July 04, 2008
Experts' Picks: Coke Zero 400
  My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: Stewart is the most overdue driver for a win in the Cup series. He had the best car in the field at the Daytona 500 in February, though he finished third, and this is one of his best tracks on the circuit. The victory drought ends on Saturday night for the 20 team.
Keep an eye on: Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Little E is one of the top restrictor-plate racers on the circuit, and he showed as much when he won the Budweiser Shootout earlier this season at Daytona. As long as he doesn't get caught up in the Big One, he'll be a threat to take the checkers.
Don't expect much from: Juan Pablo Montoya -- Like many drivers in their second season on the Cup circuit, Montoya is suffering a sophomore slump. He's currently 20th in the points and in three career starts at Daytona his average finish is a pedestrian 27.7.
  My Pick: Kyle Busch
Why he'll win: Shrub led a race-high 86 laps at Daytona back in February and finished fourth. Now, in the midst of the best season he's ever had, he should be the favorite. No he's never won at Daytona, but then again, before this season he'd never won at Atlanta, Talladega, Darlington, Dover or Infineon, either. You notice a pattern?
Keep an eye on: Tony Stewart -- Busch's teammate led 16 laps in last February's 500 and was in position to win before Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch ganged up on him. That, and his tough luck loss to Busch last week should have him plenty mad enough to win this weekend. Who else thinks that, after two of the toughest beats of his career (at Daytona and Loudon) Stewart now walks around the JGR garage occasionally muttering, "Penske!"
Don't expect much from: Juan Pablo Montoya -- I usually try to pick a top-12 driver to list here, just to challenge myself, but I can't resist picking JPM this week. Plate-racing requires and rewards a modicum of caution, and the fender-bending Montoya seems a likely candidate to wreck at least once before the end ... either as a result of his own actions, or his usual position near the rear of the field.
  My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: Stewart had the car to win this year's Daytona 500, and shows no signs of slowing down heading into this Fourth of July weekend classic. Leading a race-high 132 laps at New Hampshire until being burned by pit strategy, he's been knocking on the door of Victory Lane as of late; and after winning two of the last three 400-milers at Daytona, he has to be considered a favorite.
Keep an eye on: Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- The restrictor-plate master looked to be a favorite in this year's 500, but never played much of a factor until poor pit strategy took him out of the running for good. But if crew chief Tony Eury Jr. and his driver can stay on the same page this time around -- not always an easy task -- you'd have to think the No. 88 car will be around to challenge at the finish.
Don't expect much from: Richard Childress Racing -- A member of the "Big Four" powerhouse teams dominating the Cup circuit, this three-car operation has one weakness so far this year: restrictor plates. In two races at Daytona and Talladega, RCR's average finish is just 17th, with drivers Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton.
  My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: Though he's never won the Daytona 500, he?s claimed the mid-summer shootout twice, holding on into the early morning hours in 2005, after starting from the pole and leading 151 laps as typical summer rains caused multiple delays. He won again in '06. Stewart was typically strong in the Daytona 500 this February, but again was bedeviled, finishing third when Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch worked with his brother, Kurt, in the final laps instead of him.
Keep an eye on: Jeff Gordon -- Six wins, 11 top-5s and 17 top-10s means Gordon is always a threat at Daytona. Winless this season, he?s got to bust through eventually, right? And what better way to help one of his sponsors stick it to Coke Zero in the former Pepsi 400?
Don't expect much from: Kurt Busch -- He?s arguably the sport's best restrictor-plate racer without a win at Daytona or Talladega, and he finished second, pushing Penske Racing teammate Ryan Newman to the win in the Daytona 500 in February. And he was pretty fast in practice. But a blown tire sent that No. 2 Dodge into the wall.
  My Pick: Kyle Busch
Why he'll win: After losing this race by just a few inches to Jamie McMurray last July, Busch will be able to find the extra distance to stay in front in Saturday night's superspeedway sprint under the lights at Daytona. If Busch can do that, it will be his first Cup win at Daytona. He has three top-five and three top-10 finishes in seven previous DIS starts and was fourth in February's 50th Daytona 500.
Keep an eye on: Jeff Gordon -- Gordon has six Daytona wins, including three victories in the 400, but those were all with the older version race car. Gordon has admittedly struggled with the new car but has climbed back into the top 10 in the standings as he continues to search for his first Cup win in 2008.
Don't expect much from: Ryan Newman -- The winner of February's Daytona 500 is going nowhere fast. He is 15th in the points standings and on his way out at Penske Racing. Maybe a return visit to the site of his greatest career victory can't help keep him from sliding further.
  My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: After rain took away a prime opportunity at New Hampshire, Stewart's frustration with his winless season should be at its peak and will motivate him more than ever at Daytona. Look for a take-no-prisoners, trust-nobody attitude. Stewart will be a maverick in a restrictor-plate race, particularly after he saw the 500 in February slip away on the last lap to a third-place finish. Stewart has become a force at Daytona in recent years. He won this race in 2005, leading a whopping 151 laps, and in '06, leading 86, and has led in eight of the past nine.
Keep an eye on: Jeff Gordon -- . It's absolutely shocking that we've reached the halfway point of the Cup season and he doesn't have a victory. Daytona is a likely place, unless he gets taken out in one of those multi-car wrecks. Look for Gordon to try to get to the front, stay there to stay away from trouble and be in position to challenge at the end. Gordon has three victories in the second stop at Daytona (including one in October, 1998) and three more in the 500, so he knows how to get it done in restrictor-plate racing.
Don't expect much from: Matt Kenseth -- He has only one top-five in 17 starts at Daytona. Some of that has been being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like when he crashed with Roush Fenway Racing teammate David Ragan in February, but Kenseth has rarely been a threat at the end, either, when it counts at Daytona.
  My Pick: Tony Stewart
Why he'll win: It's summer, time for Stewart to heat up. And there's no place better for Stewart to start sizzling than at Daytona, where he's led more laps than any other full-time Cup driver. Stewart has just two wins at the track, but in seven of the last nine Daytona race he's finished seventh or better.
Keep an eye on: Kyle Busch -- Busch is not just the best driver in '08, but he's scored more points in the last five Daytona races than any other driver. He's never won at Daytona, but he's been in the top four in three of the last four races.
Don't expect much from: Denny Hamlin -- While Kyle Busch and Stewart are major threats at Daytona, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Hamlin has struggled at the track. His average finish in five starts is 27.0, with his best finish being 17th.

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