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July 02. 2014 9:32PM

Drivers eye Daytona as place to put their seasons back on track

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — There might be 26 races for a driver to qualify for the Chase for the Championship, but for some there really are just a couple of real opportunities to advance to the playoffs.

Road-course regulars focus on races at Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y. A notable group of drivers who still haven’t punched their ticket into the Chase with a race victory are counting on Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Restrictor plates, pack racing and a slick racetrack have a way to equalize the field. For some, it’s a formula that makes the Chase possible.


Ricky Stenhouse , Greg Biffle, Danica Patrick, Marcos Ambrose, Aric Almirola, Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Brian Vickers and David Ragan are looking for their first win of the season.And all have been good at Daytona in the past.

McMurray, Biffle, Newman, Ragan, Kenseth and Stewart all have at least one career win at Daytona.

With only nine races remaining before the playoffs start, some of the sport’s top drivers are running out of time to make the cut.

“Certainly, we wish we had a win. But like I said before, you can’t really force it,” Kenseth said. “You can’t just say ‘Hey, man, we need a win’ and just go and get one. If it was that easy, you’d win every week. Wins have always been really important.”

Victories are the only things that matter, which is everything NASCAR wanted out of its new playoff format.

“I can’t speak for the entire company, but I’m sure everyone’s really pleased,” NASCAR vice president Robin Pemberton said. “For me, it’s over the top. This is the best it’s ever been. If you wanted winning to mean something, this is the way to do it.”

Six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson also is a big fan of the new format. He can afford to be gracious because he has a series-best three wins this year.

“I am excited to see how the conversation has changed and that so many people are talking about winning,” he said.

If there aren’t 16 different winners after 26 races, the rest of the playoff field will be filled in by the highest-ranked drivers in the point standings. For the most part, nobody is counting on that because there already have been 10 different winners this year.

“We have to win. We want to win,” Newman said. “If you’re going to win the championship, you’re probably going to have to win something. I don’t see that the winner of the championship doesn’t have a race victory under his belt.”

Bowyer is feeling a similar sense of urgency.

“We’re at the point in our program ... that we’re desperately in need of a win, and we need to throw it all out there and go for it and try to get ourselves a win somewhere,” he said.

Daytona is the perfect place for that to happen because the conditions put everyone on a level playing field. While that’s good for Newman and Bowyer, it’s also good for everyone else.

Which is exactly what NASCAR hoped for all along.

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