Pepsi 400 News and Notes

Pepsi 400 News and Notes

Pepsi 400 preview
By Micah Roberts

If the future is anything like the past with the “Car of Tomorrow,” it’s going to be a Hendrick Motorsports runaway. I know, before I give them too much credit, the last three COT races have been won by drivers other than Hendrick. Also, It’s encouraging that two of last three race winners were first-time winners.

Now back to Hendrick ruling the universe; there hasn’t been one bump in the road for this team, in particular Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. The “Dynamic Duo” have been masters on every track and have been two of the three most consistent COT drivers on tour. Denny Hamlin would be the other on the COT list.

Next season, the “Dynamic Duo” will drive the COT all season at every track. Hopefully by then they’ll just call it a “Car” and we can drop the whole label.

Beyond just having the best cars, Hendrick will be joined by Dale Earnhardt Jr. The trio of high profile drivers under one stable make will them the “Superfriends” of NASCAR. It also puts to rest what many NASCAR fans had hoped for, and that was the “Fued of Tomorrow”. Ever since Dale Sr passed, fans have been looking for the next driver to knock Gordon around the track a little bit. That’s not likely to happen as teammates, and its likely it never would have happened, but at least there was hope.

Saturday night’s Cup race at Daytona marks the half way point of the season and also the beginning of the Chase for the Chase. This will also be the last time we see the “Car with No Future” in a restrictor plate race. The next plate race run will be at Talladega and they’ll be using the COT.

I believe I can be optimistic and give hope that there might be someone else as a possible candidate to win other than a favorite. This is who lies in front of you if looking to bet on a medium range shot at 15 or 20 to 1. First up is the “Dynamic Duo” who each are co-favorites to win at 5 to 1. Next in line is Tony Stewart at 6 to 1. Stewart will be going for his third straight Pepsi 400 win which would tie David Pearson.

Hendrick Motorsports has been very stingy at restrictor plate races in the last four seasons. Gordon had gone six straight races without winning a plate race until winning at Talladega this year. Prior to that winless streak, Gordon had won four of six plate races. Johnson finished second at Talladega behind Gordon this year. Last season Johnson won the Daytona 500 and the first Talladega race. And just for kickers, it was Brian Vickers who rolled in as a nice 35 to 1 choice in last seasons fall Talladega race. It was equally as impressive as DEI’s four years run beginning in 2001, and maybe even more impressive because three drivers from the team won a plate race.

This seasons Daytona 500 showed us that someone can step up against Hendrick. Not only did Kevin Harvick join select plate winners club, but Mark Martin was sitting pretty as well and came inches from winning his first Daytona 500 ever. Maybe there is a possibility of David beating Goliath this week.

The Las Vegas brothers, Kurt and Kyle Busch would seem like the top candidates to come in as a decent payout. The two have been up front for most of the last two seasons of plate racing but something always seems to happen for the worse. Kyle Busch was right behind Mark Martin and in front of Kevin Harvick with a lap to go in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle spun out Kyle and Harvick got closer and eventually won.

Sometimes, certain drivers appear cursed and seem to never be able to crossover. But then again, as long as you know a driver can compete and possibly be there, that’s all it takes. We’ll see how big of a carrot the bookmaker dangles in front of me before I bite on a Kyle Busch wager. I Think 12 to 1 odds or higher is fair, considering who he drivers for and his past misfortunes in plate races.

Kurt Busch has run up front in every plate race ran with Penske. In his last five plate races, Busch has ended up third in three of those races. He’s been knocking on the door to the plate race winners club for some time now, including his time with Roush where he had eight top-five finishes in plate races.

I really like the fact that Kurt Busch has a real teammate in Ryan Newman running with him. Kurt doesn’t have a lot of friends out there and actually has a few that seek him out for an “accidental” tap. In the 6 plate races they have run together as teammates, they have looked like they were on the same page for the whole race. Newman must appreciate having Busch rather than his former teammate, Rusty Wallace, who beat to his own drum. Newman now has the opportunity to win a plate race every time out which hasn’t presented itself to Newman as consistently as it has with Busch as his teammate.

It’s hard to imagine a Ford winning a plate race because it just doesn’t happen unless it’s a flukey fuel thing like Greg Biffle had happen in this race back in 2003. Dale Jarrett came from no where to win as a 60 to 1 long shot in the fall of 2005 at Talladega, but if you want another Ford winner in a plate race you have to go all the back to Jeff Burton in the fall of 2000 at Daytona. That same year, Dale Jarrett also won the Daytona 500. So essentially, over 29 plate races, Ford has come out on top only three times.

The top Ford likely comes from Robert Yates Racing, the team that powered Dale Jarrett in the past. David Gilliland is the feature driver for the team has been outstanding in only two races this season and they were both plate races. Just as an example using the odds, Gilliland has been 250 to 1 in just about every Cup race this season except for the plate races. This week Gilliland is 25 to 1.

After Gilliland, look at Jamie McMurray driving a Roush-Fenway Ford from the very same stable that Kurt Busch drove successfully two seasons ago. McMurray has been very close in the last two Pepsi 400’s with a second and an eighth. His odds fall in the 35 to 1 range which might be good enough to lure me into the dark alley.

So let’s go for the bombs this week, and sing the “German Bomber song” in unison at the cashier’s window. Let’s throw out the “Dynamic Duo”, because I’m stupid, and take a chance with both Penske cars and the lower level Hendrick cars. Because Stewart runs so well for 400 miles at Daytona, you have to include him in an equation that can at least get your money back should he win; perhaps betting him in a matchup against Gordon or Johnson. That may be the dumbest wagering strategy I have ever heard, however, I really like it for some reason this week. If Gordon and Johnson don’t win, we’ll all feel pretty smart.

Kevin Harvick is another one to that should be of concern, but sweeping Daytona isn’t something that occurs too often. The last driver to sweep Daytona was Bobby Allison is 1982.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction:

1) #2 Kurt Busch (11/1)
2) #25 Casey Mears (30/1)
3) #20 Tony Stewart (5/1)
4) #5 Kyle Busch (12/1)
5) #12 Ryan Newman (15/1)

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RacingOne Power Rankings

The latest edition of the RacingOne NEXTEL Cup Series Power Rankings as the series heads to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday's Pepsi 400, which features NASCAR's comprehensive statistical ratings system using a detailed formula to calculate each driver's performance.

Editor's Note: Top 10 rankings are generated by a formula combining the following categories: Wins, Finishes, Top-15 Finishes, Average Running Position While on Lead Lap, Average Speed Under Green, Fastest Lap, Led Most Laps, Lead-Lap Finish. Maximum: 150 points per race. Must have raced in 75 percent of scheduled point-paying races.

1. Jeff Gordon: Even without crew chief Steve Letarte, Gordon remains on top of the rankings after scoring his 11th top five of the season with a runner-up performance at New Hampshire. Gordon added 37 laps to his series leading 755 laps led in 2007 en route to scoring the second-best driver rating in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300. This weekend he heads to Daytona as the active leader in wins there with six, with three in the Pepsi 400.

Daytona Finishing Average: 14.2
Daytona Wins: 6

2. Jimmie Johnson: Just like teammate Gordon did, Johnson showed how much depth the Hendrick organization has by grabbing his third top five at New Hampshire without crew chief Chad Knaus. Johnson finished fifth in the race and had the fifth overall driver rating at 114.6. He fell ever so slightly in the rankings, but jumped one position in the point standings to fourth. Johnson has shown in the past at Daytona that he can get it done without Knaus after he won the 2006 Daytona 500.

Daytona Finishing Average: 12.2
Daytona Wins: 1

3. Denny Hamlin: Hamlin finally sealed the deal with the Car of Tomorrow by winning his first race after dominating the year leading 612 laps with the new car. The win moved him into a tie for third in the rankings with his teammate Stewart. Although Hamlin won the 2006 Budweiser Shootout at Daytona, he has yet to finish in the top 10 in three points paying races at the track.

Daytona Finishing Average: 25.0
Daytona Wins: 0

3. Tony Stewart: Stewart ended a streak of three consecutive top-10 finishes in the month of June with a 12th-place run in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300. He lost nine positions on the last pit stop after nearly overshooting his pit stall. The end result saw Stewart post the 10th overall average driver rating. This weekend Stewart will look to make history at Daytona by becoming only the second driver to capture three consecutive Pepsi 400's at Daytona. David Pearson is the lone driver to accomplish the feat, winning the 1972-1974 400-mile events in a Wood Brothers Mercury.

Daytona Finishing Average: 17.2
Daytona Wins: 2

5. Dale Earnhardt Jr: Earnhardt Jr. continues to impress by scoring his fifth top-15 finish since making his announcement to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. He gained more points in the ranking system by topping all drivers in average driver rating in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300. This weekend crew chief Tony Eury Jr. will return to help guide Junior to a possible third win at Daytona. The No. 8 Team will pay tribute to the troops by running a red, white and blue paint scheme in the Pepsi 400.

Daytona Finishing Average: 12.8
Daytona Wins: 2

6. Kyle Busch: Busch continues to have solid runs in the July race at New Hampshire. Since his rookie season in 2005, Busch has posted an average finish of 5.3, including one win, in his three July starts. He stayed in touch with Dale Jr's fifth-place slot in the rankings after he notched the sixth-best average driver rating in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300. In last year's Pepsi 400, Busch posted his only top 20 at Daytona, finishing second.

Daytona Finishing Average: 23.6
Daytona Wins: 0

7. Carl Edwards: No it wasn't The Curse of the Bambino that made Edwards slip in the running order on Sunday, but instead the slip of the jack on a lap 193 pitstop dropped the No. 99 car out of contention. After starting 22nd, Edwards drove his Boston Red Sox themed Ford into the top five before the pit road incident. After climbing back onto the lead lap to finish 13th and posting the seventh-best average driver rating, Edwards was able to move up two spots in the rankings. Daytona is Edwards' worst track by finish average at 30.0.

Daytona Finishing Average: 30.0
Daytona Wins: 0

8. Matt Kenseth: Even though Kenseth finished ninth in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300 it was not enough from keeping him from slipping one position in the rankings, partly because of his previous two finishes outside the top 30. Kenseth's best Daytona finish, and fifth top 10 in 15 starts, came in last year's Pepsi 400 when he finished fifth.

