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Storm clouds move in over Daytona International Speedway causing a delay of events before the NASCAR Xfinity race on  July 5 (John Raoux)
Storm clouds move in over Daytona International Speedway causing a delay of events before the NASCAR Xfinity race on July 5 (John Raoux)|Associated Press
NASCAR

NASCAR Saturday - The Eckel Three Pick the Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona

Mark Eckel

NASCAR returns to Daytona and to prime time (7:30 p.m.) with Saturday night’s Coke Zero Sugar 400.

A lot of eyes will be on the playoff standings, as well as Saturday night’s winner.

Veteran Jimmie Johnson, with a good showing last week in Chicago, moved from just out of the playoff picture into 14th place with 436 points just ahead of Daniel Suarez (434) and Clint Bowyer (431). Erik Jones is now the first driver out of the playoffs with 416 points.

As far as the race goes, Denny Hamlin scored his second Daytona 500 victory here in February, putting him in position for a racing rarity — a season sweep at Daytona. That feat has only occurred twice in the last 37 years.

“At Daytona, it's not set-up driven,” Hamlin told NASCAR.com. “It is strategic that you really have to make yourself a great race car driver here. It's just putting yourself in the right position here at the right time and avoiding the wrecks. It's hard enough to win one, let alone two because of all of the variables. It's so hard to do.”

Hamlin, who besides the opening-day win at Daytona, also won at Texas, sits in sixth place in the overall standings with 574 points, just behind Martin Truex Jr. (581) and just ahead of Chase Elliott (570). One of the “Eckel Three’’ − Scott “Tobacco Road’’ Baker − is very high on Hamlin this week.

This week’s pole sitter Joey Logano (677) remains on top of the standings followed by Kyle Busch (569).

This week’s race also marks the first Daytona race since 1987 that will be contested using tapered spacers instead of restrictor plates to decrease engine horsepower to keep speeds down. This was first used at Talladega in April. Elliott won that race.

Here are the selections from the panel that includes Mike “Left Turn’’ Sweeney, as well as “Tobacco Road’’ Baker.

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THE PICKS:

Martin Truex Jr. (18-1): Two of three “experts’’ put the New Jersey native on top to win his fifth race of the season and break the tie with Busch, who also has four wins. True finished second here last year.

Denny Hamlin (10-1): Hamlin hasn’t fared well of late in he second race at Daytona, but his win here opening day shows he knows the track and how to win here. He’s worth a long look.

Joey Logano (8-1): The points leader won here in 2015 and came in fourth in 2016. He’s missed the top five the past two years, but he’s obviously having a good season and could see his third trip to Victory Lane Saturday night.

Brad Keselowski (8-1): Keselowski, who is tied for third wth Kevin Harvick, in the standings said he sent a message this week when he made contact with William Byron’s car in the final practice run Thursday. He could send another message by getting his fourth win of the season.

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