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It won’t be the same Daytona this time around

July 03, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

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In summer races, 2.5-mile track presents new challenge

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It would be quite a firecracker, indeed.

If Jimmie Johnson were to win Saturday night’s summertime classic at Daytona International Speedway, he would snap one of the more puzzling droughts in modern NASCAR history. No driver has swept the two annual NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the 2.5-mile track since Bobby Allison last did it in 1982, an accomplishment that hasn’t been matched in 31 years.

This season Johnson is the only who has a chance, by virtue of his victory in the Daytona 500. The grand marshal for Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona, Allison stands with LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969), Cale Yarborough (1968) and Fireball Roberts (1962) as the only men to record one of the sport’s more difficult sweeps.

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Of course, Johnson won’t be the lone driver coming to grips with a track that’s changed a great deal since the sport’s top series last competed on it in February. It may be the same sheet of asphalt stretched over the same distance, but Daytona in July bears little resemblance to Daytona in February -- likely a large reason why so few have been able to capture both races there in the same year.

“The track becomes a little bit slicker, especially with the increased temperatures,” said former Daytona 500 winner Kevin Harvick. “Plus, the asphalt ages just a bit from all of the other racing that takes place at this particular track. Usually it’s about 95 degrees with 90 percent humidity in July, so the slick track condition is the biggest change we deal with when racing at Daytona International Speedway in July compared to February.”

Although Johnson wound up in Victory Lane after the season-opening race, his celebration was only the climax of an event that saw two top contenders suffer engine problems, another taken out in an early accident, Danica Patrick make a history-making run from the Coors Light Pole position and Dale Earnhardt Jr. surge to yet another runner-up finish. Saturday, though promises to be a different animal.

“I honestly don’t know what to expect right now,” said Martin Truex Jr., the winner two weeks ago in Sonoma. “NASCAR is taking a different tire. (Toyota Racing Development) has been working on the engine program to avoid the issues we experienced last time. It will be hot, but the track surface still is relatively new. The track has so much grip that everyone will be able to run wide open. I don’t expect handling to be an issue. … This race is about being in the right position during the last couple of laps. You have to do what it takes to put yourself there.”

In February, Toyota drivers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth each went out with engine trouble -- the latter after leading 86 of the first 149 laps. “Hopefully we can go back and have that same kind of performance and speed,” Kenseth said. Then there was Tony Stewart, whose strong Speedweeks ended in a crash, leaving the three-time series champion still without a victory in the Great American Race on his otherwise illustrious resume.

Stewart does have four wins in the track’s summer race, best among all active drivers, and would tie David Pearson’s event record of five with another victory. His 665 laps led at Daytona is also best among active drivers. Stewart won last year’s July event at Daytona, sneaking past then-Roush Fenway teammates Greg Biffle and Kenseth before a crash unfolded off the final corner.

“When they hooked up, I didn’t think there was anybody that could beat them,” Stewart said. “But we were able to stay in touch with them, and I got a great restart with Kasey Kahne helping me. We just had to try to separate Matt and Greg there. Once we got them pulled apart, I think Matt tried to reconnect with Greg, and we carried enough momentum to get back around in front of him and get down on that bottom line. I tried to back up to Matt to make sure they didn’t get a huge run on us. They were coming on the outside in (Turns) 3 and 4 and the last wreck happened, and we were just fortunate enough to be leading still.”

As for Johnson? He ended up 36th in that race, the victim of an earlier accident. The two-time Daytona 500 champ hasn’t finished better than 20th in any of his last three summertime starts on the restrictor-plate track -- just another example of how different things can be in Daytona between February and July.

“When we go back this weekend in the heat of the summer, I think the track will be even more slippery,” said driver Paul Menard. “It's probably going to come down to how the car handles, a lot like it used to be before the repave. Every time we go back, handling becomes more and more important and I don't see that changing this weekend.”

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