Daytona Finishing Average: 20.1
Daytona Wins: 0

9. Kurt Busch: Busch continues to fall in the rankings after his 21st-place run in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300. The finish marked his sixth consecutive outside the top 15 in 2007. Busch, who had one of the best cars in February at Daytona before an incident with Tony Stewart, has had some good runs in the Pepsi 400, including a third-place finish last July.

Daytona Finishing Average: 21.9
Daytona Wins: 0

10. Jeff Burton: For the second week in a row, Burton showed some signs of life again by scoring a seventh-place finish in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300. If he can back up his Daytona 500 finish, Burton could jump as far as seventh in the rankings heading into Chicago. Burton has posted an average finish of 18.0 in his five starts with Richard Childress Racing at Daytona.

Daytona Finishing Average: 17.0
Daytona Wins: 1

Power Mover

Martin Truex Jr:
Truex Jr. used a third-place finish and the third-best average driver rating in the LENOX Industrial Tools 300 to gain 2.2 points in the rankings. His finish marked his fourth top five in the last five races. Daytona hasn't been kind to Truex in the Cup Series where he has yet to score a top 10 in four starts.

Daytona Finishing Average: 27.0
Daytona Wins: 0

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Who's Hot and Who's Not In Nextel Cup: Loudon Edition

The one-mile flat track up in New Hampshire proved as difficult as ever to pass on Sunday, but that didn’t stop a resurgent Jeff Gordon from giving it a shot. His last lap battle with Denny Hamlin left the two side-by-side heading to the finish line; but in the end, Hamlin held on, squeaking out a win while sending out a statement that his team could pose a challenge to Hendrick’s Car Of Tomorrow dominance. In the meantime, several storylines developed behind the two contenders, with late race pit strategies, dropped jacks, and two tire stops doing their best to separate the contenders from the pretenders as the Race To The Chase began its final ten-race stretch.

With the urgency reaching a fever pitch, who left the Granite State with their title hopes solid as a rock, and who discovered their chances may be permanently cracked in two? Read this week’s edition of Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in Nextel Cup to find out.


Denny Hamlin:
Hamlin didn’t lead a large amount of laps Sunday; for once, he wasn’t even the dominant car of the day at a Car of Tomorrow event. But in the end, the driver of the Fed Ex Chevy got what he wanted the most; his first win of the season. In a clever twist of irony, it was a two tire call made on pit road by Hamlin’s crew which won him the race, helping to erase the memory of past mistakes that had left their driver critical of the team at times. The victory marked Hamlin’s 11th Top 10 of the year and his seventh in the past eight races; that’s something only the man he raced to the line, Jeff Gordon, can claim on his resume. Now that he finally has his win in his pocket and Chase bonus points in hand, can Hamlin maintain this run of consistency? Or, will there be a bit of a letdown now that he finally has what he’s been working to claim all season long?

Dale Earnhardt, Jr: For all of the doubters who didn’t think Junior could hack it without his cousin Tony Eury, Jr. on top of the pit box, you were sadly mistaken. In the six races since Eury has been away, the No. 8 team has been on one of their biggest highs of the season, peaking in a season best finish of fourth this Sunday, where Junior led the most laps to boot. Currently 12th in the points, Junior has made up the ground he lost with the 100 point penalty from Darlington and holds a 128 point cushion over Ryan Newman in 13th. Oh yeah, and guess were they are racing this week: Junior’s personal restrictor plate playground at Daytona.

Martin Truex Jr: Who would have thought after Junior’s announcement he was leaving DEI that the team would have two of the hottest drivers on the track heading into Daytona? Probably not many, but Truex is doing all he can to show that DEI will be left in good hands at the end of the 2007 season. His breakthrough win at Dover has propelled him into Chase contention, and the confidence boost is a huge factor in the fact that he has four Top 3 finishes in the last five races. The New Jersey native is up to tenth in the standings and currently possesses more momentum then a tailwind down the backstretch at Daytona. Not only has he finished well as of late, Truex is running in front of the pack in the process. In the previous two seasons in Cup, Truex had led just 38 laps, but he’s led 315 in the last five races alone. That is the sign of a team moving up in a hurry.


Carl Edwards:
Add Edwards to the list of drivers that have experienced a Springtime / early Summer surge in 2007. In the first ten races of the year, he struggled to lead just three laps while racking up just two Top 10s. But during the last seven weeks, he’s pulled a total 180, leading 133 laps and finishing up front to the tune of a win and three Top 5 results. That number could have easily been four Top 5s if not for a pit road miscue on Sunday at Loudon that put him down a lap. But the team pushed through and managed to bring home a respectable 13th place finish. Edwards needs to find a way to turn his Top 15 finishes into more Top 10s, but if the team can get that mission accomplished, he could make some noise later this year.

Jeff Burton: After a midseason slump, it looks like the Burton of old is starting to slowly come back to life. While he didn’t lead every lap or even score a win at Loudon, Burton did manage to come from 26th place to finish seventh for his second straight Top 10. The No. 31 car’s not setting a blistering pace like it was early in the season, when it seemed like Burton couldn’t finish outside the Top 10; but still, he’s been able to battle his way back, currently holding down the fifth position in the point standings.

Tony Stewart: Thanks to a botched entry into his pit stall during the last stop of the day, Stewart saw his Top 10 streak end at three at Loudon Sunday with a 12th place finish. Still, it says something about your team when a 12th place run seems like a letdown. Everyone expects Stewart to kick things into high gear as the weather turns hot, and he’s been heading in that direction with seven Top 10s since his runner up finish at Phoenix in April. Perhaps the veteran will pick up a few tips from his young protégé Hamlin and get Joe Gibbs Racing win number two in the coming weeks.


Jeff Green:
I know it’s kind of odd to label a driver as “cool” that just finished sixth in the prior race, but don’t be fooled; Green has been in this position before and didn’t do much with the opportunity to increase his standing. Back at Phoenix in April, he scored another sixth place finish in a CoT race, but came up with just one Top 15 finish, a 13th the next race at Talladega, in the eight races since. What keeps Green from being a warm driver is his lack of consistency. You only need to look at the last five races to see why Green isn’t up higher than 29th in the standings. During that time, he has not finished higher than 30th while crashing out of two events. Bit if Green can build upon this Top 10, unlike he did the last time around; he could make a move out of the ranks of the “also-rans.”

David Ragan:
Ragan was keeping pace with fellow first-year Juan Pablo Montoya until his big win at Sonoma; now, he’s lagging behind a bit in their heated competition for the sport’s top rookie honors. It’s not that Ragan is having a horrible season, but he has run into his fair share of problems…literally. While he has just one DNF due to a crash this year, coming at Charlotte, there have been times when he hasn’t made many friends on the track, a statement I’m sure Kurt Busch would attest to after Sunday. His results haven’t been awful, either in qualifying or in the race; but there is still a lot of room for improvement, even after Ragan’s 15th on Sunday gave him top rookie honors for this week.

David Gilliland:
How happy does Gilliland have to be to see Daytona on the calendar for this week? Other than two great qualifying efforts at the restrictor plate tracks this year, followed up by Top 5 or Top 10 finishes, the rest of the season has been mediocre for him, to say the least. He has four DNF’s this year, and since his career best finish of fourth at Talladega, he’s put up only one other Top 20 performance. With another good run likely on the horizon this week, it’s hard to say that Gilliland is cold; but riding success on the plate tracks will only work for so long. Bottom line, they need to start improving everywhere else.


Greg Biffle:
You’re not supposed to use speedometers in Cup racing, but Biffle might want to think of a way to sneak one in after he got busted for speeding three times Sunday. A tight race car, combined with a lead foot on pit road left Biffle with a 31st place finish just one week after scoring his second Top 5 of the year at Sonoma. It looked like Biffle and his team were heading in the right direction… possibly even towards an outside shot at the Chase. But any gains the team had earned from their run at Sonoma and Top 10 at Dover have been erased, thanks to three finishes of 30th or worse in three of the last four events. Even if the team does catch fire, it appears that Biffle will once again be looking in from the outside come Chase time this year.

Ward Burton:
These results are probably not what Burton had in mind when he made his return to Nextel Cup this season. The plan was to come back full-time, but with how the No. 4 single car team has been running, it seems more like a part-time gig. Out of a possible 17 starts; Burton and the No. 4 car have managed to qualify for only eight. In five of those eight races, he has failed to finish due to a combination of crashes and engine failures, the last one coming just a mere four laps into Sunday’s race at Loudon. With an underfunded, single-car operation, Burton had to know he was in for a struggle at first. But I wonder if even he thought it would be this bad.

Joe Nemechek: Despite missing the race at Bristol, Nemechek has been able to stay in the Top 35 in points all year long…but it hasn’t been an easy task. His only Top 10 finish came at the Daytona 500, when he finished ninth to start off the season. While he has run well in races since; he hasn’t been able to turn that into strong finishes in the record books. In fact, he has just two Top 15 finishes other than Daytona to go along with three DNFs this season. You would think that some of the success teammate Mark Martin has enjoyed would have rubbed off onto this team, but so far, it hasn’t. The downside is that unless the team can at the very least maintain their current performance or improve it, Ginn Racing will likely find themselves in this position next year, too.

This weekend marks the unofficial halfway point of the season as the teams head to Daytona for the Pepsi 400. As everyone knows, anything can happen on a plate track – so does that mean we’ll we see another battle down to the wire like we did in February? Can Dale Earnhardt, Jr. keep up his hot streak and return to victory lane at Daytona one last time in a DEI ride? Will Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon keep “suffering” without their crew chiefs? Or can someone unexpected come out through the smoke and steal a big win? We’ll just have to wait until next week to find out Who’s Hot and Who’s Not in the Nextel Cup Series.

