With the running of the Coke Zero 400 this Sunday night on the high banks of the famed 2.5 mile Daytona International Speedway, we reach the half-way point on the 36-race schedule. To date, Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have split 10 victories (out of 17 total races) but the vagaries of restrictor plate racing mean that pretty much anyone has a chance at victory this weekend. That doesn't mean the four-time champ or trendy pre-season pick to dethrone the champ won't win; it just makes setting your Fantasy line-up that much harder this week as barring some kind of weird occurrence, this race will almost certainly be won on the last lap (last corner, even.) So with that said, let's take a look at some of the wheelmen who should make your team this weekend.
Tony Stewart: Smoke, as he usually does, is heating up with the summer weather and he is always a threat at Daytona. Winner of this race three times, including the very same race last year where he also started from the pole, Stewart is expected to be a factor all night long. While it's fair to say Smoke runs well pretty much everywhere the Sprint Cup circuit travels, this is a race in which Stewart can make his first trip to Victory Lane in 2010 and his first win of his second season as owner/driver.
By the Numbers: In 23 starts at Daytona, Stewart has led 633 laps.
Kyle Busch: Like Tony Stewart, Busch is always a threat on the restrictor plate tracks. He won this very same race in 2008 and was second in both 2006 and 2007. This time last year he was leading with two corners to go on the final lap before an aggressive move (cutting down in front of an on-rushing Stewart) led to a monster crash and a premature conclusion to a night which promised much, much more. Safely ensconced in third place in the overall standings, Busch needs to start racking up the bonus points before the Chase begins in September. Daytona would be a fine place to start doing just that.
By the numbers: Busch has led laps in the last seven races at Daytona International Speedway.
Kevin Harvick: Winner of the 2007 Daytona 500 and the 2010 Budweiser Shootout, Harvick is another driver who can never be ruled out at a restrictor plate track. For proof, just witness his textbook perfect sling-shot last lap pass of Jamie McMurray (more on him in a bit) at Talladega earlier this year. Leading the points, after an "annus horribilis" in 2009, Harvick has had a great season, but can he push on and convert those solid top-5 finishes into all-important victories and Chase bonus points? That remains to be seen but just as with Stewart and the irascible Kyle Busch, Sunday night's race looks like a good opportunity to rack up a second victory of the season.
By the numbers: In 18 total races at Daytona, Harvick has won a grand total of $6,450,223. Not bad, huh?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.: After looking out to lunch for much of the early part of the season, NASCAR's most popular driver has started to string together some respectable results bringing him to the verge of the Chase spots. Returning to a track where his father tragically perished must be difficult for Earnhardt Jr. , but the kid from Kannapolis, NC is always, always a factor on plate tracks with partners literally lining up to dance (or draft, if you prefer) with him. Junior needs a solid top-5 this weekend to give him confidence heading into what can typically be a tough part of the schedule for him.
By the numbers: Junior has 12 top-10 runs in 21 starts at Daytona; good for an average finish of 14.1.
Jamie McMurray: Three of McMurray's four career victories to date have come at restrictor plate tracks including his famous victory in this season's Great American Race: the Daytona 500. Rejuvenated, refreshed and back under the aegis of Chip Ganassi -- the man who gave him his start in Cup racing -- McMurray should be a huge factor this Sunday night and a very solid pick for your Fantasy line-ups. Don't even think twice, activate the amiable McMurray -- he almost certainly won't let you down.
By the numbers: McMurray won this race in 2007, nipping Kyle Busch by a mighty fine margin on 0.005 seconds.
Elliott Sadler: While he may be on the downside of a long Sprint Cup career, Sadler is often in the mix at restrictor plate circuits. With a bit of luck and the rain starting a lap or two earlier, Sadler would have won the 2009 Daytona 500, and he has 9 top 10s in 23 starts at NASCAR's most illustrious track. Can he win his first race since 2004 (he has three career victories in total) this Sunday evening? Possibly. But even if he doesn't take the checkers, don't be surprised to see Sadler finish strongly.
By the numbers: Four of Sadler's nineteen top-5 career finishes have come at Daytona.
Who'll win? Tony Stewart: I'm backing Tony Stewart to get it done under the lights this weekend for his first victory of the season, his fourth in the summer race at Daytona, and his 38th career victory in what, to date, has been a glittering Sprint Cup career.
Next Up: We head to Chicagoland Speedway for the LifeLock.com 400 -- the tenth Cup race run at the Joliet, Ill. circuit -- and the final race for TNT in 2010.
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