Five things to watch in tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It was here at Daytona International Speedway where fans were introduced to a young driver from California by way of Indiana.

Jeff Gordon, then a rookie, scored his first career victory at this track in a 1993 qualifying race. He admitted he needed help finding victory lane that day. That was the first of 14 such visits at this track during his career, which will end after this season.

Tonight’s race – which marks NBC’s return to broadcasting Sprint Cup races – marks Gordon’s final Cup start at this famed 2.5-mile speedway. He enters the event searching for his first victory of the season.

“It’s hard for me to really put all those thoughts and feelings into perspective, knowing that I have half the season still to go,’’ Gordon said of his last Daytona start. “I don’t think it’s really going to hit me until we get further down into the final part of the season, but this place has meant a lot. It’s going to be tough not coming back here and being behind the wheel.’’

His final trip could end in victory lane based on what he’s done earlier this year in restrictor-plate races. He led a race-high 87 laps in the Daytona 500 but got stuck deep in the pack and was collected in a last-lap crash. At Talladega, he led 47 laps but a speeding penalty dropped him back in the pack and he again was involved in a late crash.

“I come into restrictor-plate races feeling like we have very fast race cars and that we have a chance to come out of here with a great finish, if not a win, as much or more so as the field,’’ said Gordon, who starts 23rd. “And at the same time, that thought and confidence is followed right up with, when was the last time I finished one of these races?

“So, all you can do is just come up with the best plan that you can possibly put in place, knowing that it’s going to change at any moment.’’

Gordon’s quest for a win is just one of the storylines tonight.

Kyle Busch competes in his first race at Daytona since being injured here in February. It was not a good start to the weekend for Busch, who was involved in a crash about 10 minutes into Friday’s first practice. He was uninjured but had to go to a backup car – along with nine other drivers, including Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards.

Busch suffered a broken right leg and left foot in a crash during the season-opening Xfinity race in February when he hit an unprotected concrete wall. SAFER barriers have been added to where Busch hit and other locations and some areas of grass were paved, but Busch called for more to be done Saturday.

Busch’s biggest quest, though, is to stay out of trouble on the track. With his victory last weekend at Sonoma Raceway, he needs to gain enough points in the next 10 races to be in the top 30 in the standings before the Chase begins to be eligible for it. If he gets collected in a crash tonight and has a poor finish, it could doom those hopes.

Could there be another surprise winner? Aric Almirola might not have been a name most would have picked to have won this race last year but he did. With horsepower-choking restrictor plates keeping the field bunched, the number of drivers who can win here multiplies.

Austin Dillon, who won Saturday night’s Xfinity race, said he’s focused on winning a race in Cup because he believes he’s likely too far back to make the Chase via points. He’s not alone. For many, this could be one of their last true chances to slip into the Chase. Tony Stewart could be among those in that group. He and his team have not shown the speed to compete for wins at most tracks, but the four-time winner at this track knows where to place himself in the field to be in contention and could be one to watch.

Richard Childress Racing could use a good night. The organization enters tonight with a 53-race winless streak. If Paul Menard, Ryan Newman or Austin Dillon do not win tonight, RCR’s winless streak will match it’s longest in a decade.

Richard Childress Racing’s last victory came at Phoenix in Nov. 2013 with Kevin Harvick. Dillon starts second tonight with Menard fourth and Newman 17th.

Crew chiefs will matter tonight. Daytona’s hot conditions – even at night – will make handling a key. Make the wrong adjustment and a driver won’t be able to challenge for a win. Watch how the cars perform the longer into a fuel run they go, noticing who falls back and who moves up. It’s all about positioning for that final restart.