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PEPSI 400 - Odds to Win

Jimmie Johnson 5-1

Jeff Gordon 5-1

Tony Stewart 5-1

Denny Hamlin 18-1

Matt Kenseth 15-1

Kevin Harvick 12-1

Kyle Busch 18-1

Carl Edwards 25-1

Jeff Burton 18-1

Dale Earnhardt Jr 10-1

Kurt Busch 10-1

Mark Martin 25-1

Martin Truex Jr 20-1

Ryan Newman 25-1

Clint Bowyer 25-1

Greg Biffle 60-1

Jamie McMurray 35-1

Kasey Kahne 75-1

Casey Mears 30-1

Juan Pablo Montoya 75-1

Scott Riggs 100-1

Elliott Sadler 100-1

Reed Sorenson 100-1

Bobby Labonte 100-1

David Stremme 100-1

Joe Nemechek 100-1

Dave Blaney 100-1

JJ Yeley 100-1

Jeff Green 100-1

Ricky Rudd 50-1

Tony Raines 100-1

David Gilliland 30-1

David Ragan  100-1

Field (Any Other Driver) 25-1

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Pepsi 400 PreQ    
After a handful of average runs Kevin Harvick is beginning to come on once again posting three consecutive top 10 finishes. Harvick heads to Daytona International Speedway as the early favorite to make the trip to victory lane. He started the season by taking the checkered flag at Daytona passing Mark Martin in the final stretch. It was his first win at Daytona to go with four top 10 finishes in 12 career starts. RCR has had a strong restrictor plate program and Harvick should be able to take advantage of his current hot streak. Look for both RCR and DEI drivers to be strong this weekend.

Now that Denny Hamlin recorded his first win last weekend we can turn our attention to Tony Stewart. Stewart has yet to make the trip to victory lane this season leaving many to wonder when that drought will end. It could very easily occur this weekend where Stewart has been very strong with the exception of this season’s Daytona 500 in which he finished dead last. Prior to that porous run he six consecutive top 10 finishes with a pair of wins. Stewart has been running well and you can bet he will be in victory lane sooner rather than later. Jump on the #20 Home Depot Chevrolet bandwagon for this race.

Next up on the PreQ forecast come a pair of David’s in Ragan and Gilliland. Each has not been that impressive this season but each has produced in restrictor plate racing. David Ragan ran 5th in the Daytona 500 and followed that run up with a 17th place finish at Talladega. Not too bad for the youngster taking over the #6 AAA Ford for Mark Martin. David Gilliland has also struggled this season but for some reason runs well on the restrictor plates. His only top 10 finishes this season have come at Daytona and Talladega. He qualified well in each of those events taking the pole for the Daytona 500 and started on the outside pole at Talladega. If you qualifies well we would recommend adding him to your lineup.

As surprising at may seem Martin Truex Jr. is not that good on restrictor plate tracks. The DEI driver has been dominating as of late posting four top 5s in the last five races. Truex, however, just does not run well at Daytona or Talladega posting two top 10s in nine career starts with an average finish of 23rd place. He has not finished in the top 15 in four career starts at Daytona as he is averaging a 25th place finish. Truex does rank in the top 10 due in part to his solid finishes as of late but fantasy players should be cautious when looking to add Truex to their lineup.

A second driver that has been on fire as of late is Carl Edwards. Edwards has posted eight straight finishes in the top 20 winning at Michigan a few weeks ago – his first win in more than 50 races. He also had a very strong car at New Hampshire before a late race pit mishap sent him to the back of the pack. He did manage to eek out a 13th place. Edwards, however, has not run well on the restrictor plate tracks. In 11 career starts he has three top 10s but is averaging a lowly 26th place finish. He has not finished in the top 20 in either of the two restrictor plate races this season and struggles at Daytona in general. Edwards does not have a top 20 finish in his last four starts at the track with an average finish of 35th place. Our advice: Avoid the #99 Office Depot Ford for this race.

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TNT's Daytona telecast to feature fewer commercials

Fans have asked for commercial-free race telecasts.

Turner Network Television will give them one as much as possible for the July 7 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

TNT will unveil its "wide-open" coverage, using a concept that mixes live racing action throughout the entire telecast while also appeasing advertisers without traditional full-screen commercials.

"What it means for sponsor interaction with the show, what it means technologically as a broadcaster and what it means for the fans to get more racing action - to us, it's broadcast history," TNT design director Skot Linder said June 23. "If it turns out successful and we can do every race next year, it's exciting."

Although TNT has six Nextel Cup telecasts this year (and just one more following Daytona), it will only use the wide-open concept for one race.

"After we do the race, we'll meet with our advertisers and meet internally and see where it takes us," said Turner Senior Vice President of Production Jeff Behnke. "We're really not going to know what we're going to do moving forward until after we see the success of the Pepsi race. ... We want to make sure we're doing everything we can to give us the chance to succeed for the viewers."

Instead of having graphics running at the top of the screen and then also at the bottom over the live racing action, TNT will only have a graphics area in the bottom quarter of the screen. It will not superimpose most of the graphics over the live action. Instead, that graphic area will feature the logo of a company sponsoring that portion of the telecast with the current running order streaming across the top part of the graphic area.

TNT will put a breakout box at times on the lower right corner of the screen, using it for interviews as well as commercials. When the breakout box isn't being used, other stats will be shown in the graphic area.

The end result should be about an 11 percent increase in actual unadulterated video while advertisers will get the benefit of viewers not wanting to tune away from the telecast during a commercial, Behnke said.

"It's about giving the fans and the viewers what they want - they want to see racing," said Behnke, whose staff has worked laboriously over the last eight months on the concept. "The whole idea is to be creative. For everybody at Turner Sports, that's what we do. ... Is this going to perfect? It's not going to be perfect, but we're willing to take a chance and try something new and different."

Behnke stressed that when TNT goes to the breakout box for a commercial, the racing action would not just be a courtesy shot of the leader. The running order also will remain streaming while the split-screen commercial is running.

There will be three commercial breaks per hour for local cable outlets but none more than 85 seconds (as opposed to a typical commercial break of up to 250 seconds). If the race goes green the entire way, that would mean fans would miss only about 15-18 green-flag laps, Behnke said.

"Every time we go to a break during a caution, that reduces the number of green-flag laps [missed]," Behnke said. "We really are not going to know until after the race how many green-flag laps we missed.

"One thing is for sure: It's going to be a lot less than if we didn't do this."

There are 10 sponsors of the coverage and the commercials for nine of them were originally produced by TNT. Sponsors will be AutoZone, DirecTV, Ford, Miller Brewing, Pepsi, Principal Financial, Goodyear, Sprint, Subway and Toyota.

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Could Kurt Busch break through win Daytona win ?

Kurt Busch has been oh, so close to winning a restrictor-plate race, but he hasn't pulled off a win. Yet.

Saturday night offers the Penske Racing driver one more chance to do so in the current Dodge model.

Busch has five top-five and eight top-10 finishes at Daytona International Speedway. He has an average finish of 21.9, was third in the Pepsi 400 a year ago and led the most laps in the Daytona 500 and was third at Talladega Superspeedway this spring.

"We've had Saturday's Pepsi 400 targeted for a long time now as a big race for us - one that we've really been looking forward to," Busch said. "We've been so strong in these plate races and have come so close to getting that breakthrough win.

"We've led a lot of plate-racing laps, particularly at Daytona, and we've been in a position to win. We finished third at Daytona last July and led the most laps with a car capable of winning during the Daytona 500 back in February. You always hear that if you're knocking on the door and you keep knocking hard enough and long enough, sooner or later you're destined to break on through."

Could this be the weekend he breaks through? Busch and crew chief Pat Tryson certainly think so.

Busch says that he really likes plate racing and that he views it as a "different kind of challenge" than what drivers normally face in the series.

Tryson, who joined the Penske team in June, is pleased that he will bring the same car that former interim crew chief Troy Raker and team engineer Brian Wilson prepared for the season-opening race at the track.

That, combined with Busch's talent level, has Tryson thinking the team will post a strong finish in its third race together,

"I've always thought of Kurt as being one of the best plate racers in the business," Tryson said. "I can't wait to get to Daytona and get after it. I've always felt that the drivers who excel in plate racing seem to all carry positive attitudes about it. Kurt and our team come into Daytona knowing we can win and confident that we can get the job done."

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Grading the top 12 after New Hampshire

Put on your helmet, seat belt and HANS device - the Race to the Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup has begun. To mark this milestone, we are going to grade the top 12 Cup drivers in the points standings each week through the end of the season, rather than the top 10. All race and performance references are from Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 300 at New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, N.H.

1. Jeff Gordon, A; 2,613 points. If he could have gotten around Martin Truex Jr. a couple of laps earlier, it might have been a finish for the ages. Instead, Gordon got his fourth second-place finish of the season.

2. Denny Hamlin, A; 2,457. Hooray! Good things happened in the pits for a change. A two-tire call gave Hamlin the lead, and he took care of business from there for his first win of the season.

3. Matt Kenseth, A; 2,248. Started 30th and finished ninth; no other top-10 finisher made up as much ground. He didn't post a fastest lap - the only driver in the top 14 not to do so - but he did lead two laps for five bonus points. Pretty much a typical Kenseth race.

4. Jimmie Johnson, A; 2,232. Johnson raced among the leaders all afternoon and finished fifth. He led 12 laps, and the No. 48 team again flashed its depth in its first of six races without crew chief Chad Knaus.

5. Jeff Burton, A; 2,230. Burton's afternoon was similar to Kenseth's. Burton started 26th and finished seventh. The only difference is Burton didn't lead a lap. With a second consecutive top-10 finish, Burton and the No. 31 team appear to have snapped out of their eight-race malaise that followed their win at Texas.

6. Tony Stewart, B;
2,185. Stewart had a shot at a top-10 finish, but poor entry into his pit stall on lap 255 submarined his chances. He came in 10th, restarted 19th, then spent the rest of the race trying to regain the spots. He finished 12th. Said Stewart: "We had a decent car, but I kind of messed up the last pit stop and that put us behind."

7. Carl Edwards, C; 2,148. Ugh. I was watching the race at a sports bar, and I swear I saw a family of five start and finish eating during that disaster of a pit stop on lap 195. Edwards had the lead when he pitted; he was two laps back when he returned. Carl gets a C, rather than a "team" D - for showing patience in driving back through the field in finishing 13th and for not losing his cool.

