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Brickyard winners take stock in season at halfway point as Daytona looms

The “Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard” is just four weeks away, and there are just two more road trips to go before the stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series head to their ultimate destination -- the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But while many Americans are enjoying a Fourth of July vacation, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is off to one of Florida’s vacation spots – Daytona Beach – for the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night, July 7.

It’s also the traditional halfway point of the season – the 18th of 36 points-paying races. There are just eight more races left in the “Race to the Chase” that will determine the 12 drivers that make it into NASCAR’s “Chase for the Championship.”

While the Daytona International Speedway is a high-banked, 2.5-mile oval that requires restrictor plates on the throttle assembly to keep the cars from soaring past 200 miles per hour, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a flat, four-cornered, 2.5-mile oval that requires a totally different technique than what will be seen in the race Saturday night.

But even with such different racing styles, the best drivers at Daytona are also the “Legends of the Brickyard” at Indianapolis.

Although Tony Stewart of Columbus, Ind., has never won the Daytona 500, he is a three-time winner of the July 400-mile race with victories in 2005, 2006 and 2009.

Stewart, a two-time Brickyard 400 winner and three-time Cup champion, was looking good in the points before he had an engine issue last Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway. That dropped him from fifth to ninth in points heading to Daytona.

Stewart believes practice will make perfect this week at Daytona.

“The race situation is a lot different from practice,” Stewart said. “You tend to have a much larger pack of cars, and that makes a really big difference. But you’re still able to figure out what your car likes and dislikes in the draft during practice. It may not be exactly what you’ll experience in the race, but it’s the closest thing to it. Basically, it gives you an idea of what your car is capable of and where you need to be to make the moves you want.”

Jeff Gordon is another “Master of the Brickyard” who has also mastered Daytona with six career victories, including three in the Coke Zero 400 and three in the Daytona 500. His most recent Brickyard victory was in 2004. Gordon was the first winner of the Brickyard 400 and went on to win that race four times. He also has won four Cup titles.

Perhaps those numbers could add up to a fourth Coke Zero 400 win. But Gordon realizes time is running out if he hopes to make “The Chase” this year, as he arrives in Daytona 18th in points.

"We want to get in the Chase bad, and we know we have to win races to do it,” Gordon said. “Max points are what we're going for - this weekend and every weekend. Prior to the race, you don't change your strategy based on where you are in the standings. It's just business as usual trying to put the fastest race car on the track and preparing to win races, and that is no different than what we've been doing all year long. But your mindset may change when you get into the race and you have to make a risky call.”

"We don't know what kind of racing we are going to have at Daytona. Based on February (here) and based on (the other restrictor-plate track) Talladega, given the challenges we had with tandem racing, we now have equal or greater challenges. And one of those challenges – managing (engine oil and water) temperatures – will be crucial during the race on Saturday night. I enjoy this type of racing more. I think this way gives the drivers the opportunity to create more chances instead of relying on the car you're pushing or the one that is pushing you. [Pack drafting] brings things back into our hands. It's going to be exciting at the end, but you have to be there. And that is what we're working hard on. Being there at the end when it counts.”

Three-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is a former Daytona winner, triumphing in the 2006 Daytona 500. He arrives at Daytona third in the standings as he attempts to win this race for the first time in his career and explained what it will take to be successful with so little to work with on the race cars.

“We are so boxed in chassis wise due to the restrictor-plate rules,” he said. “Vehicle-wise is very similar (to how we were in February). NASCAR has given up a higher pop-off valve due to the higher temperatures we will have there. Really, it’s kind of as-is. It has been pretty easy from my standpoint on restrictor-plate tracks anymore because the rules have stayed the same.”

Kevin Harvick won the Brickyard in 2003 and is a two-time winner at Daytona with wins in the 500 in 2007 and the 400 in 2010. He is sixth in the Cup standings.

“Speedway racing has been good for us,” Harvick said. “The last couple of races at Talladega haven’t been great due to some crashes, but Daytona has been a good race track for us. I think the main talk when we get back this year is going to be about cooling as we go to the restrictor-plate stuff again. Obviously, with the race being in July, the cooling isn’t going to be better than it was in February, so it will be interesting to find that balance as to how hard you can push the engine and keep yourself in a position to be able to run up front and hopefully win the race.”

