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Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. return to Victory Lane in Daytona?


1. Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. win again at Daytona?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has long played the role of favorite in most of the NASCAR races he's run at Daytona International Speedway. His emotional win in the 2001 Pepsi 400, his 2004 Daytona 500 win and his impressive streak of top-10 finishes from 2003-06 helped to cement the status.

But after his second-place run in February's Daytona 500 (his third in four years), Earnhardt has now gone 18 Sprint Cup races at Daytona since pulling into Victory Lane. What's the deal?

"I think we might need to try to be at a better position sooner, where we’re not having to have to do so much right at the end of the race and not have an opportunity to challenge for the win," Earnhardt said Thursday at Daytona.

He's right. A last-lap pass pushed him to Jimmie Johnson's bumper in February's race, and the same thing happened in 2010 when he couldn't overtake Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500.

Earnhardt is hopeful that the 2.5-mile track looses some grip in the heat and forces car handling to take precedence. To him, that's what makes exciting racing.

"We might have a good opportunity to see a real exciting race and I think when things get more exciting at the plate tracks, I’ve got a better shot at finding my way toward the front for an easier shot at it," Earnhardt said.

2. Restrictor plate results dog Harvick's strong first half
Just twice in 2013 has Kevin Harvick finished worse than 14th. And just twice this season has Harvick finished only 47 laps in a race.

Those stats are pretty remarkable given that 2013 is Harvick's final year at Richard Childress Racing. Then consider how flat the RCR program often was in 2012 and you'll start to understand how it's surprising that both of those DNFs came at the tracks that everyone on the eve of this year's Daytona 500 figured would be most ripe for Harvick's best finishes.

The poor runs came at the series' pair of stops at the restrictor plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway, where Harvick was knocked out both times by wrecks caused by Kyle Busch. He was undoubtedly going to be a factor in each — no one was stronger during Daytona's Speedweeks, as Harvick won the Sprint Unlimited exhibition race and one of the two Duel qualifying events — and you've got to think not much will have changed come Saturday night.

Harvick, now fourth in the standings, will be one to watch.

3. TNT abandons "wide open" broadcast concept
A staple of TNT's six-race coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in recent seasons has been its production of the July Daytona race. The "wide open" coverage, as the network called it, covered the screen with commercials just a handful of times for local commercial breaks. Otherwise, the national commercial breaks were run in a unique format that kept the race action on the screen while showing the spots in a side-by-side format.

Advertisers also got heavy play on the screen scoreboard and with pop-up ads.

While imperfect, the coverage style was a drastic improvement of NASCAR on television because viewers rarely missed a beat. Instead of going away, it's a style of NASCAR television that should have been expanded.

Network officials likely decided to abandon the format because advertisers just simply didn't like it and the ratings boost wasn't high enough. Personally, I'd like to see how fans would react if the wide-open coverage was a staple of NASCAR — not just a one-off deal on a summer Saturday night. TNT has promised that the race will not be interrupted by commercials during the final 30 laps.

Saturday night's coverage starts at 6:30 p.m. EST and includes an in-depth feature detailing Carl Edwards both on and off the track.

4. Nationwide drivers go for broke with no changes from February
Just in case Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers didn't want to win bad enough in Friday night's Nationwide Series race at Daytona, each has an extra $100,000 carrot dangling in front of them payable to the driver who finishes first among the four. It's all part of a Nationwide-sponsored incentive program that could see one of the four take home an extra $1 million after Indianapolis in a few weeks.

But those four drivers — plus everyone else entered in the Friday 250-miler — will fight for the win using the same rules package as the series' season-opener in February at the track. That's a bit worrisome if you remember the multi-car, last-lap wreck that sent Larson's car into the catchfence and injured more than 30 fans. Several were hospitalized.

NASCAR has been almost completely mum on the investigation underway from Larson's horrifying incident, and apparently hasn't found anything that needs to change on the competition side to prevent race cars from flying while racing at 200 mph. NASCAR did, however, announce some strengthening of the crossover gates at Daytona and Talladega, a move indicative of no real internal worries about cars getting airborne or in the fence. Officials seem to just want the fence to hold.

Judging by the gut-wrenching, ugly scene that Larson's ripped car left in row after row of Daytona's grandstand just a few months ago, that seems a bit light.

5. Testing brings new Goodyear compounds to Daytona
If you thought February's race at Daytona lacked the expected punch and wildness thanks to a lack of passing in the field, you weren't alone. Drivers were also frustrated with the advantage in that race seemingly coming from merely staying in line.

The race forced NASCAR's tire supplier Goodyear to make amends to the compounds used on the still-new Gen-6 car. To find a new sweet spot of competition and longevity, Goodyear brought nine teams to Daytona in April for a two-day test. Drivers included in the day and night sessions were Jamie McMurray, Kasey Kahne, Danica Patrick, Greg Biffle, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Michael McDowell (driving Denny Hamlin's No. 11), Trevor Bayne, Austin Dillon and Carl Edwards.

The result was new compounds for each side of the car, and a change to the build of the left-side tires that Goodyear said is similar to tires in use at other Sprint Cup tracks. Hopefully, the new tires — both right and left side tires have never been raced — will add some energy to Saturday night's race.

by Geoffrey Miller
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