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Track Talk: Coke Zero 400 at Daytona

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR. Additionally, we attempt to pick the winner of the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam LucasAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Christina BowmanCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleKayla SturmKyle Magda, and Stephen Conley are joined by special guest analyst and former NASCAR premier division competitor Wally Dallenbach Jr as they reflect on Kevin Harvick’s first win of 2017 at Sonoma, the progress of Dale Earnhardt Jr and his 88 team, the possibility of more than 16 different race winners, and the balance between aggression and patience at Daytona!

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Question 1
To the victors goes the spoils at Sonoma!

To the victors goes the spoils at Sonoma!

Kevin Harvick won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race since Kansas Speedway last October. Was it just a matter of time before Stewart-Haas Racing returned to Victory Lane and how dangerous is the No. 4 team now?

Dallenbach :  I’m actually surprised it took this long to win for that team.  They’re one of the strongest teams in the garage and they have been knocking on the door for that first win all year.  You never count Harvick out for the championship.

Hull :  I think it was a matter of time before Kevin Harvick would win and help Stewart-Haas return to Victory Lane. However, I am surprised that it hadn’t happened before now. The 4 team had some bad luck they had to deal with this season. Ultimately, once they get it shaken off, they will be dangerous. We shall see how the rest of the season fares for them, but Harvick has always proved that you never count him out.

Magda :  I’m surprised it took this team 16 races to get their first win of 2017. They switched over to Ford and there was some growing pains. Harvick dominated Atlanta until a speeding penalty. Next, he was trying to pass Ryan Blaney in the closing laps at Pocono.

I don’t think they’re a championship caliber team yet. However, Stewart-Haas Racing has shown speed in the last month and Sunday’s race also added confidence to the rest of the year.

Conley :  Without question, Harvick has been tops at SHR this season. We could easily be talking about the driver of the No. 4 Ford leading the way in wins, but situations and luck haven’t been on his side.

We all know how momentum swings in this sport. A strong run combined with solid strategy may just be what this team needs to scare the field in to submission heading in to the second half of the year.

Lucas :  It was just a matter of time. The No. 4 team started the season strong at Atlanta, almost winning there, minus a bum final pit stop. Since then, it has been an up and down season for them. They have shown great speed each week, but have been struggling to follow up with a good finish. Since Charlotte, the team has been quietly making progress with their finishes.

I have always considered Kevin Harvick a strange brew when it comes to racing. He shows great speed early on, then coasts throughout the midseason, catches fire right before the playoffs, and is usually a threat come Homestead. Momentum and a good pep talk from his son Keelan will, without a doubt, keep the No. 4 team a legitimate contender into and through the playoffs.

Hobbs :  Harvick has been lurking and knocking all season long, so it is no surprise that he finally was able to grab the victory. Things have really been dialed in for the 4 bunch, and they finally put all the pieces together. I think this will lead to a nice summer and fall for Harvick and his crew.

Sturm :  I believe it was just a matter of time. Harvick has been pretty consistent all year and there’s been quite a few times that he’s been close to winning a race. Texas is one I can think of off the top of my head just because I was there.

As for how dangerous the No. 4 team is now, I’m not sure. Unfortunately, one win doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to continue to perform that well. However, I know that when a lot of teams breakthrough, they do tend to reel in a few more wins. Harvick’s win does secure his spot in the playoffs though so I think he’ll be a strong contender once championship time rolls around.

Bowman :  You can never count “The Closer” out! I think it surprised a lot of people that this is the first win for the Stewart-Haas camp since the Daytona 500. However, one could speculate that switching to Ford in the off-season may be the reason.

If that was the case and the win possibly marks the end of that “adjusting period” for the 4 team, and Stewart-Haas in general, then dangerous is an understatement.

Shoppe :  It was just a matter of time before Harvick and the 4 team finally got that win. They’ve been the strongest regular season team for the last few years. However, in 2017, they haven’t quite been as dominant as we’ve been used to.

To be fair, you don’t exactly have to set the world on fire at this point of the season. They very well can turn it on when it matters and be a title contender. To me, Harvick is a step down from the last few years and a little off of Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr as far as most dangerous teams for the title.

