So, how does the Coke Zero 400 end?
With a two-car draft blitzing through traffic to the finish line? With a lone-wolf breakaway winner on the last lap? With a pack of cars jammed up at the finish? With one or more green-white-checkered runs?
The evolution of restrictor-plate racing has reached the point of the unknown, as a sometimes strange mix of the pack drafting of old and the tandem hookups of recent years has become the expected.
Saturday night’s 400, the unofficial halfway point of the Sprint Cup season, could be one of those “all of the above” scenarios.
“I’ve been on the tandem-draft side with Kurt (Busch) pushing me where I wasn’t leading coming off of turn two and I was leading going into turn three, and if the yellow had come out at that point, the tandem draft wouldn’t have mattered,” said Ryan Newman. “I was in a position … to be pushed by Casey Mears down the backstretch, and I pulled out. He didn’t follow me. And then the yellow came out going into turn three, and I finished third in the 500.
“So, yeah, there is potential to the tandem draft; there is potential for somebody shaking the tandem draft, which Brad Keselowski kind of surprised everybody with at Talladega, and there is potential for it to be just straight-up pack racing and nobody ever gets to their bumper. I don’t know that’s going to be the case. But when the lights turn on, we’ll have a good idea at that point what to expect.”
Newman will be in position early in the race to toy with the possibilities. He qualified third (to Matt Kenseth and teammate Tony Stewart) Friday but will start second after a post-qualifying inspection disqualified Stewart’s time-trial run.
Jimmie Johnson, who qualified 17th, said track position is particularly important in the new style of racing at Daytona International Speedway.
“With the overheating issues like we have now, track position is everything,” he said. “Even to avoid the big wreck, track position is everything. The track is so much narrower than Talladega, you can’t ride in the back. I think Daytona requires us all to race harder for position. The rules create a need for us to race harder for position.
“We will have a very competitive race. I’m not sure mid-pack how easy it is going to be to manage your temps. so you might see a few different groups of cars just due to overheating issues. If I can, I want to start up-front, which I’m not sure is going to happen, but stay up-front, race up-front all night long.”
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 30 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.