Can Johnson recapture magic?

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The first thing to know when beginning the handicapping process for Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway is that there are no more restrictor-plates as we’ve been accustomed to seeing at Daytona and Talladega since 1988. The last race using it was this season’s Daytona 500 won by Denny Hamlin.

The new race package featuring aero ducts, taller spoilers and engines producing 550 horsepower for those two tracks debuted at Talladega on April 28 and it created some fantastic racing with 37 lead changes among 15 drivers. Almost all the cars were truly equal, but it was Chevrolet that came away as the big winner with Chase Elliott grabbing the manufacturers’ only win of the season until Alex Bowman won Sunday at Chicagoland.

The top-three finishers in that race were all from Chevrolet which included Bowman in second and rookie Ryan Preece with a career-best third place. Six of the top-eight finishers where from the Chevrolet camp, which included Las Vegan Brendan Gaughan in eighth-place. All three of our Vegas boys finished in the top-10 with Kurt Busch in sixth and Kyle Busch in 10th.

Although Talladega and Daytona race differently, I’m expecting something close to what we saw in April at Talladega so I come in this week with an equation mixing in a little bit of past history in plate races with current form and also Talladega.

Hamlin finished 36th at Talladega but he’s a driver that has to be looked at first despite never winning the July Daytona race. He’s got the high-banked 2.5-mile layout figured out and knows how to get the front often. The idea is to get out front and stay away from “the big one” behind him.

He’s won the Daytona 500 twice and his 437 laps led there are the most among active drivers. He’s led laps in 19 of his last 24 Daytona starts and has finished sixth or better in seven of his last 11 starts.

The only thing of concern with Hamlin this week is that the highest finishing Toyota at Talladega was his teammate Kyle Busch with 10th-place. The next best was another teammate, Erik Jones, in 19th.

There are far fewer Toyotas in the field and in these type of races drivers need friends to help push them in the draft. Hamlin and Busch can both be trusted to help get any driver to the front, but in that split-second choice a driver has to make on what move to make, they may be more apt to go with a driver of the same manufacturer and leave the Joe Gibbs Racing guys hanging out to dry in the draft.

Elliott led the most laps (45) at Talladega, but the driver I think I was most impressed with was Joey Logano who fought Chevy hard with his Ford buddies. He led nine different times for 37 laps and I believe we’ll see something similar Saturday night with him and Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney working well with the four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers and the two Roush Fenway Racing drivers.

Since winning the 2015 Daytona 500, Logano has finished sixth or better in six of his last nine Daytona starts. He’s also got three other wins at Talladega showing he knows the draft well. Keselowski leads the series with six wins between Daytona and Talladega and won this race in 2016. Ford has won 13 of the past 19 races between Daytona and Talladega.

With the only race using this package, Chevrolet clearly had something working better than the others, especially Hendrick Motorsports with Elliott, Bowman, and three-time Daytona winner Jimmie Johnson who has gone 76 races without a win. Johnson won the Daytona Clash, and while it doesn’t count as a regular season race, he did get 5 playoff points for it and it paid out at 25-1 odds at the sportsbooks. The seven-time champ is starving for a win and the randomness of Daytona could be the spot.

The funny thing about Johnson in past plate races is that he was the driver brought back to the pack with other drivers because of the randomness. Of his 83 career Cup wins, only five of them came between Daytona and Talladega. Now it’s flipped where he’s the desperate driver looking to take advantage of the randomness.

Just like in the Clash where his desperation for a win led him to bump and bang his way to a win, the same could be true come Saturday night. For his entire career, he’s been the Mr. Corporate NASCAR driver rarely ruffling feathers. But Mr. Nice Guy is gone, and I like it better that way.

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