Parmelee :  With Kevin Harvick landing in the Top 10 this year just over 60% of the time so far, it’s safe to say that the 4 team is still a force to be reckoned with when it comes to race weekends. I would have been stunned if Harvick hadn’t seen Victory Lane this season. In fact, it was just a matter of when it would happen. And honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be at Sonoma, but as we’ve seen in the past, the track likes to surprise us sometimes.

As for whether or not Harvick’s 4 team is dangerous now? Having already led 538 laps this season, I don’t think it’s a then or now situation. I guarantee the drivers running with Harvick every weekend consider him just as big of a threat next weekend as they did this last one.

Cassidy :  The 4 team has the momentum to keep the victories coming in this 2017 year. Just like any other year, no one should count them out of the hunt for the Cup.

Question 2
After a somewhat inconsistent June, will Dale Earnhardt Jr finally win a race in 2017?

After a somewhat inconsistent June, will Dale Earnhardt Jr finally win a race in 2017?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. closed out the month of June with two straight top-10 finishes (Michigan and Sonoma). Has the tide finally turned for the No. 88 as contenders on race day and a playoff spot?

Dallenbach :  They are getting closer, but obviously, they still need to find some more speed in order to lead races and stay there. Coming to Daytona is a great shot for Dale to get that victory. He was strong in the 500, and I feel this is his best chance to win a race so far. I believe the team is putting everything possible into this race, and I see Dale as a major threat for the win.

Hull :  We can only hope that it has. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. has also had some bad luck this season as well. However, he has a great chance of winning the race Saturday night. Moreover, if he does win, the tide has turned for him. We shall see how he fares the rest of the season.

Magda :  Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fast in Sonoma all weekend. As soon as the No. 88 Axalta Chevrolet came off the truck, Earnhardt wasted no time in running the fastest lap in the opening minutes of first practice around the 1.99-mile road course.

This team excels at 1.5-milers with Earnhardt’s first top-five finish coming 10 months after his last before his concussion. The No. 88 squad is slowly improving each week. With Daytona next up on the schedule, it might be a great way to kick off Earnhardt’s final 10 races to end his full-time driving career.

Conley :  I think the biggest thing the No. 88 team has to take away from this week especially was their ability to overcome on track issues. Early on, Earnhardt made contact with Danica Patrick twice in the race.

Crew chief Greg Ives was able to work the strategy and work on the car, allowing Earnhardt to come with another solid performance. As for the playoffs, they need that win. Currently, they are just too far out right now.

Lucas :  I’ll probably not be on anyone’s Christmas list from Jr Nation after answering this question. I think Dale Earnhardt Jr has one or possibly two shots left at making it into the playoffs.

The obvious track that is a favorite and successful one for Junior is this weekend at Daytona. I’m going out on a limb here, but I also think Watkins Glen is another one. He’s seemed to have figured out how to wheel it left and right. I hope I am wrong, and that Junior does make the playoffs. However, it’s going to take a lot more than back to back top 10’s to get in.

Hobbs :  No offense to Junior Nation, but two top-10 finishes is nothing to jump up and down about. Sure, it is a bright moment, but that is not going to get him into the playoffs in his final season.

I am sure he will make some noise at Daytona this weekend. But, unless he can come away with a win, his clock is ticking down quicker and quicker.

Sturm :  Eh, I’m iffy here. Of course, I really, really want Dale Earnhardt Jr to perform well. He’s a great guy and an awesome driver, and it’s his last year.

However, the 88 team just can’t seem to hit on what some of the better performing teams are hitting on this year. I believe that if it weren’t for mechanical issues and poor strategy, Earnhardt would have more top fives/top 10’s this year than what he currently does.

Do I hope the tide is turning for him? 100%.

Is the tide turning for him? I have no idea. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Bowman :  As much as I would love to say that we are seeing a turnaround for the 88 team, I’m not convinced. It is going to take a lot more than a couple top 10’s to get this team into championship contention.

What Earnahrdt does have going for him is that he has a decent history at some of the upcoming tracks (Daytona, Loudon, Pocono, Michigan and Richmond). If he can get some good finishes, maybe even a win at one of those to put himself in the playoffs, then we may see him get a little more aggressive.

Right now though, I do not see a championship contending team.

Shoppe :  We all hope so! If Dale Earnhardt Jr is to have that storybook final season we’ve seen Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have the last two years, he will need to get that win soon.