8. Kevin Harvick, A; 2,106. Harvick finished eighth, which is pretty close to where he spent most of his afternoon. He was 10th at the midway point, eighth with 30 laps to go and his average running position was 9.5.

9. Kyle Busch, B; 2,040. Busch was the only driver to run the entire race in the top 15. He led 48 laps, second only to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 64. He was first midway through the race but faded to an 11th-place finish.

10. Martin Truex Jr., A; 2,033. Another big day for Truex, who finished third. He led 46 laps, tied with Hamlin for third-most, and his 41 fastest laps were tops. His finishes in the past five races: 3, 24, 2, 3, 1; with the road course at Sonoma as the only blip. After Gordon, no one is hotter.

11. Clint Bowyer, D; 1,986. Kids, this is why it's so important to put away your tools after working in the garage. As he was exiting the pits on lap 120, Bowyer was unable to avoid an impact wrench belonging to Ryan Newman's crew that was in the middle of pit road. The wrench dislodged an oil line from the bottom of Bowyer's engine, and there went Bowyer's day. He finished 37th and dropped two spots in the points standings. The D grade is for dadgumit.

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr., A; 1,985. Junior led a race-high 64 laps, had a race-high 2.7 average running position and finished with a race-high 131.6 driver rating. His 40 fastest laps were second-best. Makes you wonder how he finished fourth. Seriously, great race for the No. 8 team.

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2007 Firecracker 400 Driver Handicaps

Jeff Gordon
– Gordon’s Daytona record speaks for itself; he’s won a total of six point races there, most recently the 2005 Daytona 500. With the Hendrick teams on a roll at the plate tracks, that should make Gordon an automatic contender, right? Not quite; it has to be pointed out that Gordon has finished outside the Top 25 in two of the last four point races here.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin has yet to finish better than seventeenth in any of the six plate races he’s started on the Cup circuit.

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth’s fifth place finish in this race last year was his best points race result at Daytona. He has just five Top 10 finishes in fifteen points-paying races run here.

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson had a streak of four straight Top 6’s at Daytona leading up to his win in the ’06 Daytona 500. (Oddly enough, that one came with his crew chief suspended at the time). But in the two races held there since that win, Johnson has finished 32nd and 39th.

Jeff Burton – Burton’s third place finish in this year’s 500 was his first Top 10 result at the track since 2003. He did win the Firecracker 400 in 2000 while still driving for Jack Roush.

Tony Stewart – Stewart has won the last two Firecracker 400s. In the last seven point races run here, Stewart has six Top 10 finishes, but he crashed and finished dead last in this year’s 500 with what was arguably one of the Top 2 cars in the field.

Carl Edwards
– Edwards’ best Daytona finish in five point race starts was 12th, which he scored, ironically enough, in the first race he drove here.

Kevin Harvick – Harvick won this year’s Daytona 500 – a somewhat unexpected victory considering that it was only his third Top 5 result in twelve point race starts at the track.

Kyle Busch – Busch finished second in this race last year, but his average finish in five Daytona points-paying starts is just 24th.

Martin Truex, Jr. – Truex’s average finish here in four Daytona Cup starts is 27th. He did win the Busch Series July race at Daytona in 2005, and he has three plate wins at Talladega in that series.

Clint Bowyer – Bowyer posted Top 10 finishes in both Daytona points races last year, but finished eighteenth in this year’s 500.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Junior won this race in emotional style back in 2001 after returning to the track for the first time since a last lap accident took his father’s life. That was the highlight of six straight Top 8 finishes heading into this event last year, a streak that was finally broken when Junior finished thirteenth. He didn’t fare any better this year, either, finishing 32nd in the Daytona 500 while never seriously challenging for the win.

Ryan Newman – Newman has just one Top 5 and one additional Top 10 here in eleven career points starts at Daytona. In this year’s 500, the bad luck bug bit again; he popped an engine and finished a disappointing 38th.

Jamie McMurray
– McMurray finished second in the 2005 Firecracker, but in nine total Cup starts here, he has finished 30th or worse seven times. Don’t bet the farm on him this weekend. Hell, I wouldn’t even bet the front door welcome mat.

Kurt Busch – While Busch hasn’t won a points-paying race here, he has finished second twice. All in all, he has five Top 5 finishes in 13 starts and had a strong run going in this year’s 500, leading 95 laps before a run-in with Stewart doomed a promising afternoon.

J.J. Yeley – Yeley struggled here last year but ran notably better en route to a twelfth place finish in February.

Greg Biffle – The records show that Biffle won the 2003 Firecracker 400, but they also reflect that the event was the only time in nine starts that he’s run worth a lick here. In the last six Daytona point races, Biffle hasn’t finished better than 25th.

Bobby Labonte – While Labonte finished second in both 1998 Daytona points-paying races, his average finish here remains 23rd after 29 starts at this track.

Mark Martin
– Strange but true; Martin has started 44 career Cup races at Daytona but has never won an event. He didn’t miss by much here this February, driving to a memorable and razor-close second place finish.

Juan Pablo Montoya – Montoya has finished nineteenth and 31st in the two points-paying Cup plate races he’s run here. He did win at Daytona in February, but it was in a sports car – and a very ugly one at that, as I recall.

Others To Watch

Casey Mears
– Mears ran well here last year, finishing second in the 500 and seventh in this race. But his other seven point race starts here have yielded less than stellar results.

Dale Jarrett / Michael Waltrip – Let the record show that DJ and Waltrip have seven Daytona point race wins between them; however, it’s probably not even worth mentioning considering that it’s rather unlikely either of them will qualify here.

Bill Elliott – Elliott has a bunch of wins here. The Wood Brothers have a lot of wins here. It’s unlikely, but a win certainly would be popular for the 51-year-old veteran.

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Fantasy Picks 'N' Pans: Pepsi 400 Edition

The Nextel Cup circuit heads to Daytona this week for NASCAR’s traditional Independence Day extravaganza. Held on the 2.5-mile tri-oval to mark the end of the season’s first half, the 400-miler gives us a chance to take stock and look back on what’s been a wild and wacky beginning to ’07. Even though the race is no longer held ON the 4th of July, it still involves a prolonged celebration of our country’s independence nonetheless.

As for your fantasy team, it’s a bit of a crapshoot; the Pepsi 400 is a completely different race from the Daytona 500 that kicked off the season. This race is during the heat of the Summer and is run completely at night. It is also the final restrictor plate race in the old style car — the final plate race of the year at Talladega will be run with the Car of Tomorrow.

Looking for the right combination to make sure you light your own fireworks…on the race track itself? We’ve got all the information you’ll ever need in this week’s edition of Fantasy Picks ‘N’ Pans.

Cami’s Race Rewind:

Last year, Tony Stewart did a little fence climbing to celebrate the Fourth of July after winning his second straight Pepsi 400 at Daytona. Stewart, who started from outside the front row, paced the field for 86 laps en route to his second victory of the season. But it wasn’t easy going for Smoke. He had to deal with surprise pole winner Boris Said as the laps wound down, a rookie thinking upset on his mind as he led the race with just ten laps to go. A multi-car wreck set up a three lap sprint to the checkers and Stewart was able to make his move on the white flag lap…just before NASCAR threw another caution for debris that ended the race. The Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, wound up second and third, respectively, just ahead of Said and Elliott Sadler, who rounded out the Top 5 finishers.

Mike’s Keys to the Race:

Racing in the summertime is completely different from racing in the Spring at Daytona. With the track baked by the sun all day long, the asphalt holds heat well into the night, creating a different track temperature than you’d normally see. Daytona is already a handling sensitive race track, but the July race is far more dependent on handling than the 500. The cars still run a restricted engine, too, so the key to running fast is simple: horsepower and aerodynamics.

Plate tracks are still the playground of Chevrolet, so you can expect a bowtie in the Winner’s Circle again on Saturday night. The Hendrick cars are always strong on plate tracks, so Johnson and Gordon are solid picks. Mears and Busch would also make nice second tier picks if you can get them. The Joe Gibbs cars will also be strong; Stewart won this race two years in a row and was the car to beat in February before he was taken out. His teammate Denny Hamlin won the Bud Shootout two years ago. Finally, you cannot overlook RCR driver and 2007 Daytona 500 champion Kevin Harvick. And let’s not leave out DEI. With Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s pedigree and record on the plate tracks, look for him to be a serious contender.

Mike’s Picks:

Crank ‘Em Up:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is still a huge threat any time the Series gets to a restrictor plate track. Fresh off a six week suspension, Junior’s Crew Chief, Tony Eury, Jr., has been looking forward to getting back in time for this race. His return will most likely motivate the team, making Junior a very big threat this weekend. On top of that, the No. 8 car is running a special paint scheme, and that’s all you need to know; those have worked out well for Junior at Daytona in the past. This is the weekend to put Junior in your lineup.

Tony Stewart has won the last two July races at Daytona. He was also the car to beat in February before he was taken out by Kurt Busch. The Summer is always when Stewart heats up, but he hasn’t really turned up the heat yet. Look for him to make a statement by winning three in a row in the July race at Daytona.

Sit ‘Em Down:

Jamie McMurray has had some good runs at Daytona; he even finished second in this race in 2005. However, most of his results have been less than stellar. He has a bad habit of getting caught up in wrecks at plate tracks, and his luck of late has looked like he’s getting ready to do that again. With an average finish of 27.9 at the track, don’t count on him to break out with much this weekend.

Carl Edwards finally broke his winless streak, but he hasn’t looked like he’s ready to break the winless streak on plate tracks. In five races at Daytona, his best finish is 12th. With an average finish of 30th at the track, this is not the weekend to put Edwards in your lineup.

Roll the Dice

Kurt Busch was the second strongest car at Daytona in February, but it is either feast or famine for the driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. Busch has scored two second place finishes, a third and two fourths at Daytona and can obviously get around on plate tracks, but his bad luck has cost him dearly as well. This is reflected by an average finishing position of 22nd. The way the team looked in February, they have to be confident coming into this weekend, and if some cards fall their way, they just might bring Roger Penske his first restrictor plate win.

