It seems like just yesterday, amid an aroma of burnt jet fuel and mountain fresh Tide, that Matt Kenseth won the delayed, delayed, and delayed again Daytona 500 at 2 in the morning.
In reality, it was 17 races ago, and the Sprint Cup Series heads back to the beach this weekend for the Coke Zero 400. The race, held annually in July (for years it was actually run on Independence Day, regardless of the day of the week) serves as the official midpoint of the 2012 campaign. Once the checkered flag drops over the field Saturday night, there will be 18 races complete and 18 races remaining.
The second trip to the World Center of Racing doesn't bring the pageantry and prestige of February, but it is still a race to be run - and won - at Daytona. Last year, Georgia's own David Ragan scored his first-career win 20 years after Bill Elliott took his second and last to-date victory in the 400.
Both men will have a shot at grabbing another win, number two for Ragan, 45 for Elliott, along with the rest of the 44 drivers entered for this weekend's race. Elliott is locked into the race via his past champion's provisional and will be racing the very first Walmart-sponsored Sprint Cup car. The Turner Motorsports-prepared Chevrolet will carry the No. 50 in honor of the retail giant's 50th anniversary. It is owner Steve Turner's first Cup race, though the team made a handful of Cup starts in its previous incarnation as Braun Racing.
Ragan, meanwhile, will be trying to give Front Row Motorsports its first-ever victory in his No. 34 Ford. Their best finish of third came in last year's Daytona 500 with David Gilliland at the wheel. Ragan of course won last year's race driving for Jack Roush, but was forced out of the team when Atlanta-based UPS cut back their sponsorship and Roush couldn't find a backer to support the Unadilla, GA, driver.
Elliott and Ragan, of course, will have to do battle with the other cars and stars of the Sprint Cup ranks. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon lead all active drivers with three Coke Zero 400 wins apiece, while Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Waltrip, Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, and Kevin Harvick are other former winners competing Saturday.
Kenseth and Biffle have been dominant in the season's first two superspeedway races, finishing first and third in the 500 and leading at Talladega before being overhauled on the last lap. Their Fusions figure to be threats for victory, as does the Ford of 2011 Daytona 500 champ Trevor Bayne. Ford will carry a three-race Daytona winning streak into Saturday.
Busch has Toyota's only Sprint Cup win at the World Center of Racing, but he along with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano will also be in the hunt. Michael Waltrip's trio of Camry chauffeurs - Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Waltrip himself - are all capable drafters who could end up in victory lane.
Despite Ford's recent stranglehold on victory lane, it has been Chevrolet that has largely dominated at Daytona. The Bowtie Brigade should have plenty of contenders of its own, with Hendrick drivers Gordon, Earnhardt, Kasey Kahne, and Jimmie Johnson leading the way. Burton and Harvick's Richard Childress Racing mounts, along with that of Paul Menard, will also be stout, and Stewart and 2008 Daytona 500 champ Ryan Newman will be players in their Stewart-Haas Racing Impalas.
Daytona is always ripe for an upset, as Bayne - and to a degree, Ragan - proved last year. An unheralded driver or one who hasn't seen victory lane in a while could be the one that visits victory lane Saturday. Elliott, Waltrip, and Bobby Labonte are all seeking their first wins since the 2003 season. Ragan, Biffle, Greg Sacks, and Jimmy Spencer are among the drivers to score their first victories in the race, a feat A.J. Allmendinger, Aric Almirola, and Landon Cassill among others will be looking to duplicate.
The exciting thing about a race at Daytona is that the outcome is never certain until the lead car reaches the finish line. Proof of this would be the 2009 race, when Kyle Busch was leading halfway between the exit of turn four and the entrance to the trioval on the last lap. He attempted to block Tony Stewart's advance to the outside, the two connected, and Busch went slamming into the wall as Stewart won the race.
That is the kind of excitement that could easily be on tap for Saturday, building through the first 159 laps into a grand finale that any fireworks show would envy.