The pressures that come with racing at Daytona International Speedway will be there as usual Saturday night.
For drivers at either end of the Sprint Cup spectrum, the Coke Zero 400 doesn’t match NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 for prestige and – usually – drama. But the July race comes with its own set of challenges.
Brian Vickers, winless this season, is counting down his chances for a victory that would all but guarantee him a slot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson wants to see if he can continue a midseason hot streak during which he has won three times in the past six races with top-10 finishes in the other three.
“This race is what the Chase is made for,” said Carl Edwards, who has two victories. “Some guys have to win; others like me have nothing to lose.”
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Vickers is mired in 19th place in the Cup standings and hasn’t had a top 10 since he finished sixth in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. A victory would help assure him a spot in the 16-driver Chase, but time is growing short before the cut-off at Richmond – a mere nine races away.
“The pressure is constant in that your job is to go out and win – every single weekend,” Vickers said. “There’s pressure behind that, right? As far as making the Chase and racing for the championship, that pressure builds the closer you get to Richmond. Your opportunities start to shrink.”
That’s where this point of the schedule comes into play for drivers such as Vickers. The same holds true for others who are inside the top 16 but without a win – Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Kyle Larson, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Tony Stewart. They could be leap-frogged into the Chase by Denny Hamlin (18th)and Kurt Busch (26th), who have one victory each.
“I think when you don’t win Phoenix, it’s like, ‘OK, well there’s 24 more races that I’ve got a chance to win,’ ” Vickers said, referring to the season’s second race. “When you don’t win a race – like when you don’t win the (July) Daytona race, you haven’t won yet and you are obviously like, ‘OK, well we’ve only got so many more chances to win.’ ”
Johnson’s concerns are as different as can be from those of Vickers. Although his No. 48 Chevy has been dominant since winning for the first time this season at Charlotte and following that with victories at Dover and Michigan, Johnson continues to look for every edge over drivers he thinks he’ll contend with for the championship.
“We still have some ground to make up,” said Johnson, who won both Daytona races in 2013. “(Kevin Harvick) is really the most consistent car with speed off the truck. The Penske guys (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano) seem to be able to create some really big speed at times; maybe not as consistent as (Harvick). We’ve been able to get there by (race day). A lot of weekends it hasn’t been a fun journey; unloading and searching and finding our way come race time.
“Even with that challenge we’re still going into Victory Lane and collecting points. That’s the part we need to clean up. And we’re very aware of it inside the team that unloading on Friday with speed in the car is really the area we need to zero-in on.
“We try to look back and reflect and say, ‘Wow, we’ve done a great job as a team (by) showing up and finding our way there.’ So, there’s plenty to be proud of. But come Chase-time, you can’t show up and unload on the (slow) side of the scoring monitor and then find your way to Victory Lane. You’re putting yourself too far behind the 8-ball. Luckily we have a couple of months to really advance and get our cars where they need to be.”
But Johnson, second in points to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, knows he also has a chance to show his car’s power Saturday on one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks.
“It’s easy to come down here and let it rip,” Johnson said. “It’s a wild-card race. We have enough wins that we can throw caution to the wind.”