Cami’s Picks:

Crank ‘Em Up:

Jeff Gordon Gordon said this week that he wasn’t really pleased with his car at Daytona in the 500. Well, considering he still came out of the day with a tenth place finish, the competition should be on notice. Gordon won the season’s earlier plate race at Talladega in April and comes into this weekend’s event as one of the hottest drivers on the circuit. Granted, he won’t have crew chief Steve Letarte on the pit box, but last week showed that it simply doesn’t matter — they will just find a way to work around the problem. With six wins and 16 Top 10s in his 29 Daytona starts, it really doesn’t seem to matter who is on the pit box for the No. 24 team. Clearly, Gordon knows how to get things done at Daytona.

Kevin Harvick: Harvick kicked off the year with a thrilling victory in the Daytona 500, going up high to beat Mark Martin to the line by inches. While RCR isn’t the big plate threat that they used to be, Harvick still knows how to get up front when it counts: He was sixth at Talladega in April and has five Top 10 finishes at Daytona. Look for Harvick to once again be in position to steal away the limelight Saturday night.

Sit ‘Em Down:

Greg Biffle:
Once again, it appears that Biffle will fail to make the cut for the Chase for the second straight year. That is, unless the team gets hot in a hurry, but I don’t look for Daytona to be a springboard for a late season comeback. His win here in 2003 is his only finish in the Top 10 at this track, and he has cracked the Top 20 just one other time. If you’re waiting to use Biffle in the hopes he will suddenly pick up the pace, well…wait until Michigan comes around.

Kyle Busch: During the spring months, Busch seemed to be riding a roller coaster. One week he was up, the next he was down. While he’s steadied the ship somewhat in recent weeks, a trip to Daytona may get the ship rockin’ once again. In five Daytona starts, he has just one Top 10 finish — a second here last year. His overall average finish of 23.6 and a 37th place finish at Talladega in April shouldn’t make you get too excited about using Kyle this weekend.

Roll the Dice

Casey Mears:
Thanks to his win at Charlotte, Mears is starting to look like he really fits in at Hendrick Motorsports. And for the most part (see Kyle Busch above), Hendrick drivers fare very well at Daytona. Mears finished with two Top 10s at Daytona in 2006 but placed a mediocre 20th in February. Still, his win has certainly given this team a renewed confidence and momentum. Look for Casey to possibly have a shot at giving crew chief Darian Grubb win number two at Daytona.

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Earnhardt happy to be back in Daytona
July 5, 2007

Daytona International Speedway always has been a special place to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

He watched his father spend 20 years chasing a victory in the Daytona 500 and come agonizingly close before finally winning NASCAR's biggest event in 1998. Then, the elder Earnhardt lost his life in the 500 in 2001.

But, to Junior, who won the big event in 2004, Daytona has not diminished in his eyes.

``There's so much that comes to mind this week heading to Daytona,'' he said as the Nextel Cup series prepared to race in Saturday night's Pepsi 400. ``First, it's Daytona - which is always a special place for me, no matter what. Then, we're getting Tony (Eury) Jr. back as crew chief.''

Eury spent the last six weeks on suspension after NASCAR discovered unapproved brackets on the rear wing of Earnhardt's Car of Tomorrow at Darlington. Junior was docked 100 points for the violation, but it hasn't hurt him much.

The penalty dropped him from 12th - the final spot in the Chase for the championship - to 14th. But, working with interim crew chief Tony Gibson, Earnhardt has moved back to 12th, and headed into Daytona one point behind 11th-place Clint Bowyer and 127 ahead of 13th-place Ryan Newman.

``Tony Gibson did a great, great job for the last six races, but it's Tony Jr.'s team and I'm looking forward to having him back in the pits and on the radio,'' Earnhardt said. ``We really have a lot of momentum going right now and have been running strong every week, so I don't expect that to change.''

While many people expected Dale Earnhardt Inc. to fold up and die after Junior announced last month that he would leave the team his father founded for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, that has not been the case. Not only has Junior's team shown its strength, but Martin Truex Jr., like Earnhardt a two-time Busch Series champion, suddenly has come of age for DEI.

Truex won his first Cup race last month in Dover and has four finishes of third or better in the last five events. He has climbed to 10th in the season standings. Earnhardt is expecting a lot more from his friend and teammate.

``Martin led during the 500 (in February) and there's no hotter team than those guys right now, so I'm anxious to get out there and see how we work together,'' Earnhardt said. ``It's good to know you've got a teammate that will run up front with you.

``But, on the other hand, we weren't a very strong team in the Daytona 500. We were OK, but OK isn't what we expect or what we're used to at the restrictor-plate tracks.''

Daytona and Talladega, the only tracks where NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars, were DEI's playground for a number of years, with Earnhardt Jr. and then-teammate Michael Waltrip dominating on the big ovals. But that hasn't been the case recently.

``Some of that is almost by design,'' Junior said. ``We used to put so, so much focus on the plate events that we struggled at the intermediate tracks. So we all made a conscious decision that we needed to step up our effort at the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks.

``With only so many resources, time and people to go around, we improved a lot in the last year or so on the intermediates, but it meant we weren't as dominant as we used to be at the superspeedways. It was like selling your soul to win all of those restrictor-plate races and then trading some of it back to be better everywhere else.''

SECOND TIME AROUND: The Pepsi 400 was to offer Toyota its first repeat visit to a Nextel Cup track.

The Japanese auto maker, which joined NASCAR's top series this season, has struggled through the first half of the year, with its teams having trouble qualifying for races and only three top-10 finishes - two by Brian Vickers and one by Michael Waltrip - to show for its efforts.

``We're definitely looking forward to the second half of the season,'' said Andy Graves, NASCAR program manager for Toyota Racing Development. ``We feel like it's going to be much better for us.

``We've tried to measure our competition and evaluate where we stand. Obviously, we want to be more competitive than we are today and that's just the racer mentality in all of us. Now, we start going back to the tracks we've already visited and our teams can start accessing the databases they've been building. That will be huge for all of us.''

Toyota did get its first Cup pole last week at New Hampshire, where Dave Blaney took the top spot in qualifying.

HOME BOY: Cup rookie David Reutimann grew up in Zephyrhills, Fla., about 130 miles from Daytona and the track he dreamed of competing on when he was a youngster.

The dream came true in February, when Reutimann, driving a Toyota Camry for Michael Waltrip Racing, made the field for the Daytona 500. He wound up crashing out and finishing 40th, but that didn't diminish the thrill.

``I cannot describe the joy I felt when we made the Daytona 500,'' Reutimann said. ``I used to be that guy sitting in the stands wishing I was inside the garage and that wasn't long ago.

``I owe a lot to (Darrell Waltrip) and Michael. They took a chance on me and I'll never forget that. DW gave me a full-time truck ride for three years and Michael gave me the chance to go Busch and Cup racing full-time and, for that, I am grateful.''

Reutimann has managed to qualify for 11 of 17 races so far. He sees progress for the struggling three-car team.

``The organization has come a long way,'' Reutimann said. ``Things keep getting better every week with our car.''

STAT OF THE WEEK: Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart headed into Saturday night's race - which he has won the past two years - without a victory in 2007. The last time it took Stewart this long to win a race was 1999, his rookie season.

That year, Stewart needed 25 races to win his first race. He ended the season with three wins. That seemed to set a trend. In 2000, Stewart won six races, beginning with race 13.

Only twice has Stewart won a race before the 11th event of the season. In 2002, he won the fourth race of the year at Atlanta and, last year, he won the sixth race at Martinsville.

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Stewart: Winning A Matter Of Time

The last time it took Tony Stewart this long to win a race, he was new to NASCAR.

In 1999, Stewart’s rookie season, he needed 25 races to win his first race. He ended the season with three wins, beginning a trend as a late-coming, wins-in-bunches type driver.

In 2000, Stewart won six races, starting with race 13.

Only twice has Stewart won a race before the 11th race of the season – in 2002 he won the fourth race of the season at Atlanta and last year, he won the sixth race at Martinsville.

In other words, there’s no reason to panic for Stewart, who is heading to Saturday night’s Pepsi 400 – the 18th race of the 2007 season – looking for his first win.

Even better news for Stewart: the Pepsi 400 takes place at Daytona International Speedway, a track at which he’s excelled. Stewart has won the event the past two years and this Saturday night looks to join David Pearson as the only drivers to win three consecutive Pepsi 400s.

Stewart, in leading the last seven Daytona races, has racked up impressive stats there: Driver Rating of 120.5 (first), 8.1 Average Running Position (first), 31 Fastest Laps Run (second), Fastest Green Flag Speed, 733 Laps in the Top 15 (first).

Stewart also owns some of the single-race records at Daytona since Loop Data’s inception in 2005. Take a look at the top-five single race track bests in three key categories:

Additionally, during his 2005 Pepsi 400 victory, Stewart spent all 160 laps in the top 15. Only Stewart and Jimmie Johnson accomplished the feat that race.

This season’s Daytona 500, which was the closest Daytona 500 since the advent of electronic scoring in 1993, Kevin Harvick beat Mark Martin by .020 of-a-second.

Arguably, the more impressive part of the story is the comeback made by Harvick at the end of that race. With 20 laps to go, Harvick was in 29th place. With the win, he earned 28 ‘Closer’ positions – positions improved in the last 10% of the race.

In the overall Closer standings, three drivers currently in the top 12 of the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series standings are in the top five of the Closer standings. Below is the top five, along with how many positions they improved.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

The Race to the Chase – the final 10 races prior to the Chase for the NEXTEL Cup – continues, as drivers outside the top 12 have nine more races to make a move. This Saturday night’s Daytona race seems like the perfect time for some of the “bubble” drivers to gain some ground.

Ryan Newman (in 13th), Jamie McMurray (14th) and Kurt Busch (15 th) all have better Driver Ratings over the last five Daytona races than Kyle Busch (ninth), Martin Truex Jr. (10th) and Clint Bowyer (11th), who are all less than 200 points inside the Chase cutoff. And both Newman and Busch have better Driver Ratings than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is in 12th.

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DEI to light up Daytona
FOX Sports

Restrictor-plate racing is always a high-speed chess game, but these cars are expendable because it's the last plate race with the current car. At Talladega this fall, teams will be driving the Car of Tomorrow.

