Track Talk: Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

Nothing says July, summertime, and stock car’s version of Independence Day weekend like a 160 lap/400 mile race at the world classic 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway.  A tradition since 1959, it is perhaps one of the unique events on the circuit for its frantic pace and drastic difference in terms of the racing conditions from the season opener in February to the more humid and slick conditions of the July night race.

Just because a driver won or ran well in the Daytona 500 does not necessarily mean that all bodes well for them in tonight’s Coke Zero 400.  The track is nowhere near what it was like in the 500 when the weather was cooler and the grip was at its best in race conditions.  Tonight, it’s all about handling and how to get through race traffic because at some point in the race, your favorite driver will likely need to work their way through the field for any number of reasons.

While last night’s Subway Firecracker 250 proved to be a race laden with wrecks and some controversial calls, ultimately, it was a prelude to this classic Cup race.  Being at the front proved to be successful although being on the inside line was key with staying with the pack and winding up in a junked up racecar.  Patience, poise, handling, and speed are about the four intangibles one will need to succeed tonight.

Can Dale Earnhardt Jr finally score his first win of the year after a somewhat inconsistent stretch of races?  Will Danica Patrick or Chase Elliott raise their arms in their air as victors when this race is in the books?  You’ll just have to wait and see, friends!  For now, let’s get to this edition of Track Talk with our great team consisting of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley HullCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

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Question 1
Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

Tony Stewart returned to Victory Lane by winning last Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.  Despite this being Stewart’s final season, is the best yet to come for the 14 team this year with their recent strong performances?

Hobbs :  Based on his history at Daytona in July, I would say he is on his typical summer hot streak. Granted, we have not seen this streak in a few years, but it is great to see Smoke just having fun. Maybe fun really is the key to success.

Fesko :  Yes, expect Stewart to get stronger as the year progresses. He has the win to boost his confidence, and with the summer stretch – Stewart’s best time of year – just hitting its stride I’d expect more strong races from the No. 14. Another win is even in the cards as far as I’m concerned. Welcome back, Smoke!

Copple :  I’m just going to say it, Stewart’s heyday is past.  While his victory at Sonoma was a sweet one at that, it very well might be his last. The No. 14 team is improving every weekend and that’s been evident both on and off the track but they still aren’t to the caliber they were a few seasons ago.  Will Smoke be a championship contender this season?  Well he’ll make the Chase as long as he gets and stays within the top-30 in points, so it’s not out of the question.   

Hull :  Even though he has won a race, he still needs to be within the top-30 in points. Right now, he is nine points out of 30th. So they need to be consistent in order to make the Chase. That said, a win really can boost confidence for a team. The best example is obviously Kyle Busch last year, when he was in the same position. He had a rough start to the year, and in the end, won the championship. The same is possible for Tony Stewart. We will see how they do, and if this win really is a confidence booster for them.

Cassidy :  I strongly believe Stewart and the 14 team will go out with a bang. Although I am rather shocked to suddenly see this team have so many strong race performances, I believe this makes fans happy. Now working their way into locking their spot in the Chase will add to the momentum this team needs to continue to be successful.

Shoppe :  I think the best of Smoke was last Sunday at Sonoma! I will be the first to admit, I counted him out of winning a place in the Chase. He proved me wrong and reminded everyone why he is a legendary driver as well as future hall of famer. I’m going to make a prediction that last Sunday’s race will be his final Cup series win but I would be happy to be proven wrong yet again!

Conley :  Considering that three out of Stewart’s last five races have been 25th or worse, including two in the 30’s, I believe they need to take every ounce of momentum from Sonoma moving forward.  I think the best for the 14 may have been this past week.  They used strategy to get to the front and had to fight like heck to hold on.  That kind of effort works on short tracks and road courses, but a little Smoke can turn in to a big fire and that is what needs lit under SHR right now.

Question 2
Even good ole JR had a hard time making sense of this...this!

Even good ole JR had a hard time making sense of this…this!

We saw a bit of a squabble between Spencer Gallagher and John Wes Townley during the Truck race at Gateway last Saturday night.  Does this help or harm the sport’s image from your perspective in terms of gaining new fans?

Hobbs :  I did not watch the race but that new was plastered all over social media. What would we do without it?! And when has a scuffle not benefited the sport? It captures the attention of reporters outside of NASCAR. Usually it is a headline elsewhere besides your typical Fox Sports page; heck, some new sites even make it a featured headline! Any attention is good for NASCAR and the fights just showcase the passion these drivers have. Though JWT got a few swings in, I would not really classify it as a fight but I bet NASCAR will come down on them for doing so.  

