The Sprint Cup Series will be making its return trip to Daytona Beach this weekend for the running of the annual Coke Zero 400. The trip to the Florida track doesn’t come close to grabbing all of the attention of the seasonopening Daytona 500. While it doesn’t have as much history and mystic of the more celebrated 500, the race does have its own tradition.
For years this weekend’s race was held on the Fourth of July and carried the name of the Firecracker 400. It has always been one of the more traditional stops on the Cup schedule but the morning start time of the race exposed the fans to the mid-day Daytona sun that can be brutal in July. Each passing year saw more empty seats than the year before as fans decided it was more comfortable to sit on the beach and listen to the race on radio than put up with the heat.
All of that changed in 1998 when the speedway installed lights and moved the race date to the Saturday night of the July 4 weekend. Attendance immediately began to pick back up as night racing on the superspeedway became an instant hit.
International Speedway Corporation, which owns the track, knew immediately it had hit on something special with the nighttime racing on the restrictor plate track and began adding more late starting times to its lineup. This Friday the Winn-Dixie 250 Nationwide Series race joins the 400 with a late evening starting time. During Speedweeks in February, the track starts both the Budweiser Shootout and the Craftsman Truck Series race after the sun goes down.
One question that is always brought up with the return trip to Daytona each season is why doesn’t the series end the year at Daytona? You have to admit it does sound reasonable, after all the year kicks off in style there and what better way to end a year than racing on Daytona’s famed restrictor plate track?
I’m sure NASCAR has given that some thought through the years but I believe the answer falls more with the community of Daytona than it does with the actual racing end of it. The speedway has always had a great relationship with Daytona Beach and has been the recipient of solid support from the community. NASCAR knows that racing in July brings a tremendous amount of people to the beach that not only stay for the races but in many cases spend their entire vacation in Daytona, thus helping the local economy while at the same time filling up the speedway.
Saturday’s 400 is also considered the unofficial beginning of the second half of the season and with the Chase just nine races away, time is running out for several drivers in their quest to make it into the championship round of the season. Penske Racing quickly comes to mind as a team that has to really be excited about coming back to Daytona.
Penske’s Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch finished first and second followed by teammate Sam Hornish Jr. in 15th in the 500 and left Daytona with a ton of momentum for the new season, but that quickly faded as all three drivers have struggled through the first half of the season. Hornish is battling just to stay in the top 35 each week and former series champion Busch has little hope of getting the opportunity to race for his second title. That leaves Newman, who has flirted with being in the top 12 for much of the season but has never really been in contention to win another race since leaving Daytona.
It seems if Penske is going to make a stand and turn the year around that it should be this weekend. Rumors continue to swirl in the garage area that Newman is looking around for another ride next season. It would be hard to say just where he may end up, as most of the driver changes for next season seem to hinge on where Tony Stewart goes in ’09.
Tony could buy into Haas CNC and become a part owner. That would open up two rides with Joe Gibbs Racing needing a driver as well as a teammate for Stewart. Both of these would be attractive and could give Newman the opportunity to return to his winning ways.
Race Preview – Event: Coke Zero 400. Track: Daytona International Speedway (2.5- mile tri-oval, 31 degrees of banking in the turns). Date: July 5, 8 p.m. TV: TNT. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Jamie McMurray.