Since teams won't need these cars anymore, there's no reason to save them. You don't want to be stupid, but if they make a mistake, they're going for it. That "going for it" attitude will set the table for one of the biggest Saturday night parties that we've ever seen at Daytona. We're going to get a second opportunity to see the Fourth of July because the fireworks are going to be huge with expendable race cars.

Who to Watch

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.: If Dale Earnhardt Inc. has been working on its restrictor-plate program, which I believe they have because their overall program is looking so much better all of the sudden, these drivers should be the favorites this week. Earnhardt and Truex are continuing to impress when some thought DEI was going to roll over and play dead after Dale Jr. announced that he was leaving on May 10. It hasn't been that way at all. Dale Jr. loves this plate track, and it's going to be exciting to watch him run his last Daytona race for DEI.

Tony Stewart: Sitting sixth in points, "Smoke" is one of only three drivers in the top 12 without a win, and it's about time for him to win after running as well as he has without going to victory lane. At the season's halfway point, it's time for Stewart to start flexing his muscles, like he's done in years past. Daytona will be hot and slick, and during last week's qualifying show, Stewart said the hotter, slicker and more difficult the race, that's when the real race car drivers show up. He's definitely a race car driver so this track may be exactly what he's looking for.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon: The Hendrick drivers will be wide open, looking to do what they've done in the past when they've had their backs against the wall with team penalties.

What to Watch

Wide-open races: While it's going to be fast and slick under the lights, drivers want a car that runs around Daytona wide-open and handles well. Many July 4th weekend races have been won because the driver can hold it wide open. That's the most important aspect of this race.

Pack mentality: Teams will work strategy to get their drivers in position to run with a good group of guys toward the front. When a car that's just off a hair on setup or down just a little bit on horsepower, it's so much easier to get in between a couple of drivers that know what they're doing.

Getting a handle: If your car handles well, it allows your driver to do things that most people can't do without fresh tires.

Front-runners: No matter how fast your car is, putting it at the back of a bunch of hungry animals this weekend is a recipe for disaster.

Race to the Chase

With nine races until the Chase for the Nextel Cup starts, some drivers in the top 12 will "safety up" from here on out. They will try to just get top-five finishes and build on their point situation to get through Richmond. Other drivers, like Ryan Newman, are on the outside looking in and need wins to get into the Chase and then use the 10 bonus points for each win to stay in the Chase race. You're going to see some unique strategies over the final nine races that should provide some really good racing, and drivers will make each other mad because there's going to be some pushing and shoving to get the job done. It's not going to be an easy stretch — both physically and mentally — for these race car drivers and teams.

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Driver Handicaps: Daytona

This weekend the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series heads back to Daytona International Speedway for the Pepsi 400. To help you make your Dale Jr. Reality Cup Racing fantasy picks, RacingOne brings you our weekly detailed look at some of the field for the 160-lap event.

Who's HOT at Daytona

Jeff Gordon leads all drivers with six wins, with three coming in the Pepsi 400.

Tony Stewart led a combined 237 laps en route to consecutive Pepsi 400 victories in 2005 and 2006.

Jimmie Johnson has the best average finish (12.2) among drivers with four or more starts.

Kevin Harvick captured his third top five with a win in this year's Daytona 500.

Kyle Busch leads all drivers with 712 quality passes in the last five races.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finished eighth or better in six of his last eight starts.

Keep an Eye on at Daytona

David Gilliland won the pole and finished eighth in his first Daytona start earlier this year.

Kurt Busch will return in the same car that led 95 laps in this year's Daytona 500 before getting caught up in an accident.

Ryan Newman has spent 668 laps in the top 15 in the last five Daytona races.

Mark Martin finished second in his first Daytona start with Ginn Racing in Feburary.

Martin Truex Jr., who led 13 laps at Daytona in Feburary, has finished third or better in four of his last five races in 2007.

Roush Fenway Racing's only two Daytona victories have come in the Pepsi 400.

Runnin It'

Every team will be running this weekend's car for the last time as the Car of Tomorrow will be implemented on plate tracks starting at Talladega in October. A majority will be bringing back the same chassis that competed in this year's Daytona 500, while some are opting to bring their Talladega car. Kevin Harvick is one that will be racing his Talladega car because his 500 winning car is currently sitting in the Daytona 500 Experience.

Daytona Rookie Report

David Ragan was the top finishing rookie in the Daytona 500. In fact, his fifth-place finish is his only top 10 in his NEXTEL Cup career. In his second career NEXTEL Cup start, rookie leader Juan Pablo Montoya finished 19th in the Daytona 500. David Reutimann was the only other Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate that started the 500. He finished 40th. Rookie Standings

Qualifying Tidbits

Robert Yates Racing teammates David Gilliland and Ricky Rudd swept the front row for this year's Daytona 500. For Gilliland it was his second career pole. Jeff Burton won the pole for the 2006 Daytona 500 after turning the fastest NEXTEL Cup qualifying lap at Daytona in six years. It was the second consecutive pole for Chevrolet and fourth for Richard Childress Racing over the last 10 Daytona races. Boris Said is the defending Pepsi 400 pole winner. Sterling Marlin won the last pole for Dodge in 2001. Dale Jarrett is the last driver to sweep both poles at Daytona, accomplishing the feat in 2000. Past Pole Winners | Starting Positions of Daytona Winners

Track Performers

Jeff Gordon leads all active drivers in wins (11) and laps led (1297) on restrictor-plate tracks. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is second with seven wins and has the best average finish among drivers with four or more plate starts at 13.3 in 31 appearances (including NHIS in 2000). Dale Jarrett surpassed Sterling Marlin for third in career plate wins in the October Talladega event with his sixth win. Marlin is the active pole winner on plate tracks with seven. Jimmie Johnson became the eighth driver to win back-to-back restrictor-plate races, with his wins in the 2006 Daytona 500 and Aaron's 499.

Top 20 Driver Notes - Based on Current Standings

1. Jeff Gordon
(Points: 2613): Gordon is seeking his fourth win in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. He led a career high 72 laps at Daytona in his first 400 win. He followed up his last Pepsi 400 win in 2004 with his third Daytona 500 win the next season. Overall, in 29 races, Gordon has six wins (most among active drivers), 16 top 10s and has held the lead in 21 races for 497 laps. His third and last DNF at Daytona came in this event last year. His 15.8 finishing average is tied with Dale Jarrett for best among all active drivers that have started every Daytona race since 1998.

2. Denny Hamlin (Points Behind: -156): Since winning the Budweiser Shootout in 2006, Hamlin has yet to post a top-15 finish in three career points paying races at Daytona International Speedway. Hamlin will be racing chassis No. 90 for the third time at Daytona. This car started ninth in this year's Daytona 500 and was a contender until fender damage and a late-race accident relegated Hamlin to a 28th-place finish.

3. Matt Kenseth (Points Behind: -365): Kenseth's last of five top top-10 finishes at Daytona International Speedway came in the last two Pepsi 400's. In this year's Daytona 500, Kenseth appeared to be on his way to a top five until he was caught up in a last lap accident. He will return in that same car (chassis No. RK-327) that finished 27th in the 500, but it's also the same car that finished fifth in the 2006 Pepsi 400. The car will carry the colors of R+L Carriers.

4. Jimmie Johnson (Points Behind: -381): Since winning the Daytona 500 in 2006, Johnson has finished 32nd and 39th, respectively, at Daytona International Speedway. The win was his seventh top 10 in 11 starts at the superspeedway. His previous best finish came in the 2004 Pepsi 400 after he started 19th and finished second to his teammate Jeff Gordon. Johnson's 12.2 average finish tops all drivers that have entered more than four events at Daytona. This weekend Johnson will drive the same car (chassis No. 48383) that finished first and second, respectively, in the last two races in April at Talladega.

5. Jeff Burton (Points Behind: -383): Burton won the pole in his 25th career start at Daytona International Speedway. He has one career win at DIS (2000 Pepsi 400) and eight top 10s. In February he finished third, marking his first top 10 in five starts at Daytona with Richard Childress Racing. In fact, he will be returning in his Daytona 500 car (chassis No. 177) for Saturday's Pepsi 400.

6. Tony Stewart (Points Behind: -428): If Stewart can win on Saturday, he will join David Pearson as the only drivers to win three consecutive Pepsi 400s. This weekend's race will mark his 18th start at Daytona. He was leading this year's Daytona 500 until he took himself, along with chassis No. 70, out on a lap 153 crash. The Home Depot Team has another strong car ready for Saturday's Pepsi 400 in chassis No. 119. This is the same car that won this year's Budweiser Shootout. In the last two Pepsi 400s Stewart has led a combined 237 laps.

7. Carl Edwards (Points Behind: -465): Edwards scored his best finish in five starts at Daytona International Speedway in the 2005 Daytona 500 when he finished 12th. His best performance at the speedway came in the Craftsman Truck Series when he won the 2004 Florida Dodge Dealers 250. This weekend's chassis (No. RK-287) is the same one Edwards drove to a 23rd-place finish in this year's Daytona 500.

8. Kevin Harvick (Points Behind: -507): After finishing fourth on two occasions, Harvick finally broke through with that elusive first Daytona victory in this year's 500. The victory marked his fifth top 10 in 12 career starts. Harvick led a personal best at Daytona, 54 laps, in the 2003 Pepsi 400, equaling his best finish, of ninth, in the 400-mile race. With his winning car sitting in the Daytona 500 Experience, Harvick will be running the same chassis (No. 161) that finished sixth at Talladega earlier this season.

9. Martin Truex Jr. (Points Behind: -580): Daytona International Speedway hasn't been kind to Truex in the Cup Series where he has yet to score a top 10 in four starts. He will look to continue his recent hot streak driving the same car (chassis No. 035) that was running strong in February until getting caught up in a wreck.

10. Kyle Busch (Points Behind: -598): Busch's only finish inside the top 20 in five starts at Daytona International Speedway came in this event last year when he came home second. Although he was involved in an accident in this year's Daytona 500, Busch had an average running position of 4.614 through out the race. This weekend he will be racing the car (chassis No. 391) that was sitting in the hauler during the 500 as the backup car.

