Five things to watch in Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400

Changing times

The repaved surface at Daytona International Speedway combined with the two-car tandems has led to a mind-boggling number of lead changes. The Daytona 500 set a track record with 74 lead changes, 15 more than the previous high in NASCAR's top series. The Nationwide series race in February tied the track record with 35 lead changes. And at the other restrictor-plate track, Talladega, the past three Cup races have seen 88, 87 and 88 lead changes.

Chasing a spot

This year's Chase for the Championship format has made victories paramount. The top 10 in points plus two wild cards, those in spots 11-20 with the most wins, make the 10-race Chase. For instance, Brad Keselowski, left, is 22nd in points, 12 behind 20th-place David Ragan. Under the old system, Keselowski would have little hope of making the Chase. But he owns a victory this season. If he wins tonight at Daytona — and he led nine laps there in the 500 — his two victories would almost certainly be enough to grab a Chase spot if he can stay in the top 20 in points. That kind of urgency will make the racing more intense than ever.

Feuding time

Ryan Newman vs. Juan Montoya and Kyle Busch vs. Kevin Harvick have grabbed most of the headlines, but there have been enough bad feelings this season to feed a reality show for months. And Sunday's Sonoma race might have sparked new ones: Tony Stewart vs. Brian Vickers and Montoya vs. seemingly half the field, for starters. Will bad feelings boil over? Such high speeds would lead one to conclude that Daytona is not the place for retribution. But it could take more subtle form, perhaps a refusal to tag-team with somebody late in the race.

Traditional prerace

Track president Joie Chitwood, a former performer in his family's stunt show, won't try to compete with the Indy 500's prerace show that included a stunt jump. "My initial thought was topping it … but (if I did that) people probably would have made fun because of me being a (former) stuntman; there would have been a weird connection there," Chitwood told the St. Petersburg Times recently. "I don't feel the need to do that for Daytona. … But I like that people are trying new stuff." Tonight's ceremonies will include more standard NASCAR fare, including a salute to four Medal of Honor recipients and a concert by country music star Martina McBride.

This weekend marks the return of the NASCAR Sprint Cup series to Daytona International Speedway for the traditional race on July 4 weekend. A look ahead at tonight's Coke Zero 400:

Pack mentality

D rivers seem to be split on whether the new way of traveling on restrictor-plate tracks is a good thing. Cars push each other around the track, with two-car trains running instead of packs of 30 or more cars seen in recent times. "I thought (restrictor-plate racing) was a lottery five years ago, (but) good Lord, it's ridiculous now," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. Teammate Jeff Gordon said, "It's not really whether you have an opinion or like it; it's just the way it is. If you want to be good and have a shot at winning, then you have to learn how to do it well."

Information from Times wires was used in this report.

Five things to watch in Saturday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Coke Zero 400 07/01/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 1, 2011 10:57pm]

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