Matt Kenseth/ Randy Sartin, USA TODAY Sports
Daytona Beach, FL - The Sprint Cup Series and its new race car, the Gen-6, return to Daytona International Speedway.
In February, the Gen-6 wasn't exactly a hit in the season-opening Daytona 500. The somewhat disappointing 500-mile race here featured just 28 lead changes due to a lack of passing. There were long periods of drivers running in single file before things got dicey in the closing laps.
Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500, while his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., finished second. It was the second time Johnson had won it, with his first coming in 2006.
The series ran its second restrictor-place race of the season on May 5 at Talladega. David Ragan pulled off a stunning victory there after he passed Carl Edwards for the lead on the final lap. There were 30 lead changes at Talladega, which was extended from 188 laps to 192 due to a big crash in the closing laps.
Saturday night's 400-mile race at Daytona will be different than the first two restrictor-plate events this season. When the series runs at Daytona in July, the event is shorter and it's under the lights. The heat and humidity are a factor as well.
"It's a shorter race and at night, so it will carry through any handling issues that maybe exist," said Johnson, who has yet to win the July event at Daytona. "I really feel like the vehicle, itself, at Daytona, we can't get away from one another and the side-drafting is so big that it created some of the racing we saw in February.
"I thought Talladega was much more exciting due to the fact the track was wider and, when somebody would try to side-draft you, you could move away from them and get away and not let it have that big of an effect."
Johnson points out that drivers tend to run in single file for a majority of the race at restrictor-plate tracks before it gets wild in the closing stages.
"There are a lot of times we are running single file, because we just want to get 350 miles in of a 400-mile race before you crash," he said. "You work too hard to go down there and crash 10 or 15 laps into the race. A lot of times the single-file racing is just due to the drivers being patient."
Johnson will attempt to become the first driver to score a season-sweep at Daytona since Bobby Allison last did it in 1982. There have been seven different winners in the last seven Sprint Cup races at this track.
Ragan's first career victory in the series came at Daytona in July 2011 when he drove for Roush Fenway Racing. He is in his second season with Front Row Motorsports.
"Daytona is a special place in general, but certainly having been to victory lane there makes it extra special," Ragan said. "You've got confidence going into that race, knowing that you've been there, you've done that, you know when to go hard and when to be conservative."
The 400-mile race at Daytona figures to be a wild affair once again. It also could have an impact in the Chase for the Sprint Cup wild card battle. Four drivers that are currently ranked between 11th-20th in points -- Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray -- have won a race at Daytona in the past. Ragan is presently 29th in points.
McMurray finished second last Sunday at Kentucky and moved from 21st to 19th in the point standings. He won the July race at Daytona in 2007 and the Daytona 500 in 2010.
"Hopefully, we can carry the momentum of a strong run and a second-place finish at Kentucky to Daytona," McMurray said. "Daytona is usually a race that is about being lucky and staying out of trouble to be in contention at the end. Our team has been strong here in the past, and I expect we will be the same this weekend. But we will need to have some luck fall our way to bring home good finish."
Stewart is a four-time and defending winner of the July race at Daytona.
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Coke Zero 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, July 6. Race: Coke Zero 400. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile tri-oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET. Laps: 160. Miles: 400. 2012 Winner: Tony Stewart. Television: TNT. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.
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