Fesko :  If people introduced to the sport by seeing the fight can look past the scuffle and see the awesomeness that is car racing, it could be beneficial. But mostly, once the fight has been aired nobody is really paying attention to the main event. For many, this will turn them off. NASCAR is really cool, so this is a sad thing. Fights don’t help people see how cool it is. Good racing like we saw in Sonoma does. More of that, please.

Copple :  Was this even a fight? It looked more like a wrestling/hugging match. This was one of the more comical “fights” that I’ve watched evolve from on-track activities and let’s fact it, there have been quite a few! Will it harm the sports image? No, definitely not. Fights are going to happen. Drivers and teams are going to squabble. The only thing that might have a lasting effect is the fact that they started fighting on the racing surface. That should NEVER happen.

Hull :  I remember how iconic the 1979 Daytona 500 was, and that was for the fight between Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough. Back then, it was strictly a Southerner’s sport, and not a lot of other people in the US really got into it, UNTIL this race. There were a lot of people trapped in their homes watching this race, and they were instantly attracted to the sport. I can speak on my own experience that is also how I got into racing, except it was during the 1993 Daytona 500, and there was a fight between Kyle Petty and Bobby Hillin.

Sadly, this fight was silly and pathetic. Will it attract people? I am not really sure. But it put NASCAR in the spotlight, for better or worse. It also made things exciting too. So we shall see what happens from here.

Cassidy :  I strongly believe this answer depends on the demographic you talk to. In my opinion, these types of occurrences help the sports image as these are events that viewers remember.  For example, this takes us back to the fight that some argue started NASCAR with the first race being aired having a scruff in the grass. Others argue this fight had another to do with the popularity of NASCAR. Whichever way you look at physical contact in our sport, it brings a different element to the table that will attract new audiences.

Shoppe :  I think it was a good thing in the since that many people that would not normally take a look at a replay from a NASCAR truck race did want to check that hilarious mess out on YouTube!  For better or for worse, it was a lot of publicity for the sport.  It sure isn’t the best thing for the sport for its image to be made up of such altercations. In my opinion, those who bash and belittle our sport for things like that already are against racing and a dumb fight like that doesn’t change anything.  I personally am glad to see such passion for what they do.  If two drivers wreck each other out of a race and don’t seem to care one bit about it, then the magic or passion of the sport is no longer there.

Conley :  It was a dance off in St. Louis at midnight in a stand alone truck race. Outside of creating new memes, it had zero impact.  Make it Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick this week at Daytona with a punch or two, then we’re talking impact.

Question 3
No changes, still three wide racing.

No changes, still three wide racing.

There are no rules changes planned with the aero package for Saturday night’s race at Daytona. Is this the correct decision by NASCAR in the fairness of keeping the level playing field where it is and with balancing safety in light of the wild wrecks at Talladega in early May?

Hobbs :  Dear me, they did not change a rule!? That is absolutely shocking!!! It is about time they just kept things the same for the sake of the sport. Every week they are changing something and it causes nothing but tech issues. These are things NASCAR should adjust in the off-season or build i n testing for new packages to ensure teams get things right and we don’t see half the field with a warning or penalty. I thought the racing at Talladega was great; back to old school pack racing. Bring it on again for Daytona!

Fesko :  In terms of fairness it’s the right choice, because while the draft does equalize things if you threw a technical bulletin wrinkle into the mix some of the smaller teams might not be able to adapt as quickly. In terms of safety, I don’t have any answers. Plate racing is always dangerous, so even if a change was made who’s to say it wouldn’t make it even more dangerous? Better to test off track at first and then maybe implement later this year at Talladega.

Copple :  Daytona and Talladega are four races in the season where anything can happen and anyone can get to victory lane. NASCAR changing the rules, or not changing them for that matter, is a moot point. As long as NASCAR is doing everything in their power to keep the drivers, teams and fans as safe as they can possibly be, that’s all we can ask for. Did NASCAR make the right decision to not change anything leading into Daytona? Who knows… I guess we are about to find out.   

Hull :  I think that as long as the drivers are safe on Saturday night, that it will be a good thing. We have had too many wild rides here lately at these superspeedwdays, and I don’t want a driver to die before something can be done. I am hoping that there will be no flying cars, and that everyone leaves Daytona safely.

Cassidy :  As far as NASCAR’s decision to keep the same aero package for Daytona, I think they made the right call. I strongly believe a package needs to be tested a few times at different tracks before it is just crapped and labeled no good. By giving this package another chance, I think NASCAR will be able to move forward knowing which elements to keep and what to change moving forward.

