With the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season reaching its halfway point this weekend at Daytona International Speedway, points and wins are becoming more important in regards to determining the 12- driver field for the championship Chase.
Race wins are especially important in deciding who will start in the first seed for the Chase, as well as who will secure the two wild card positions. All qualifiers begin the playoffs with 2,000 points each. Drivers one through 10 in the rankings are awarded three bonus points per victory. The last two spots in the field -- the wild cards -- will go to the non-top-10-ranked drivers with the most wins, as long as they're ranked in the top 20 in points.
Brad Keselowski claimed his series-high third win of the season last Saturday at Kentucky. Keselowski presently holds the 10th spot in the standings but has a sizeable 34-point advantage over 11th-place Carl Edwards.
"I want to be the guy with the most wins and inside the top-10, and I want to look forward to making sure that we stay inside the top-10, and hopefully can climb up a few more spots to be safe," said Keselowski, who has now earned nine bonus points so far for the Chase.
Teams will once again endure hot and humid conditions at Daytona but not as muggy as last weekend at Kentucky, where air temperatures reached 100 degrees. Temperatures for the Daytona Beach area are expected to be roughly 10 degrees cooler than Kentucky.
Saturday night's 400-mile race at Daytona is expected to be much like we saw earlier this year in the Daytona 500 and the spring event at Talladega. The past two restrictor-plate events featured the return of the traditional pack racing and the reduction of the two-car breakaways.
"I would expect a carbon copy of the Daytona 500," Keselowski said. "The hotter temps certainly require a little more cooling in the engines, so I think that will negate the effect of the bigger pop-off valve. So, I would say I would expect the same thing as the Daytona 500, and the same group of guys will probably be fast, while the same group of guys that were not fast will probably struggle."
Prior to this year's Daytona 500, which ran one day late on February 27 due to rain, NASCAR made numerous modifications to the Sprint Cup cars for Daytona and Talladega, including changes to the restrictor plates and the front grille openings.
Two months ago, teams had to deal with overheating issues with the cars while racing in packs at Talladega, where air temperatures exceeded 90 degrees. Teams will likely face the same problems again this weekend.
"With the race being in July, the cooling isn't going to be better than it was in February, so it will be interesting to find that balance as to how hard you can push the engine and keep yourself in a position to be able to run up front and hopefully win the race," said Kevin Harvick, who won the 2007 Daytona 500 and the 400-miler there in 2010.
Matt Kenseth comes to Daytona not only as the points leader but this year's Daytona 500 winner as well. It's hard to believe, but it has been 30 years since the same driver won both point races at this 2.5-mile superspeedway in the same season. Bobby Allison recorded a season-sweep there in 1982. Fireball Roberts (1962), Cale Yarborough (1968) and LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969) also accomplished the same feat.
Kenseth has been stellar on the restrictor-plate tracks so far this season, winning his second Daytona 500 and nearly pulling off the victory in May at Talladega. His first Daytona 500 win came in 2009.
"I looked forward to going to Talladega more so than any plate race I have ever looked forward to in my career, with as well as we ran at Daytona and how fast our cars were in February," Kenseth said. "I feel the same way about Daytona this weekend, and I am looking forward to getting down there.
"At Talladega, I felt we had the fastest car in the race and dominated the race as much as you can, but I felt like I messed that up at the end when (Roush Fenway Racing teammate) Greg (Biffle) and I somehow got separated. I have been agonizing over that since Talladega, but I am looking forward to getting some redemption this weekend and returning to Daytona coming off that win in the 500."
Kenseth gave Roush Fenway Racing its second straight victory at Daytona five months ago. David Ragan scored his maiden Sprint Cup win at this racetrack one year ago when he drove for RFR. Ragan is now driving for Front Row Motorsports.
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Coke Zero 400.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, July 7. Race: Coke Zero 400. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m.(ET). Laps: 160. Miles: 400. 2011 Winner: David Ragan. Television: TNT. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Satellite.