And while each has a reputation for clean racing, that could go out the window on the last lap if each senses his last, best chance to win at Daytona.

Ryan Newman and Tony Stewart

Each of these Stewart-Haas Racing teammates is hovering near the bubble for the Chase. Each is winless in 2011. Each is capable of ending that drought on Saturday night: Stewart is a three-time Coke Zero 400 winner; Newman won the 2008 Daytona 500 and also led the most laps at Daytona in February. But only one of them can win this race, so it’s logical to assume that Newman will defer to Stewart, his boss, if their tandem draft is at the head of the pack on the last lap. Or maybe not. When Newman was at Penske Racing, he clashed with teammate Rusty Wallace — who was also a part owner.

Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski

Each knows how to plate race: Keselowski’s first career win came in a Talladega shocker in 2009; Smith had an apparent Talladega victory disallowed in 2008 when NASCAR ruled that he had passed below the yellow line on the last lap. Each already has one win in 2011, but neither is Chase eligible yet because neither is in the top 20 in points. So another win would be huge for either — but so would a solid second-place finish. So if one of these guys is chasing the other on the last lap, does he risk the latter in pursuit of the former? It would be fun to find out.

Trevor Bayne and Carl Edwards

“Man,” said Edwards, after the season-opening Daytona 500, “I learned a lot today…. The experience of running with a chance to win these races — that’s what I need to break through to the next level and win some of these restrictor plate races.” Edwards, an eight-year veteran and the current Sprint Cup points leader, sounded look a rookie after finishing second to Bayne — a Nationwide series regular who won the 2011 Daytona 500 in just his second Sprint Cup start. That’s how thoroughly the tandem-drafting phenomenon has shaken up the order of things in NASCAR Land. And if it comes down to Bayne and Edwards once more, look for Edwards to try to shake up the order again.

NEXT RACE Coke Zero 400, Daytona International Speedway

THE LOWDOWN It used to be that road courses were the best opportunity for an interloper to shock the Sprint Cup world. Not anymore. With Kurt Busch’s win last week at Infineon, full-time Cup drivers have won every road race dating back to the days of the old Riverside International Raceway. Now the best chance for a “Who’s he?” moment is on the two restrictor-plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega. Seriously, after Trevor Bayne’s remarkable upset in February, would it truly be a surprise to see any on the 43 starters in Victory Lane on Saturday night?


2010 Kevin Harvick

2009 Tony Stewart

2008 Kyle Busch

2007 Jamie McMurray

2006 Tony Stewart

ABOUT Daytona

TRACK: Daytona International Speedway (Daytona Beach, Fla.), 2.5-mile paved track

RACE LENGTH: 160 laps, 400 miles



Quote of note

“I always knew I could win on a road course.” — Kurt Busch, after last Sunday’s victory at Infineon.

Where to watch

Sunday’s pre-race show on TNT starts at 6:30 p.m. EDT, followed by the race at 7:30.


Everyone’s below average at Daytona

If form holds in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400, no driver will finish in the top 10 because no driver averages a top-10 finish at Daytona (minimum of eight career Daytona starts; see chart). Besides offering a cautionary tale about relying too heavily on statistical analysis, those numbers illustrate the random nature of restrictor-plate racing. There are only four tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit where no driver with at least five starts averages a top-10 finish, and two of them — Daytona and Talladega — are plate tracks. Moreover, Clint Bowyer’s 13.2 is the lowest “highest” average finish at any Cup track.

Wild card watch

The wild card standings should be fun to watch from now until the regular season ends in September. With his second place finish at Infineon, Jeff Gordon climbed into the top 10 in points — and brought his two wins with him. Meanwhile, Denny Hamlin slipped back out of the top 10 after finishing 37th last week. But Hamlin’s win at Michigan the week before leaves him as the new wild card leader. Gordon’s ascension was good news for Brad Keselowski. With a win in hand (at Kansas), Keselowski could grab the second wild card slot by cracking the top 20 in points. He’s currently 22nd, just 12 points out.


Kurt Busch’s victory at Infineon was his first win in 21 career Sprint Cup starts on road courses.


Average finish at Daytona*


1  Clint Bowyer  11  13.2

2  Dale Earnhardt Jr.  23  14.8

3  Jeff Gordon   37  15.8

4  Kevin Harvick  20  15.8

5  Kurt Busch   21  16.4

6  Carl Edwards  13  16.5

7  David Ragan   9  16.8

8  Jimmie Johnson  19  16.8

9  Tony Stewart  25  16.9

10  Jeff Burton   35  17.7

11  Matt Kenseth  23  18.0

12  Mark Martin   52  18.1

13  Kasey Kahne  15  18.1

14  Kyle Busch   13  18.6

15  Paul Menard   8  19.9

16  Robby Gordon  23  20.1

17  Brian Vickers  13  20.5

18  Juan Pablo Montoya 9  20.8

19  Martin Truex Jr.  12  21.2

20  Greg Biffle   17  21.6

*Active, full-time drivers with at least eight starts.