Anything really can happen at Daytona International Speedway.
The legendary track provides fans with edge-of-the-seat excitement and anxiety as swarms of cars roar around the track, inches apart, lap after lap. It keeps drivers on their toes, as well. One wrong move, a slip at the wrong time, and a driver can take out not only himself but a massive pack of cars. There’s little room to correct and keep going — a slip lands one into a bumper or tire of another car, exacerbating the impact of the crash.
Drivers will approach the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night with equal measures of optimism and resignation. They all know if they can stay out of trouble, they can draft into position to win this race. Each also knows that something can go wrong so quickly that a battle for the win can end in a finish outside the top 30.
Drivers will warily form partnerships as the final laps loom, finding another fast car to work with, whether it is a driver one is supremely comfortable drafting with or not. After all, it could be one of those uneasy partnerships that pushes one to victory.
Daytona racing has changed over the years, but there are a lot of things about Saturday night’s race that will mirror those of the past. This track is fast, the packs pull together for most of the race and the two-car tandems that marked races at restrictor-plate track in 2011 now have a limited window of optimum performance after various changes to the cars since last year.
Still, the same drivers are expected to be contenders, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the top of that list. He has two wins at Daytona with 14 top-10 finishes in 25 Daytona races.
Just a few weeks off his most recent win, and turning in one of the most consistent seasons in the series this year, Earnhardt must be one to watch Saturday night.
For his part, he’s looking forward to this race.
“The track just got paved recently, and every time you come back you kind of anticipate how the track is going to change,” said Earnhardt, who will start 24th. “It should be changing quite rapidly, or at least I hope it is. It’s getting slicker and slicker with each time we come back. The color of the track itself has definitely lightened up quite a bit. It seems like every time we come back it’s quite a big change. That’s great for the drivers and great for the fans. I think it will be a good race.”
He later added, “I love running here and love coming here, and I feel like the car should be plenty good enough as long as I can do everything right in the race.”
The question now is, how to work things out at the end of the race. Drivers will be pushing one another to the finish this time, too, but the question is whom to work with. Late-race cautions are filled with conversations between spotters as drivers work to snare a drafting partner that can push him to the end — and hopefully one that cannot swing out around him and take that win away on the final lap.
Sometimes, the ideal drafting partner is deeper in the pack and, therefore, unable to help out. So what happens if things work out that way and one is paired with a driver he doesn’t trust to keep working with him?
“Use them until you don’t need them anymore,” said Greg Biffle, who will start fourth. “Just push them until you can go by them. That’s what happens anyway. Whether it’s your teammate or not, the deal is you’ve got to push somebody, and normally it’s the guy who is in front of you.”
It’s yet another one of the wild-card elements of Daytona, that willingness to work with whoever is nearby with the win on the line.
“I don’t think you really have the option to choose that,” said Tony Stewart, who will start from the back after his qualifying time was disallowed. “I think it’s just whomever you’re around. Whoever you’re with at the end there, that’s the guys you’re going to be around. So, I’m not sure when you’ve got 43 cars out there you have the flexibility to say, ‘Oh, I’ll work with this guy or that guy.
"They might be 20 cars from you when time that you want to do something. So, unless you’ve been running with them for a long time . . . late in the day it’s just more times than not that I haven’t necessarily been with the guy I’d like to run with.”
Jeff Gordon agrees. A six-time winner at Daytona, Gordon desperately needs to avoid being one of those drivers pulled into the chaos in this race. It’s been 28 races since Gordon has won, though he’s run exceptionally well in many outings this season before being sidelined by circumstances often not of his own making.
Those circumstances have dropped him to 18th in the standings overall with only nine races remaining before the Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set.
So, like many others, Gordon is willing to form an unlikely alliance in the closing laps as he battles both for the win and to gain ground in the standings.
“I think you are just going to have to team up with whoever is in front of you or behind you and hope you have been working together with that person,” said Gordon, who will start fifth.
“The way things get shuffled up, if you are in the outside lane and the guy you want to work with or your teammate is in the inside lane, that just doesn’t work.
“I think on the restarts in the closing laps you just have to go push the guy in front of you or if you are the first guy be pushed by the guy behind you and take the momentum wherever it goes and hope it gets you to Victory Lane.”