DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – On Thursday, NASCAR returned to Daytona International Speedway with practice sessions in advance of Saturday night’s 60th annual Coke Zero Sugar 400, the traditional midsummer, midseason night-time classic for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Drivers in both the Monster Energy Series and the NASCAR Xfinity Series took to the DIS high banks for practices on Thursday. The Xfinity Series will run the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 on Friday night. Qualifying for both races will be Friday – the Xfinity Series at 2:10 p.m., the Monster Energy Series at 4:10. The Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 takes the green flag at 7:30.
Thursday’s sole practice for the Coke Zero Sugar 400 was led by Clint Bowyer (No. 14 Rush Truck Centers Ford), at 200.799 mph. Bowyer was one of 10 drivers to post a 200 mph-plus lap. The second practice was rained out.
Ryan Reed (No. 16 Drive Down A1C Lilly Diabetes Ford) and Xfinity Series rookie Chad Finchum (No. 40 Amana Toyota) led the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 practices with fast laps of 196.143 mph and 185.567, respectively.
In line with this tradition-rich weekend of stock car racing, two drivers in the Coke Zero Sugar 400 are chasing special, respective spots in the record book. Austin Dillon (No. 3 American Ethanol e15 Chevrolet), the reigning DAYTONA 500 champion, can become the sixth driver to pull off a season sweep of DIS’ two Monster Energy Series races. Likewise, defending race champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (No. 17 Fifth Third Bank Ford) is trying to become the sixth driver to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400 in consecutive years.
Dillon was last seen on the high banks pulling away from a last-lap DAYTONA 500 incident with Aric Almirola (No. 10 Smithfield Ford), beating Bubba Wallace (No. 43 U.S. Air Force Chevrolet) to the finish. That returned the legendary No. 3 of Richard Childress Racing to the DAYTONA 500’s Gatorade Victory Lane for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s historic 1998 victory. For Dillon, Childress’ 28-year-old grandson, it was his second victory at Daytona International Speedway; he also won the Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 in 2015.
“It feels great, anytime you come to Daytona when you’ve been able to win a couple of races here,” Dillon said. “I’ve enjoyed this place from the beginning. I’ve been coming here since I was born. It’s like a second home to me.
“It’s a good feeling coming to the green flag and the entire field is behind you. Anytime you can relive those moments … it’s kind of like a dream.”
Back to reality – and Dillon’s appearance Friday (3 p.m.) at the “DAYTONA 500 Champions’ Walk of Fame” in front of the DIS Ticket and Tours Building. He and DIS President Chip Wile will place a cement block with Dillon’s signature, hand prints and right footprint into the walk lineup. The imprints were made earlier this year following the DAYTONA 500, during the post-Gatorade Victory Lane celebration. Today’s event is open to fans.
For Stenhouse, the weekend represents a chance to reestablish himself as a preeminent racer in restrictor-plate events. (At 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway and 2.66-mile Talladega Superspeedway, NASCAR mandates that cars have engine restrictor plates which contribute to the reduction of horsepower, in the interest of safety.) Stenhouse has only two Monster Energy Series victories, both coming last season in restrictor-plate races – at Talladega in the spring, then the Coke Zero Sugar 400. Stenhouse finished 29th in the DAYTONA 500, in February.
“It’s a great opportunity for us.” Stenhouse said. “We felt really good about our car here in the 500. We’ve made a few changes to the package but I still feel like our Ford will be strong enough to do what we need to and hopefully get it back into victory lane here and defend the race win.
“I think this race weekend is always special … and obviously, pulling into that victory lane is unlike any other. That’s something we all strive for.”
Tickets for the 60th annual Coke Zero Sugar 400, the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ Coca-Cola Firecracker 250 and other Daytona International Speedway events can be purchased online at www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com