Is it possible the Coke Zero 400 could become even wilder than before?
Drivers generally are on the chip for restrictor-plate racing. There’s probably no other race in which drivers have less control over their destinies than they do at Daytona and Talladega.
Clint Bowyer says he doesn’t “have a clue what’s going to happen” on Saturday. But what Bowyer and his fellow 42 competitors know all too well is, “It’s always going to come down to the end of this thing.”
“There’s going to be a hell of a wreck and a wild finish,” Bowyer said. “There always is and there always will be."
And with the clock ticking down the races before the Chase to the Sprint Cup, the 11 drivers among the top 20 in the points without wins will be looking to make something happen.
Jeff Gordon has qualified for all but one Chase (2005) since the program launched in 2004. In 2006, NASCAR expanded its "playoff” field from 10 drivers to 12 after two of its most popular drivers — Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. — failed to qualify.
Although Gordon currently sits 12th in the point standings, just two points outside of 10th place, another twist to the program in 2011 to preserve the last two positions for drivers that have won a race but are not consistent enough to land among the top 10 could still knock him out of contention.
Still, Gordon likes his odds. But without a win, he can’t afford to play it too safe.
“I would rather be here honestly than maybe eighth,” said Gordon, who qualified 23rd for Saturday. “I feel at eighth you can be a little too conservative, and trying to maintain in that top 10. For us, we are so tight among us … ninth and 10th and further back — we don’t have any choice but to go out there and go hard and be aggressive.”
Bowyer, who is third in the point standings, is more secure point-wise than Gordon. But it’s still surprising that he’s 17 races into the season without a win.
Although he trails point leader Jimmie Johnson by 41, his cushion from 11th place is a comfortable 91 markers. But it weighs on Bowyer that’s it’s been 22 races since his last win.
"It’s starting to get serious,” Bowyer said. “I’m not going to lie. It’s starting to be enough that you are paying attention. I don’t know — you’ve got to keep digging, and you’ve got to keep trying. You’ve got to keep putting yourself in these situations.
"We’ve had two top-fives, two fast race cars the last two weeks and what else can you do? You just got to keep putting yourself in that situation and eventually it will pay off. But, yes, it’s certainly being noticed.”
Bowyer, who qualified third for the Coke Zero 400, has two restrictor-plate wins — however, both victories were earned at Talladega Superspeedway. But how far will he take it to get a win at Daytona?
“I’m not going to hook Matt (Kenseth) in the quarter panel on the first lap and make sure that he doesn’t get another (win),” Bowyer said with Kenseth sitting next to him in the post-qualifying press conference. “But I promise you I’m going to try to beat Matt to win it tomorrow (Saturday) night to get a few bonus points.
“Anything happens — that’s what’s fun about this thing. … These tracks — as a driver, you almost get to where you don’t like them, but they’re a necessity in this sport and we all get it and we all understand it."
HERE WE GO AGAIN …
Restarts have been front and center over the last month, with four-time champion Jimmie Johnson finding the No. 48 Chevy on the bad end after each occasion.
At Dover, Johnson passed the control car (Juan Pablo Montoya) and was black-flagged. Last weekend at Kentucky, Johnson accused winner Matt Kenseth of slowing rather than speeding before the start-finish line and exclaimed, “The 20 should be penalized for stopping everybody on that (expletive) restart.”
But that didn’t happen.
Kyle Busch, who won his first speedway pole for Saturday’s Coke Zero 400, acknowledges, “There’s a lot of games on restarts — a lot.”
“You know who those guys are,” Busch said. “You just try to do the best you can with whatever starting position you’re given for that restart, and it seems like some days you want to be on the bottom and some days you want to be on the top. It just kind of depends on where you’re at.
"It’s never really very consistent as far as who’s up front or who’s leading it and everything else. Just like I said, just a lot of games being played that gets different reactions from different drivers sometimes.”
While everyone understands NASCAR’s rules of staying in position coming to the start-finish line and that the control car — or the driver in first place — controls the restart, there’s a lot that happens from the time that pace car drops off the track and when the drivers roll to the line.
“There’s a black-and-white rule, but the black-and-white rule has some gray in it,” said Ryan Newman, who starts 21st on Saturday.
“The bottom line is the second-place driver cannot beat the leader to the line. If he does, for whatever reason, he has to give it back before Turn 1 or the middle of Turn 1 — that’s the gray area part of it.
“To me, it all could be simplified by when we hit the restart mark or marks, when the leader picks up the pace, it’s a green flag. That green flag means anyone can race and anyone can pass. You should stay in your line before the start-finish line, but you can pass.
"There’s guys in the middle of the pack — say 12th place is ahead of 11th place or 11th place is ahead of 10th place, it happens. But those guys don’t get penalized, so why should second place? It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
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6 — Poles in the last seven Nationwide Series races for Austin Dillon.
7.88 — Average qualifying position for Matt Kenseth in 2013 — a career best.
13 — Career poles for Kyle Busch — including three this season.
Qualifying for the Coke Zero 400 isn’t like watching paint dry, but for drivers it’s pretty close. After qualifying 13th on Friday, Tony Stewart described the experience as “just a showcase of … how good a job (the teams) do coming” to Daytona.
“Our job is to watch the tach (tachometer) when we leave the pit road and shift three times and then just try to hold a really steady smooth wheel and let the car run what it’s going to run,” Stewart said. “My job gets a little more interesting tomorrow night when I have to put my shoes on.”