Hopefully, Earnhardt can take advantage of this momentum this weekend at Daytona. This very well could be his last big chance to get a win to catapult the 88 into the playoffs in his last year. If you ask me, I don’t think we have seen the last emotional, thrilling win at Daytona by Earnhardt yet!

Parmelee :  Am I the only one who doesn’t want to talk about this for fear of jinxing the heck out of it? Dale Earnhardt Jr is this year’s Tony Stewart for me. To think of one of the biggest names in racing ending his full-time Cup career without scoring at least one checkered flag is too much to think about.

Not to mention, the situations the 88 team has found themselves in this year have been almost as ridiculous as Danica Patrick’s luck. I vote we just ignore that he’s retiring and hope for the best.

Cassidy :  For the sake of Dale Earnhardt Jr and Junior Nation, I hope the 88 team can clinch a playoff spot. We have seen not only wins, but consistency bring drivers into the playoffs. This team is moving in the right direction, so hopefully, it won’t be too late.

Question 3
Can Kyle Busch claim one of the few available playoff spots prior to Richmond?

Can Kyle Busch claim one of the few available playoff spots prior to Richmond?

As a result of Harvick’s victory at Sonoma, he became the 11th different racer to claim a playoff spot. Are we potentially going to see more than 16 different winners before the final regular season race at Richmond? 

Dallenbach :  I can’t remember a more competitive year. With so many good teams and drivers, it’s very possible. You look at the guys that have not won yet and will. So yes, we could see 16 different winners.

Hull :  I feel like we will see more than 16 different winners this season. This season has had a lot of different winners. In addition, there are some tracks where some winless drivers could win this season.

This has been an interesting season for the playoffs so I think that we will get to more than 16 winners.

Magda :  It’s very possible. The most different winners in a season is 19 (2002) in the modern era.  So far, 2017 is shaping up to either surpass or tie the record.

Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to register a Cup victory after being one of the most-dominant teams in 2016. Satellite-team Furniture Row Racing with Martin Truex Jr. already have two wins and maybe another until the engine went late at Sonoma.

Chase Elliott might be next up for first-time winners, especially with some of his stronger tracks coming up, particularly at Kentucky and Pocono. Even though the sophomore driver hasn’t won anything at Kentucky, that can change in next month’s Quaker State 400 as the repave showed it was difficult to pass at the 1.5-mile track.

Conley :  If the retired Carl Edwards and last year’s August Pocono race winner Chris Buescher are counted, we are sitting at six drivers that won last year and have not won thus far in 2017.

With Daytona on the horizon, anything is possible. Certainly, we can’t count out Buescher, but after the Coke Zero 400, it’s really just four more drivers that stand out consisting of Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano (encumbered win).

If they get to Victory Lane, that leaves one spot to point in. It’s going to be a competitive race to the playoffs, but I don’t think we get 16.

Lucas :  This is the $1 million question. I think we do not hit 16 different winners. There’s too many tracks that favor current 2017 winners.

Hobbs :  It is really 10 winners, since Logano’s victory does not get him into the playoffs. So the question becomes if we will we see Joey Logano win again?  Does this mean that we see at least five more new winners?

With only 10 races remaining, that means a new winner this season every other race. I can see the Joe Gibbs punching their tickets, and likely Logano again.

I think we will get very close to 16 (unique) winners this year, but not over. However, it would be great to head into Richmond with several drivers needing to win in order to ensure their place in the playoffs.

Sturm :  Actually, he became the 10th, since Joey’s win was encumbered and can’t be used for playoffs. But it’s funny you ask this question.

Earlier into the year, I said no when asked this question. I really and truly thought that some of the guys that already had wins would claim more than what they currently have.

But now, I’m not sure. I think it’s a very good possibility that we do see 16 winners before cutoff time. There’s been a shocking amount of parity already this season so I would not be surprised if the playoff field is set purely on wins.

Bowman :  I think we may be close! And isn’t that an exciting thought?!

The variety in winners this season makes a powerful statement about how level the playing field has become among teams and organizations. That a single car shop, like the Wood Brothers, could contend with the powerhouses such as Hendrick and Gibbs speaks volumes!

We are not seeing the dominance of those organizations like we have in years past. Heck, JGR still doesn’t even have a win this season to officially solidify a spot in the playoffs! There is so much more anticipation come race day.

When you look at the field, you can see so many different drivers and organizations who have a legitimate shot to win that day. When it comes to winners – the more the merrier!

