Podium Preview: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

In this case, Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona looks like a barnburner. (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

In this case, Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona looks like a barnburner. (Photo: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

All in all, Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona still holds prestige in NASCAR. Although its association with Independence Day ended last year, the race still packs plentiful fireworks.

In all honesty, choosing a favorite for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 proves as difficult as predicting an NFL draft pick. Then again, we can all imagine being Mel Kiper Jr except with stock cars and a 2.5-mile superspeedway.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists preview each NASCAR Cup Series points-paying race. This weekend, Adam Lucas, Ashley HobbsCody ShoppeKobe LambethMatt SisolerMichelle RaynorTaylor Kitchen, and yours truly discuss race picks outside of Hendrick and Austin Dillon’s Playoff chances.

Podium Preview: Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona
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Question 1
Don't you forget about Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Don’t you forget about Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske. (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

While Hendrick Motorsports has plentiful momentum ahead of the Playoffs, which driver and team should we watch that’s not been as highlighted and why? Defend your answer.

Hobbs :  It would be silly to not keep an eye on the Joe Gibbs Racing bunch in the Playoffs. Sure, Hendrick Motorsports is the talk of the town, but when things need to get going, JGR is always there. While they have about half the wins that HMS has this year, they are the team with the second most wins and second best (team) average finish this season. Their drivers are ready for the Playoffs and will be ready to pounce at any slip-up by the HMS Quartet.

Sisoler :  I have to agree with Ashley. JGR is a powerhouse team and to underestimate them could prove costly for other squads. Look at the year Kyle Busch won a championship. I’m not sure too many teams would’ve picked him and his JGR Toyota to win, but he did. Those Toyotas are tenacious, so do not count them out until the checkers fall.

Tiongson :  Outside of the Hendrick quartet, we should watch Team Penske. Brad Keselowski still brings it despite these being his final races with the Penske banner. Moreover, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney possess that aggressively patient attitude necessary for competing in today’s NASCAR. In this case, narrowing it to one driver and team, I’m focused on Joey Logano. His championship run in 2018 seems quite valuable. Alongside the Hendrick collective, Logano excels at most venues. One road course, three short tracks, one superspeedway, five intermediates? No problem at all for Smiley.

Lambeth :  This may sound crazy. But do not count out Kevin Harvick, who shockingly has not won a race yet in 2021. Just 10 years ago, Harvick’s boss, Tony Stewart, said his team did not belong in the playoffs after not winning a race in the regular season. Guess what happened when the postseason got underway? He won 50 percent of the playoff races and beat Carl Edwards to the championship.

Nobody saw Smoke as a true contender the same way Harvick is looking like a potential early playoff exit. Imagine if the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Mustang turns it on late in the game only a decade after SHR won its maiden Cup title.

Shoppe :  I think the Penske cars have been slowly sneaking into the picture as Hendrick has a clear lead. Ryan Blaney is the most recent winner. And once Joey Logano gets the bad luck out of the way, he has yet to show the full potential of the No. 22 team!

Question 2
Will Austin Dillon make the grade or have his bubble burst? (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

Will Austin Dillon make the grade or have his bubble burst? (Photo: Stephen Conley | The Podium Finish)

After a tough finish following a stage 2 crash at Michigan for Austin Dillon, can he and his No. 3 team win at Daytona?

Raynor :  Austin has the best shot at winning at Daytona. He has won at this track before and is really good at drafting. But, it is Daytona and anything can happen. His best bet is to keep his car clean, away from the drama and make his way up front towards the end. If he can last until the end of the race, he can make it to victory lane.

Lucas : It’s Daytona, anything can happen! I think Austin’s aggression level will be amped to the max trying to lock his way into the playoffs. I think we could see a very ugly team debrief from RCR headquarters in Welcome, NC come Monday morning. Just think, right now the organization has a shot at getting at least one of their cars into the playoffs. It would be a great shame if Dillon were to wreck his teammate Tyler Reddick for that coveted final spot. 

Torres :  Daytona is a crapshoot. Anyone in the right spot and proper pace (except maybe Rick Ware Racing) can get it done. For all we know, Kaz Grala could win this race that’ll put Kaulig Racing at two wins. I do think Austin Dillon will have a nice chance of being a contender this Saturday. 

However, I just don’t see him winning nor making the playoffs. Someone behind Dillon and his target Tyler Reddick will have a better shot of winning. Could be Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace or even Chase Briscoe. 

It’s really hard to say, but my gut says as good as Dillon will be, a win won’t be on the cards. Gonna be a tough pill to swallow for the lead RCR driver, but that’s what Race No. 26 brings to the table every now and then.

Jones :  Every race fan knows anything can happen at Daytona. However, looking at the drivers right at the cutoff line, I think Dillon has the best chance.

But, I don’t think he does it. I really feel it will end up a repeat winner (looking at those Penske drivers!) or someone out of left field like Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Ross Chastain, or shoot, Kaz Grala could win it! 

Kitchen :  If any driver below the cut line can come into Daytona and win, it is Austin Dillon. He and his team have won at the track before and are generally good superspeedway racers. However, there are a lot of drivers below the cut line that are hungry for a victory and may make riskier moves to make that happen (Chastain and Stenhouse). It will be a tough battle but Dillon may just get the job done.

After two tenacious laps around Daytona, perhaps a Coke Zero sounds like a great refreshment. Next, we review last Sunday’s FireKeepers Casino 400 at Michigan, Round 25, with our race and points reports!
A vacationing Hobbs scores another win.

