By Jared Turner
From the winding road course of Sonoma Raceway to the high-speed, always entertaining Daytona International Speedway where literally just about anything can happen, the Sprint Cup Series returns to The World Center of Racing Sunday night for its annual July 4 week showdown.
The stakes are certainly high for a lot of drivers heading back to Central Florida as the proverbial clock is ticking down on the number of remaining opportunities to get a win and with it a berth in the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Eleven drivers have gone to Victory Lane in the season’s first 16 races, but only 10 of them are locked in the Chase, since Sonoma winner Kyle Busch – who missed the first three months of the season while recovering from injuries – still needs to get inside the top 30 in points.
Daytona, one of only two tracks on the schedule where restrictor plates keep drivers bunched in tight packs all race long, likely offers the best opportunity before the Chase field is set for a true underdog to go to Victory Lane.
It happened last year when Aric Almirola notched his first career Sprint Cup Series triumph driving for team owner Richard Petty, and with it secured a spot in the Chase for the first time.
Daytona, of course, was also the site of Trevor Bayne’s shocking 2011 Daytona 500 win that came in just his second career Sprint Cup Series start and took the famed Wood Brothers organization to Victory Lane for the first time in a decade.
The bottom line is that just about anyone can win on Sunday night at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, and just about anything can happen.
“It’s easy to come down here and let it rip,” said six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, a past winner of both the Daytona 500 and the July race. “It’s a wild-card race. We understand that anybody in the draft has a shot at winning the race. We have enough wins that we can throw caution to the wind if it’s strategy on track or whatever it is.”
Johnson’s teammate, three-time Daytona 500 champion Jeff Gordon, is among those seeking his first victory of 2015 this weekend. But Gordon, who needs a win to lock up a Chase berth in his last full season, isn’t overly optimistic.
“I would say it’s one of my worst chances to win,” the four-time Sprint Cup Series champion said after last weekend’s race at Sonoma. “I can’t stand that kind of racing, but we’ll go there and put as much effort into it as we do any other race. I guess restrictor-plate racing makes it equal for about everybody. We’ve got some chances.”
Kevin Harvick considers Daytona to be a much different animal in July than February, which is much cooler.
“The track becomes a little bit slicker (in July), especially with the increased temperatures,” the reigning Sprint Cup Series champion said. “Plus, the asphalt ages just a bit from all of the other racing that takes place at this particular track. Usually it’s about 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity in July, so the slick track condition is the biggest change.”
Martin Truex Jr., one of the drivers who already has a win in 2015 but who has never conquered Daytona, believes one’s success there all boils down to positioning near the end.
“You have to be totally aware of openings and drafting partners the entire race, especially in the closing laps when it gets pretty hairy,” he said. “It’s a fun track and I really enjoy it there in July when the track surface is slippery. The Daytona night race is always exciting. I am sure it will be the same this time.”