Shoppe :  I think we will see as many winners as we have seen so far with this new format. For the first time, perhaps a single win doesn’t really mean an automatic playoff birth.

There still are four Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota teams looking to get wins. In addition, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Dale Earnahrdt Jr, Jamie McMurray, and AJ Allmendinger, to name just a few, are possible new winners we could still see.

I wouldn’t be surprised get to Richmond and see that it isn’t a points race for 16th like it has been. Instead, it may become a battle to get a win or a second win to get in!

Parmelee :  There are a few drivers that have surprised me with their wins this season — Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., and Austin Dillon — and a few drivers I’m surprised we haven’t seen in Victory Lane — Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Matt Kenseth, and of course, Kyle Busch.

I’m not sure if I think we’ll see more than five other drivers take a checkered flag before Richmond, but I expect that we’ll at least see a few. I would be stunned to see us close out the regular season without a win from the 18 team.

Cassidy :  100% we will see more first time winners this season. Many top names in NASCAR are still winless and these drivers will be fighting until the very end.

Question 4
If you're a driver competing for a playoff spot, do you race aggressively or patiently at Daytona?

If you’re a driver competing for a playoff spot, do you race aggressively or patiently at Daytona?

Daytona’s races in February and July differ greatly in terms of weather and on track conditions.  For teams battling for a playoff spot, is the risk worth the reward for the win (i.e. Ricky Stenhouse Jr at Talladega)?

Dallenbach :  Depends who you are. If you don’t have the win yet, the risk is worth the reward. You have nothing to lose. And I think you will see that in the drivers who have yet to win this year. Also the stage racing gives you more opportunities to take those risks.

Hull :  It depends on what the race has to offer. If it all comes down to strategy, then yes, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and all about gambling to win. But some risks do not pay off here, especially when that risk ends in a huge wreck. So it will be interesting to see the variation in strategy this weekend at Daytona.

Magda :  Good restrictor-plate racers rise to the top when a win is on the line. This year’s Daytona 500 became a fuel mileage in the crash-marred event so it’s different circumstances than we’ve seen at Daytona or Talladega.

There’s something appealing about the Penske and Hendrick cars in the July Daytona race. Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr put on two dominating performances in as many years.  Of course, this does not include the 2014 rain-postponed one when drivers ran in the daytime and the track slicked up even more in the hot Florida sun.

Conley :  No question in my mind, the risk is worth the potential reward. As I mentioned earlier, Chris Buescher is a winner from a year ago, and a spot in the playoffs is huge for a small team.

There’s always chaos at Daytona, so it may be understating what could come this week. Truly, it’s all about strategy with the stages, risks that drivers are willing to take, and aggressiveness to score that final restrictor plate win prior to the playoffs. It’s game on, grab your helmet and buckle up tight – that’s just for the fans watching.  

Lucas :  Of course it is! The only reason you would race for playoff points in the first two stages is if you are already in the playoffs. If I haven’t won yet, I’m definitely going to be risky this weekend with differing strategies. You have absolutely nothing to lose if you’re not already in the playoffs. It’s going to be an all-out battle royal Saturday night in Daytona.

Hobbs :  Daytona can give us any winner; anyone at all. We could see Dale Earnhardt Jr be victorious and hear cheers far and wide. Also, we could see David Ragan flex his restrictor plate muscles and steal a spot away from the more funded teams.

Anything can happen this weekend, and those who feel this is their last chance (or one of their last chances), will do almost anything to come out of Daytona with the victory.

Sturm :  The track is definitely going to be hotter which means less grip and potentially slower speed. However, the race is at night, so the temperature will be cooler than what it would be during the day, which is also a good thing.

We all know anything can happen at plate tracks, and that was evident this year at Dega. If you’re a team that isn’t already secured in the playoffs, I say go for it.

Like I said, plate tracks are unpredictable and a lot of the underperforming drivers and teams have a shot at winning if strategy, track conditions, and luck play into their hands. I think it’ll be an exciting race, no doubt.

Bowman :  With the right combination of talent, equipment, and luck, anyone has a shot to win at Daytona. There are only 10 races before the playoffs.

We’ve crowned 11 different winners. As we alluded to earlier, there is a possibility that there may be more than 16 winners after Richmond. If you do not already have a checkered flag sticker above the window, there is no question… take the risk.