A vacationing Hobbs scores another win.

Ultimately, Hobbs leads the way.

Ultimately, Hobbs leads the way.

Here, Ashley Hobbs considers the numbers and trends from the past five to 10 years of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.

First, consider how your favorite team fares in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.

Since 2004, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona winner has an average starting spot of 10.6 while leading 49.7 laps, starting within the top five 47.06% of the time and starting within the top 10 70.59% of the time.

Since 2004, the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona winner has an average starting spot of 10.6 while leading 49.7 laps, starting within the top five 47.06% of the time and starting within the top 10 70.59% of the time.

Well, Rowdy might love Daytona.

Well, Rowdy might love Daytona.

As shown above, consider the Coke Zero Sugar 400 trends since 2011 (past 10 races).

As shown above, consider the Coke Zero Sugar 400 trends since 2011 (past 10 races).

Now, consider the trends of the past five Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona races since 2016.

Now, consider the trends of the past five Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona races since 2016.

The machine's last regular season race pick.

The machine’s last regular season race pick.

Now, here’s the top 10 starters for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
Row 1
Kyle Larson and William Byron (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Kyle Larson and William Byron (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Row 2
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Row 3
Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Row 4
Martin Truex Jr and Kurt Busch (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Martin Truex Jr and Kurt Busch (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Row 5
Matt DiBenedetto and Brad Keselowski (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Matt DiBenedetto and Brad Keselowski (Photo: Sean Folsom | The Podium Finish)

Last but not least, here’s our picks for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona.
Basically, the TPF staff chose 20% of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona field.

Basically, the TPF staff chose 20% of the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona field.

Torres : As long as he doesn’t cause a big wreck or end up wrecking himself, Bubba Wallace will break the playoff picture and capture his maiden Cup win. Daytona is a crap shoot but the way Wallace fared in the 500, it’s not out of the question. A lot is on the line and if it comes down to him and Denny Hamlin, who wants that regular season title and first win of 2021, I’m sure Wallace will dethrone his co-boss.

While it’s a sacrifice Hamlin has to make, I’m sure he’ll be as happy to have his car in the playoffs as well. On top of that, it’ll be a huge moment for the sport on a weekend where Wendell Scott’s family will get their Jacksonville trophy after nearly 60 years. The writing on the wall is there for a landmark night.

Tiongson : Other than Indianapolis, William Byron rediscovered his consistent form that included his Homestead win. While Daytona’s a long way from Homestead-Miami, Byron duplicates his 400 at Daytona heroics like Sonny Crockett with his famed mullet.

Hobbs : Daytona is a wild card; a wild card that gives drivers not in the Top 16 one final chance to get in. Some drivers will play it safe – but others will not. I am going to look at a driver who might play it safe, yet has good numbers at this track. I think William Byron will get a few more Playoff Points this weekend.

TPF Stats : Last race of the (regular) season. Last chance to earn some Playoff points, or even move from the outside, in. And because Kevin Harvick has been chosen his allotted times this season, the Machine tags Austin Dillion to breathe a sigh of relief by capturing the win in the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Raynor : I’ll go with Austin Dillon because he’s won before and needs a win to basically make it in the Playoffs.

Lambeth : Denny Hamlin, one of the top superspeedway racers in NASCAR today, will finally get win No. 1 of the 2021 season heading into the playoffs and carry the momentum into the most important part of the year.

Shoppe : It’s so hard to pick someone “safe” for a Daytona race. If anyone will play it safe and run a smart race but still gunning for points for the regular season championship, it’ll be Denny Hamlin! I expect Hamlin to stay up front all night to get max points to catch the No. 5 car!

Jones : I’m just going out on a limb…it worked in the season opener, maybe it’ll work for them in the regular season finale? I’ll say Michael McDowell. He knows how to pace himself and be there in contention at the end. He will make it a Daytona sweep on Saturday night. Calling it!

Lucas : Always hanging around the top half of the field with at least 15 laps to go at plate races benefits my pick tremendously this weekend. Ross Chastain smashes his sacred watermelon to the Daytona Gods to lock his spot in the playoffs!

Kitchen : Call me crazy (and maybe I am), but I have a feeling this race is going to bring us a new winner. This pick may be genius or a failed risk but I have faith in this driver.

There are several drivers I considered that could win this race, but of those drivers, I felt they may make a move on the track that could end their day. With that said, I think if Daniel Suarez can be at the right place at the right time with the rest of his Chevrolet friends, I think he could be a surprise winner this weekend at the Coke Zero Sugar 400.

Sisoler : I’m going with my superspeedway guy. At my day job as a sports writer, I had the pleasure of talking to Erik Jones after the end of the race at Michigan. And he seemed optimistic of his chances going to Daytona.

He’s won at Daytona before and was in the mix at Talladega before getting bumped into a spin by a charging Kaz Grala. I think That Jones Boy can put The King back in victory lane, and the Playoffs, at Daytona.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into the race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Stay safe and wash your hands often. Help yourself, your family and friends by getting the COVID-19 vaccine! Take the shot to save your life and others! Also, thanks for reading our content throughout this season.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization and its staff.

Also, if you are shopping for NASCAR or racing die-casts, be sure to check out our friends at Circle B Diecast! If your order is $20 or more, be sure to use coupon code TPF2021 for free shipping! Tell them we sent you and buy some new die-casts now!

Rob Tiongson

Rob Tiongson is a 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 his eyes.

From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat.

Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Communications at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's just as happy to be a Texan.

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