11. Clint Bowyer (Points Behind: -627): Bowyer has captured two top-10 finishes in three career starts at Daytona International Speedway. In fact, he will be returning in the same car (chassis No. 160) that finished 10th in last year's Pepsi 400. He finished 18th, and on his roof, earlier this season at Daytona after a last lap melee.

12. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Points Behind: -628): Earnhardt Jr. will be making his 16th start at Daytona International Speedway, where he has two wins and nine top 10s and an average finish of 12.7. His first Daytona victory came in the 2001 Pepsi 400 after leading a career-best 116 laps at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Saturday's Pepsi 400 will be Dale Jr's 31st superspeedway restrictor-plate race. His plate resume consists of 858 laps led, 18 top 10s and seven wins.

13. Ryan Newman (Points Behind: -755): Newman captured his second top-10 finish at Daytona International Speedway with a career-best third-place finish in the 2006 Daytona 500. In that event, he also led more than two laps for the first time at DIS when he held the No. 12 Dodge up front for 23 laps. This weekend Newman will return in the same car that was running in the top five in this year's Daytona 500 before a crack in the radiator took him out of contention. Newman does have two wins at DIS, one each in the ARCA and IROC series.

14. Jamie McMurray (Points Behind: -812): McMurray's only finishes inside the top 30 in nine starts at Daytona International Speedway came in the last two Pepsi 400's. Prior to his second-place finish in 2005, he posted three DNFs - two for accidents and one for mechanical failure - with his best finish of 32nd coming in the 2005 Daytona 500. In his three track starts with Roush Racing he has posted an average finish of 25.3 with accidents taking him out of contention in the two 500-mile events with the team. He will drive the same car (chassis RK-192) that most recently finished fifth at Talladega.

15. Kurt Busch (Points Behind: -864): Busch's best finish with Penske Racing came in this event last year when he finished third. His two Daytona 500 starts with the team have resulted in accidents, finishing 38th and 41st, respectively. In this year's Daytona 500, Busch had one of his strongest runs going, leading 95 laps up until he was caught up in an accident with Tony Stewart. The team was able to repair that chassis (No. PSC-068) and it will return to action this weekend at Daytona.

16. J.J. Yeley (Points Behind: -912): Yeley bounced back from a rough two first starts at Daytona International Speedway, to finish 12th in this year's Daytona 500. He will return in that same car (chassis No. 72) in the Pepsi 400.

17. Greg Biffle (Points Behind: -927): Biffle captured his first NEXTEL Cup win in the 2003 Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway. The victory is his only top-10 finish in nine races at the 2.5-mile speedway. It was also the first of three times that Biffle has led a lap at Daytona after he led for 21 circuits. Biffle will race the same car (chassis No. RK-422) that started 25th and finished 25th in this year's Daytona 500.

18. Bobby Labonte (Points Behind: -933): Labonte will be making his fourth Daytona start with Petty Enterprises in Saturday's Pepsi 400. In his first two starts with the team he finished 35th and 42nd, respectively, after getting caught up in an accidents. Labonte, who finished 21st in this year's Daytona 500, has made 27 starts at Daytona International Speedway capturing eight top-10 finishes.

19. Juan Pablo Montoya (Points Behind: -951): Montoya had an interesting day in his first start at Daytona International Speedway in February. After starting 36th, Montoya battled a tight race car and lost every gear except fourth and finished 19th. He will return in that same car (chassis No. 603) in the Pepsi 400.

20. Mark Martin (Points Behind: -951): Martin will make his 45th career start at Daytona International Speedway this weekend. He has never scored a victory in NEXTEL Cup competition at Daytona, but finished a best second in this year's Daytona 500. He will get another shot at a win driving the No. 01 Chevrolet for Ginn Racing on Saturday. Overall, Martin has one pole, nine top-five and 16 top-10 finishes at DIS.

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Pepsi 400 HOT! Sheet    
There is no doubt about who should be at the top of our sheet this week. That’s because the numbers that Martin Truex, Jr. have put up recently have been outstanding. He posted his first victory of his career at Dover. The two weeks after he was scored 3rd and 2nd. The team had a temporary slip-up on the road course when he fell back to 24th. But then came a nice rebound last week at New Hampshire when he led for a while and went home 3rd. His rise up the charts should continue this Saturday night.

If you’re looking for a decent sleeper this week you may want to add Robby Gordon to your roster. His final results are not a reflection of his performances. He has been competitive week after week but has caught some bad luck along the way. A perfect illustration of that came at Infineon Raceway a couple of weeks ago when he was way out in front of the pack, but then came the fuel mileage issue that forced him to place 16th. The night race at Daytona has always been more kind to him than the day race so look for him to be a factor.

After falling into a three race slump in the middle of May, Kyle Busch has turned things back around. At Darlington, Charlotte, and Dover he had an average finish of 28th. But in the four races since, he has an 8.25 average finish. At Pocono and Sonoma he came in 8th. At Michigan he was up front all day and placed 6th. Last week he led for 48 laps before going home 11th. Last year in this race he was the runner-up. Don’t be surprised if he ups it by one and takes the checkers this time.

At the other end of the spectrum this week is Joe Nemechek. His season has been absolutely horrible so far. In fact, he is on the verge of falling out of the top 35 which would mean he would be forced to qualify his way in the race each week. The team has yet to finish inside the top 10 and has only three top 15s all year, including just one in the last 15 events. Even when he qualified well at Michigan (5th) the misfortunes still followed him as he went two laps down and went home 30th. Until he can show signs of improvement we advise you to stay away.

Another guy finding hard times this year is Elliott Sadler. After a 6th place finish in the Daytona 500, he has placed inside the top 20 only five times. As you can see on our sheet, his average finish in the last three events is about 27th. At Michigan, he fell four laps down and ended up 35th. The road course brought a little improvement as he placed 14th. But it was back to frustration at New Hampshire when he was shown 3 laps behind the leaders in 33rd. As we said earlier, Daytona was kind to him in February. However, we still can’t recommend putting him on your roster.

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Daytona Magic

It has been a while since the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series raced on anything quite like Daytona International Speedway. Three out of the last four races have been either flat tracks or road courses. The series has not taken to a restrictor-plate track since they were at Talladega SuperSpeedway in April.

This week, drivers have to change from the Car of Tomorrow (COT) back to the old car. This means fantasy owners will need to change mental gears right along with the teams, because there will be a new crop of contenders this week.

There is no doubt that the teams with the most money win on the SuperSpeedways. Hopefully the COT will help change that beginning this fall at Talladega, but for now, it takes a special car dedicated to restrictor-plate racing and powerful engines to make a run at the checkered flag at Daytona or Talladega.

That costs big dollars.

What some of the smaller teams have done in recent years is buy their engines from the "big boys." These teams, such as Ginn Racing and Hall of Fame Racing, are considered satellite operations because of their ties to Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing. Fantasy owners will want to keep in mind where teams get their motors because anyone running a strong engine has a chance to find the right draft and get to the front at Daytona.


Chevrolet tends to dominate the restrictor-plate races, but Ford and Dodge have been putting cars inside the top 10 on a regular basis lately. This week, keep an eye out for a few drivers in Fusions and Avengers who will be in the middle of the fight all night.

Tony Stewart may not have a Daytona 500 trophy, but he has owned the SuperSpeedway when the sun sets. Two years ago, he set a new record for number of laps led by a single driver en route to his first victory at the Florida track. Last season, he made a return trip to the winner's circle after being nearly as strong. If it was not for a crash while he was leading this year's Daytona 500, Stewart would have seven consecutive top-10s there.

Kurt Busch is one frustrated guy these days. He and Stewart were the best in the Daytona 500 when they wrecked while running one-two. That has set the tone for Busch in 2007, who routinely has strong cars only to have defeat snatched from the jaws of victory by bad luck. He will exorcise his demons on Saturday. Since taking over the No. 2 Dodge, he has three top-fives and four top-10s in six SuperSpeedway starts. He was third in last year's Pepsi 400 and was a contender at Talladega before the race ended under caution.


The dark horse picks are plentiful on a SuperSpeedway. With the cars running two- and three-wide for most of the race, all it takes is for a driver to get the right push to get to the front of the pack. Once door-to-door in the lead draft in the final laps, practically anyone has a chance to win the lottery that is Daytona.

David Gilliland has made only three career starts on the restrictor plate tracks, but he is proving that he can overcome his inexperience. He was 15th in his first time out at Talladega, and then ran in the lead draft almost all day—even after suffering damage—and finished eighth in the Daytona 500. In April, he earned a career-best finish of fourth in his return trip to 'Dega, all of this after posting the fastest time in qualification in each race. Actually, he tied Jeff Gordon to the thousandth of a second at Talladega this spring to tie the pole-winning speed. With Robert Yates Racing's strength on the SuperSpeedways, expect Gilliland and Ricky Rudd to put their noses inside the top 10.

Mark Martin did not have the strongest car in the Daytona 500, but he looked awfully fast in the final stages, before finishing second to Kevin Harvick. He makes his return to the restrictor-plate tracks this week after skipping Talladega. The No. 01 Chevrolet has Hendrick Motorsports power under the hood and that has helped the Ginn Racing camp on the big tracks. In April, his teammate Sterling Marlin kept pace with the leaders and earned a rare top-20. Look for Martin to keep quiet in the early stages of the Pepsi 400 and find the right drafting partner to get to the front when it counts the most.

Avoidance Principal

Toyota has made leaps and bounds when comparing their recent numbers to where they were in the Daytona 500. In May, they decided to reconfigure their engine package and it has helped their teams. However, tracks like Daytona and Talladega pull so many RPMs for so long that even if a team finds power, they are playing Russian roulette with the engine. Remember that at Talladega, David Reutimann was running third when his engine expired in the closing laps of the Aaron's 499. So far on the SuperSpeedways, no Toyota has been better than Dale Jarrett's 22nd in February and that is not likely to change this week. Avoid all the Toyota teams this week.

Greg Biffle usually gets onto fantasy rosters on the SuperSpeedways because of his Pepsi 400 win as a rookie in 2003. That statistic is misleading. While he did run toward the front in that race, he won on that day by virtue of good fuel mileage, not car strength. What's more is that he has not had a single top-10 and only three top-20s on the restrictor-plate tracks in the four years since he got to victory lane. Do not expect him to be a contender unless he gets very lucky.