Shoppe :  I think it is a good decision for NASCAR to not make any hasty changes as a result of the crashes at Talladega. A level playing field needs to be kept and it is important for NASCAR that the plate races continue to be as exciting as they have been lately.  Regardless of where you stand on the plate race danger, the ratings and interest is there and that seems to be more important to those in charge.

Conley :  Yes, it’s high time NASCAR sets the rules for Daytona and Talladega and leaves them alone. Too many times, they’ve made rash rules changes for one reason or another prior to the restrictor plate races and it hasn’t been positive.  The big wrecks aren’t necessarily the fault of the rules but that of the drivers.  They control the gas and brake and the car.

Question 4
Can we please find a way to race into Victory Lane?

Can we please find a way to race into Victory Lane?

With Tony Stewart, Joey Logano, and Kurt Busch finally scoring their first victories of the year, which perennial contenders do you see racing their way to Victory Lane in the July races at Daytona, Kentucky, Loudon, Indy, and Pocono?

Hobbs :  It has got to be Chase Elliott. The kid has been so dang close so many times. Looking to a veteran, it would have to be Dale Jr. I think this season will see the most winners come Chase time and less than a handful of places will go to those without a victory.

Fesko :  Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the only perennial contender that has the capability of winning at these tracks. Other drivers could definitely win – Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, AJ Allmendinger, but for most of them it would be their first win. I’d expect one or two of them to snag a win this summer.

Hull :  I see Dale Earnhardt, Jr.  scoring his first victory Saturday night at Daytona. He always does great here, so I believe this will be the race he finally wins. As far as there being other drivers winning, I think that even if he doesn’t do it before the Chase occurs, Chase Elliott will win a race this year. It could perhaps come at Pocono, where he was very close to winning the last time. I see him winning a race this year though. He has been too good not to win one.

Cassidy :  I think Dale Earnhardt Jr. will see Victory Lane in the month of July. With Junior Nation behind him, this 88 team is ready to lock themselves in the Chase. July definitely has some tracks in its that Dale Jr is no stranger to winning.

Shoppe :  If you’re asking for a first time winner this year at each track, I’d say at Daytona you’d have to go with Dale Earnhardt Jr! Kentucky could be a place for Kyle Larson to get his first win! Three-time NHMS winner Ryan Newman could make it four this year in Loudon!  How big would it be if Chase Elliott got his first win at Indy?! And Ryan Blaney does have a win in the Truck Series at The Tricky Triangle so there’s a chance he could get the Wood Brothers in the winner’s circle at Pocono!

Conley :  I think Daytona will bring a surprise winner, but then again, my blender just keeps spitting out names and making a mess. Kentucky is another “wild card” with the new surface and banking.  However, I see Chase Elliott getting his first win with that no fear attitude at Kentucky.  Over at Loudon and Indy, I think we could see back-to-back wins by Jimmie Johnson.  Pocono could bring a sweep by Kurt Busch.  Outside of Elliott, I wouldn’t expect to many surprises.  

Sweet lap right there by the TPF team around Daytona!  Before we reveal who we pick for tonight’s race, let’s review how we all fared at Sonoma and how the points look heading into Daytona.
While a familiar panelist won yet another race...

While a familiar panelist won yet another race…

...a Canadian is hoping to sing her praises again tonight!

…a Canadian is hoping to sing her praises again tonight!

Alright, friends!  We know it’s that time so before y’all celebrate the Fourth of July, let’s set off some fireworks with our race picks for tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona!
A potpourri for some Daytona firework festivities!

A potpourri for some Daytona firework festivities!

Tiongson :  I’m pulling a last second switch here.  While I originally went with Tony Stewart to win tonight’s race, I’m going with a man who knows how to win at Daytona and that’s none other than Joey Logano!

Hobbs :  Stats go back to Kurt Busch. They also say whoever qualifies P1 has a killer shot. That being said, stats are going to stick to Kurt Busch and I will too.

Fesko :  Austin Dillon shall win!

Copple :  I’ll go with Danica Patrick.

Hull :  Without question, I will have to go with Dale Earnhardt Jr tonight!

Cassidy :  Going with Dale Earnhardt Jr!

Shoppe :  My pick tonight is Chase Elliott.

Conley :  With question 4 I said no real surprises.  Well I lied, because we’ll see a surprise winner this week in Daytona and Ryan Blaney locks himself in to the chase.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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