Storylines: Daytona

Jay Hart

Daytona International Speedway is where Dale Earnhardt Jr. stepped out from his father's shadow and made a name for himself.

It used to be anytime NASCAR's Sprint Cup series hit Daytona International Speedway, Earnhardt Jr. was immediately inserted as the favorite. He'd seemingly inherited his father's ability to "see the air" at the massive 2.5-mile superspeedway, where drafting is the only way to the front and, subsequently, victory lane.

Junior has won seven races at Daytona, most famously the Pepsi 400 on July 7, 2001 – his first trip back to the track since his father died there five months earlier.

But it's been a while since Junior has put his Daytona magic on display. He hasn't won a points race there since 2004, which just so happens to be the last truly good season he's had.

Now, heading into Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at DIS, Junior is more of a wild card than a favorite. He's expected to do well, but it also wouldn't be a surprise if he didn't finish near the front.

The decrease in confidence isn't just reserved for fantasy players who are crossing their fingers that he'll regain that old swagger, but it's in Junior himself. He's gone from competing for wins to struggling just to finish in the top 10.

Seventeen races into this season, Earnhardt has just three top-10 finishes and sits 19th in the standings.

He's desperate for a lot of things, including a win. But more than anything, Earnhardt needs a positive on which to build some confidence, and if he can't get that at Daytona, where can he?

"I bring a lot of confidence there and always enjoyed going there when I was a kid," Earnhardt said. "It's always been one of my favorite tracks."

Here are five more storylines to watch for in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400:

1. Will weather be a factor … again?

The forecast calls for thunderstorms in Daytona Beach, Fla., … for the next 10 days, meaning NASCAR is facing the possibility of a fourth rain-shortened race this season, second in Daytona this year and second in as many weeks.

NASCAR may not have a say in what Mother Nature has in store, but that hasn't stopped frustrated fans from complaining about how NASCAR handles weather. They'd prefer NASCAR to run a race to its completion, regardless of how long it takes, rather than call the event when rain comes and doesn't clear out, provided the race has reached its halfway point.

They didn't accept Matt Kenseth's win in the Daytona 500, which only went 380 miles; they didn't accept David Reutimann's win in the Coca-Cola 600, which only went 340.5 miles; and they didn't accept Joey Logano's win in last weekend's Lenox Industrial Tools 301, which was called after 273 miles.

"Once you get to the halfway point or as you're closing in on the halfway point, if it looks like the potential for rain, then you're going to see guys racing a lot harder," Jeff Gordon said of how teams strategize for rain. "We saw it last week and we've seen it in the past. I think we'll see it again here."

Qualifying was canceled Friday because of rain, and there is a 40 percent chance of showers Saturday.

2. How will double-file restarts work on a superspeedway?

Races have been more exciting since the installment of double-file restarts four weeks ago at Pocono Raceway. Now, they will be tested for the first time on a restrictor-plate track, where horsepower is choked and drivers rely on the draft to move quicker around the 2.5-mile tri-oval.

Kyle Busch probably wishes the new restart rule was in place for the Daytona 500. He had the fastest car in that race, but was taken out when he got caught in a wreck that occurred just after a restart when Earnhardt Jr. spun Brian Vickers. Had the new rule been in place, neither Earnhardt nor Vickers, both a lap down at the time, would have been near the front. They would have been placed in back of the leaders.

"The front row is going to be determined on what the second and third row is," Busch said, referring to the option the leader has to choose either the inside or outside lane. "You're going to restart in front of whoever you feel like – whoever you feel like is going to be the best 'pusher' to restart with.

"If we are running one-two, it's going to separate teammates. … It will separate teammates, and you'll have to go with whatever lane you'll feel like the best pushers are going to be – whether it's the guy who's in third or fifth, or the guy who is in second and fourth."

3. Will Mark Martin finally win in Daytona?

Unlike the majority of Sprint Cup drivers who live in Charlotte, N.C., Mark Martin's home is in Daytona Beach. However, of his 38 career Cup wins, zero have come at Daytona International Speedway.

He's been close before, most notably the 2007 Daytona 500 when Kevin Harvick edged him out at the finish line by a few inches.

Being winless at his home track used to haunt Martin, but now the 50-year-old says he's at peace with not yet conquering the track.

"I don't get frustrated with any of the tracks that I haven't won at," he said. "I look at it more on the other hand. I'm grateful for the tracks I have managed to win at. Rather than expecting to win, like I'm owed that, I feel more fortunate to have the success I have had in my career."

Martin has been a sentimental favorite all season and will definitely be so Saturday night.

4. Did NASCAR botch the Jeremy Mayfield drug test?

Wednesday's ruling that NASCAR must lift its suspension of Mayfield, who was suspended after testing positive for methamphetamines on May 1, has put in question NASCAR's ability to govern itself. Mayfield very well may have ingested an illegal drug prior to the May 1 test, but NASCAR appears helpless in doing anything about it.

Had an independent laboratory tested Mayfield's B-sample, the court might have sided with NASCAR. But that didn't happen, and now NASCAR has no other samples to support its claim that Mayfield, indeed, tested positive for an illegal drug.

Mayfield still hasn't been cleared of any wrongdoing, but logic would dictate that if a federal judge didn't feel NASCAR had enough valid evidence to warrant a suspension, he's not going to side with the sanctioning body when it comes to Mayfield's future in the sport, unless NASCAR has further proof that Mayfield did test positive.

Mayfield won't drive in Saturday night's race, but he's expected to next weekend at Chicagoland where NASCAR will have no choice but to allow a driver it believes took methamphetamines to compete.

"It's a tough situation for anybody to make that decision because [the judge] potentially puts my safety in jeopardy with that decision," Jeff Burton said. "The other decision potentially puts Jeremy's career in jeopardy, so what do you do?

"Sometimes you can make an answer, but neither one is 100 percent right, and that's kind of the way I view it. The next step is going to be a really big step when the case continues."

5. Long live the King

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of Richard Petty's 200th and final win. In front of an audience that included President Ronald Reagan, Petty won the Firecracker 400 to make it an even 200. He would race another eight seasons, but that would be his last trip to victory lane.