Jamie McMurray had a dream season in 2010 when he won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 but failed to make the Chase that year. He is winless in 2012 and arrives at Daytona 19th in points – another driver that has to make it happen soon if he has any hopes of making the Chase.

“Daytona is always about being in the right place at the right time,” McMurray said. “You need to have a car good enough to run up front, but in the end you have to put yourself in the right position and have some luck to stay out of trouble. We always have good superspeedway cars, so I hope that we can go to Daytona and run near the front all day. It would be nice to put a cap on the first half of the 2012 season with a strong run at Daytona and start some momentum for the second half of this season.”

Paul Menard drove to his first career Cup win at Indianapolis last July. Since joining Richard Childress Racing in 2011, Menard has upped his game at Daytona dramatically, with all three of his top-10 Daytona finishes coming in his last three starts. He was ninth in the 2011 Daytona 500 after leading 11 laps, finished eighth in the July race after leading five laps and finished sixth in this year’s Daytona 500 after being in front for two laps.

“We feel good about our superspeedway program,” Menard said. “The question is where are you with five laps to go? That’s what it comes down to. Also, it depends on how long you can push before temperatures get too high. We have some work to do on our engine management, or cooling. We’ve had fast cars and have been able to get good results at Daytona (International Speedway). Knock on wood we’ll get another one.”

Juan Pablo Montoya is a former Indianapolis winner, but his victory came in the 2000 Indianapolis 500. If he wins Saturday night at Daytona, it would be his first oval-track victory in NASCAR. Either way, he intends to do better than in this year’s Daytona 500 when a broken steering arm on his race car caused him to crashed into a jet dryer during a caution period. The impact created a huge explosion and the heat damaged the racing surface in Turn 3, forcing the race to be stopped for more than two hours while repairs were made.

“You just never know what’s going to happen at Daytona,” said Montoya, who is 21st in the standings. “These superspeedway races are so unpredictable. Fun but unpredictable. We’ve stayed in the back of the pack the last few times we’ve been there, but I think we’re going to go right to the front this time around and race. And hopefully we have some better luck this time and can walk out of there with a top-five finish. Points are crucial now, and we’re running out of time to make up ground.”

There is no more popular driver in NASCAR than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has two Daytona wins – the 400 in 2001 and the Daytona 500 in 2004. Earnhardt is having a great season and is up to second in the standings heading to the track where he finished second in February’s Daytona 500.

“I want to go up and win the race,” Earnhardt said. “I just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about riding in the back. I think you could do it, if that is something you wanted to do. However I don’t plan on doing it. I never really plan on doing it. It may sound like we make that decision prior to the race, but you make it during the race when something happens or you see something happen that you don’t like. You’re like, ‘Man, these guys are probably going to wreck; I don’t want to be right up behind it. I can’t get around them because the track is four- or three-wide.’ So you move back a couple of hundred yards. I think it is poor judgment to think about it during the week, because you are not thinking about what you need to do to win the race. You are thinking about going backward. That is not something I want to concentrate on.”

And Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., is a former Daytona 500 winner with his victory in 2008. He has never won the 400 or the Brickyard.

“The key to Daytona is having a good-handling race car and good luck on the same day, which is, unfortunately, something we have not had recently at Daytona or at any superspeedway race we have been part of pretty much since I’ve been at Stewart-Haas,” Newman said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been involved in several incidents not of our own making, and we have been through a lot of cars. My crew chief, Tony Gibson, keeps telling me that, sooner or later, our luck is going to turn around at these superspeedway races. He says the odds are in our favor, and I sure do hope he is right because I sure would like to not just finish one of these races, but get the top-10 finish or better that I feel like we have deserved so many different times at that track.”

It’s vacation time in the United States, and that means plenty of pictures for the family photo album of “What I did on my summer vacation.” The “Legends of the Brickyard” would like to have some photos shot from Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway.

                                                                           ***
Super Weekend tickets: Tickets are on sale now for the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard on July 26-29 at IMS.

All ticket orders can be made at www.imstix.com and through the IMS Ticket Office at the IMS Administration Building at the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET) Monday-Friday. For more information, call the IMS ticket office at (317) 492-6700, or (800) 822-INDY outside the Indianapolis area.

Children 12 and under will receive free general admission when accompanied by an adult with a Kroger Super Weekend ticket or general admission ticket.

Tickets for groups of 20 or more also are on sale. Contact the IMS Group Sales Department at (866) 221-8775 for more information.
 

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