Shoppe :  For many teams, their best and possibly only shot at winning their way into the postseason is this Saturday night. I expect aggressive moves both on the track and on pit road to have a chance for their team to steal away a playoff place!

Parmelee :  Daytona is always crazy. For teams who are looking to advance, going all out has to be an option that they’re looking at. I think it’s going to be a matter of how much teams decide they need to risk and at what part of the race.

Cassidy :  There is no reward without risk. I think we will see drivers make interesting moves right from the start this weekend!

Solid four laps around “The World Center of Racing” by our Track Talk team!  Normally, we’d reflect on how we all fared last weekend at the previous race.  Before we do so, we thought we’d let Wally take us around Daytona, explain the nature of drafting in the pack, and provide his perspective of this track!
Known as a road course specialist, Dallenbach was a solid restrictor plate racer.

Known as a road course specialist, Dallenbach was a solid restrictor plate racer.

“I consider Daytona my home track. I have more laps both on the oval and road course than at any other racetrack. It’s one of my favorite places to race because it really has everything. Very special place. The summer race is a lot different than the 500. Usually there’s a lot less grip in the track.

So you’re sliding around a ton more all while you’re in the middle of a pack. So handling is key this weekend.  I used to love the races at Daytona  and Talladega. I know a lot of drivers don’t care for it. But you are always at the edge of your seat while behind the wheel. The biggest downside is, most of the wrecks you get caught up in are caused by another driver. You are just along for the ride which is why it makes the race so frustrating for drivers.

I also think the pit crews are so important these days. You just can’t afford mistakes on pit road either from the crew or the driver. Sometimes, those penalties can be impossible to overcome depending on which stage of the race you get them.”

Every NASCAR race has the drama of the action on the track and on pit road!  As Wally mentioned, executing to near perfection often leads to a great day on the track.
Before heading into our race picks, let’s review how we all fared last Sunday at Sonoma Raceway!
Clint Bowyer aided our some panelists to a successful Sunday at Sonoma...

Clint Bowyer aided our some panelists to a successful Sunday at Sonoma…

...resulting in a very tight points race heading into Daytona!

…resulting in a very tight points race heading into Daytona!

As a certain song by Survivor goes, it’s the moment of truth!  Without further ado, let’s reveal our winning picks for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona!
Which of these magnificent seven will reign supreme at Daytona?

Which of these magnificent seven will reign supreme at Daytona?

Tiongson :  Clint Bowyer is going to be my pick. He just seems like a man on a mission and when I interviewed him at Michigan, he expressed total optimism and excitement with the direction of his 14 team.

Hobbs :  With a great season going for him so far, and after a tremendous run at Sonoma, I like all things about Clint Bowyer this season; especially with his spectacular Daytona numbers.

Dallenbach :  Going with Dale Earnhardt Jr and the 88!

Hull :  My pick this weekend is Dale Earnhardt Jr. It will be interesting to see him win his final race at Daytona.

Magda :  My pick for Saturday night is Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Cassidy :  The winner on Saturday night will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Conley :  The crystal ball says to ask the blender. Putting the field on puree, coming out better than the rest is Jamie McMurray.

Lucas :  Picking for a superspeedway race is a literal roll of the dice. So I’m going to make up for my criticism in question three. For his final race (supposedly) at Daytona, I’m going with the people’s champion, hailing from Kannapolis, NC.  He’s the man known as Little E, driver of the No. 88, but number one in your hearts, Dale Earnhardt Jr!

Sturm :  This is hard to say since Daytona can be unpredictable. But I’m going to have to go with Chase Elliott. He could have closed out the deal and won the 500 earlier in the year in February if he hadn’t run out of fuel. I think this will be his time to shine and nab that first career win.

Shoppe :  It’ll be Chase Elliott in Victory Lane!

TPF Stats :  While he may only have a few starts in the Coke Zero 400, he has great finishes. In addition, he has a win this year already, so what does he have to lose? Look for Austin Dillon to have a great day.

Bowman :  Denny Hamlin takes home the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing at Daytona.

Parmelee :  Brad Keselowski wins on Saturday night at Daytona.

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

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week! We’d also like to thank Wally for taking the time to join us and provide us with his detailed analysis for Daytona!  You can “Follow” Wally on Twitter to talk racing with him!

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk 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 and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

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 Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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