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Nextel Cup midseason report

NASCAR races Saturday in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the halfway point of the 36-race Nextel Cup schedule. That means it's a perfect time for Miami Herald sportswriter Sarah Rothschild's analysis:


It's difficult to pick anyone but Jeff Gordon, who has four victories and hasn't shown signs of slowing, despite penalties stemming from unapproved modifications to his car nearly two weeks ago. He managed to pull off a seventh-place finish on the Sonoma, Calif., road course, even after starting in the back, and he nearly defeated Denny Hamlin on Sunday in Loudon, N.H., without regular crew chief Steve Letarte, who is serving a six-race suspension stemming from the Sonoma race.


In their first season of Cup racing, the seven new Toyota teams, for the most part, continue to struggle, and it's not too early to believe they could have trouble qualifying for races next season. None of Toyota's seven drivers is guaranteed to start in Saturday's Pepsi 400 because all are outside of the top 35. Failure to crack the top 35 likely will get harder as the season progresses, which could lead to the same problems next season -- getting a chance to start races.


Miami resident Juan Pablo Montoya seems to be separating himself from fellow rookies David Ragan (Roush Fenway Racing), Paul Menard (DEI), David Reuitmann (Michael Waltrip Racing), A.J. Allmendinger (Team Red Bull) and part-timer Regan Smith (Ginn Motorsports). Montoya has won a race and posted three top-10s. He holds a 190-176 edge over Ragan in the Rookie of the Year race.


After struggling early, Martin Truex Jr. has given DEI hope that he is worthy of being its No. 1 driver after Dale Earnhardt Jr. bolts to Hendrick Motorsports at season's end. In his second full season, Truex has had monster results recently. In the past five races, he earned his first Cup victory and has three top-three finishes. Before that, he had only two top-10 finishes in the season's first 12 races.


NASCAR has cracked down on cheating by increasing the penalties, but in most cases this season, it hasn't hurt the punished teams -- at least statistically. Without their regular crew chiefs, Gordon, Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. proved it by finishing in the top five Sunday in Loudon, N.H. Without crew chief Tony Eury Jr. for six races, Earnhardt Jr. had a top-10 and two top-five finishes. Earlier this season, Matt Kenseth, had three top-10 finishes, including a victory, in four races without crew chief Robbie Reiser.

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Fast Don't Survive at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - The day ended poorly for the "go or go homers" Friday at Daytona International Speedway.

Despite holding the first seven spots on the speedcharts, a group of drivers who needed to make Saturday night's Pepsi 400 on time have nothing to show for their efforts.

Rain forced NASCAR officials to cancel the qualifying session when only 39 of the 53 cars in the garage area were able to qualify.

That means the grid for Saturday night's race will be set by points and the rulebook, a disappointing development for the group needing to qualify on time, led by Boris Said, who had the chance for his second straight Pepsi 400 pole washed away.

Said's lap of 185.605 mph was the best of the abbreviated session followed by Dave Blaney, Jeremy Mayfield, Kenny Wallace, Michael Waltrip, Scott Riggs and David Reutimann.

"I'm disappointed," Said said. "The biggest loss is that we had a chance to be in the Bud Shootout again. That would've been a pretty big thrill. We put so much work in this car, and now we have the most expensive show car ever built."

The weather development put Jeff Gordon, who was 30th in the rundown at the time, on the pole by virtue of his lead in the NEXTEL Cup point standings.

With most of the top drivers in points like Gordon qualifying on race setups, the rain also moved the likes of Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Clint Bowyer from the back to the front.

Earlier in the day qualifying was halted for a rain shower in Turn 1 when the 14th qualifier J.J. Yeley made his attempt. Since rain fell during his lap, Yeley was able to come back when qualifying resumed.

Saturday night's Pepsi 400 is scheduled to take the green flag at 8 p.m. (ET).

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Mac Track: Chevy has handle on plate races

Although it's the last restrictor-plate race for the current car, drivers and teams won't race any differently.

We go to a lot of racetracks twice a year, and a lot of them have different weather from one race to the other. Even though Saturday's race is at night, Daytona International Speedway is so much hotter, greasier and slicker than it is in February so it's almost as much of a handling race as a race at Michigan and Fontana.

A lot of teams take different cars to Daytona in July than they run in the Daytona 500. While you want to have low drag — especially during qualifying (Friday at 4:10 p.m. ET on SPEED) — the drivers that are locked into the top 35 on owner points really don't have to worry what it drives like for two laps.

When they drop the green flag on Saturday night, handling is at a premium. The driver that goes to victory lane on Saturday night probably won't talk about how fast his car was or how great his engine ran. He'll probably talk about how well it handled all night long.

Who to Watch

# Chevrolet has dominated restrictor plate races over the last few years, and I look for it to be a Chevrolet-dominated race on Saturday night. Hendrick Motorsports: All of the Hendrick cars are going to be tough, but the Hendrick cars didn't run well in February. They did not even race very well, but then they turned around, came back and ran well at Talladega with Jeff Gordon winning the race so look for those Hendrick cars to figure out what they were missing in February.

# Dale Earnhardt Inc.: The DEI cars should run well. They certainly haven't been as dominant on restrictor plate tracks lately as they were earlier this decade, but they will still run awfully well.

# Richard Childress: The Childress cars don't qualify well at restrictor plate tracks, but their race package is very good. Since Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500, we absolutely know that he'll be one of the drivers without the same car because it's sitting in Daytona USA.

# Tony Stewart: The Gibbs cars are going to do well. Stewart is trying to do something that only one other driver, David Pearson from 1972-1974, has done, winning three consecutive Pepsi 400s. That's hard to do.

# Kurt Busch: If there's one non-Chevrolet team that will do well, it's the No. 2 team. In February, he either had the best or the second-best car. Since his first day of running Cup cars at Daytona and Talladega, Busch has absolutely understood the draft and has done a really good job of taking something that isn't 100 percent at a restrictor plate track and making it good because of how well he understands the draft. He and Stewart had the best race cars in the Daytona 500, but Stewart got loose, Busch got into him and wiped out both cars.

# Mark Martin: It'll be interesting to see if Martin can repeat the performance that he had in February, obviously coming up just a few feet short of winning the Daytona 500.

What to Watch

# Two agendas for impound: The impound format at this restrictor plate race is unique, especially on qualifying day. A lot of the go-or-go-home drivers will push the envelope hard because they're trying to get in the race, and they know that the 35 cars locked in on owner points will only be worried about setting their cars up for the race. One of the go-or-go-homers last year, Boris Said, sat on the pole because they were on full kill. Look at how well the go-or-go-homers qualified at Talladega back in April. Michael Waltrip was 20th-fastest and did not make the show because seven other drivers raced their way into the top 19 qualifying positions. It's a fine line at Talladega and a little bit more of a fine line at Daytona. Without the Duel 150 qualifying races, these drivers have to sacrifice race practice just to get the car in the show. Those drivers that make the race will make wholesale changes Saturday night during their first pit stop when handling is more important than speed.

# To adjust or not to adjust: Aero is a huge deal at Daytona, but teams have to think really hard before they make chassis adjustments. Is a change going to help me chassis-wise and hurt my aero, or is this going to help my aero and hurt my chassis? You have to constantly think about those pros and cons.

# Pit window: The window for fuel will be 50-51 laps with 7 miles per gallon, possibly running the race in two pit stops. There probably won't be any speed in taking four tires necessarily, but those fresh tires will provide the necessary grip and maneuverability to move around the track and find the right line.

# : Last year, the 400-mile Daytona race was run with the 13 1/2-gallon fuel cell. This year, teams will be able to go much further with a 19-gallon fuel tank. Some teams will roll the dice and change just two tires. But handling is so important that I'd be willing to be teams will take four tires every time they come to pit road, especially with the bigger cell.

# Pit together: At most tracks, teams want to pit by themselves. You don't want the aggravation of somebody on pit road with you. With the draft at Daytona and Talladega, you want partners to come to pit road so you can leave together and get back up to speed in the draft. You don't want too many cars on pit road because it becomes so congested that you lose time. Plus, you've got to make sure that you and the drivers with whom you are pitting have the same strategy. If you hit pit road with five or six cars, and you change four tires while they change two, it's a moot point. They're going to beat you off of pit road and leave you sitting in the wind.

# Stay in bounds: Daytona is one of only two tracks an out-of-bounds yellow line on the apron. NASCAR will tell you that you've got to treat the inside line like it's a wall. Later in the race, people get lured down there, trying to gain positions. As long as you don't gain a position, NASCAR doesn't have a problem if you dip below that line. Or if you do go below the line, you must give it back, or you'll be penalized.

# Know when to bump: Bump-drafting, or getting into the car in front of you, is OK as long as you don't start slam-drafting and as long as you don't start turning down in the corners or in the middle of the corners. Over the last few years, one of the biggest concerns is the difference bump-drafting, which is fine on the straightaways, vs. slam-drafting or bump-drafting down in the middle of the corner at 190 mph.
Speed Mail Larry McReynolds

# Engines weather the storm: The engine tuners worry about the weather the most, especially at a restrictor plate race. Temperature, barometric pressure and humidity factor into how the engines are tuned. During Fourth of July weekend at Daytona, you're probably going to get a thundershower every afternoon. If you don't like the weather in Florida, just wait five or 10 minutes, and you'll probably get what you're looking for.

Setting a new standard?

The TNT crew rehearsed our wide-open coverage, and we're doing it again during Friday's Busch race. The announcers won't notice a difference, other than getting more air time. The real challenge will be for the production team to get into a rhythm. It's a tough situation from a production standpoint, but we're all excited and anticipating how it will work. Like Turner Senior Vice President of Production Jeff Behnke said, we've only got one shot to get it right.

The bottom line is just two or three cautions will allow TNT to show every green-flag lap. Even if it went caution-free, you would still miss only 13 or 14 of 160 laps. I was always a little bit skeptical about it, but once I saw how it actually worked during the rehearsal, I realized that it could be huge and definitely take race broadcasts to the next level.

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