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Friday, July 5, 2013
NASCAR: Live from Daytona

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Kyle Busch rolls to pole as Toyotas dominate

Toyota may be down on horsepower overall lately, but not on restrictor-plate tracks. Camrys took the top three starting positions, and four of the top five, in qualifying Friday for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Kyle Busch led the way, at 193.723 mph. Matt Kenseth was second-fastest at 193.299, followed by Clint Bowyer at 193.158.

Only Chevrolet's Kasey Kahne, fourth, broke up the Toyota promenade, at 193.154. But next was Martin Truex Jr. in another Camry.

Toyota engineers have gone conservative in recent weeks after an outbreak of blown engines. But that has all transpired on unrestricted tracks. The plate engine program remains intact -- although durability is yet to be affirmed Saturday night.

Ford driver David Gilliland, who got the celebrated assist in pushing teammate David Ragan to victory at Talladega in May, qualified sixth on Friday. But Ragan qualified 38th, so the tandem will have to work for a while to find each other in the draft.

Danica Patrick, who started on the pole for the Daytona 500 in February, qualified a respectable 11th in a Chevrolet, and so again has a good chance of running near the front in the drafting lines.

-- Ed Hinton

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Pole. Daytona. pic.twitter.com/AHfr8kBwGK

— Marty Smith (@MartySmithESPN) July 5, 2013

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Is Junior being serious?

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to be kidding. But it'll take a moment to get to the punch line.

Earnhardt, speaking at the track where his father died, gave his full blessing to the likely return of the No. 3 to Cup racing, driven by Austin Dillon, in the foreseeable future.

"It was an iconic number for my father, and it means a lot to a lot of his fans," Earnhardt said at a news conference Thursday. But, "This sport doesn't really retire numbers, and all the numbers have history tied to them for several different reasons.

"The No. 3 is no different. I think if a kid like Austin wants to come up through the ranks and he drove the No. 3 in dirt racing and he drove the No. 3 in the Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, he has earned the right to run that number as long as he wants.

"It could have been anybody, but it's Austin. It could have been any kid coming up through the ranks that ran that number and that's his number."

Now the punch line: "Maybe he's not even an Earnhardt fan. Maybe that's just his number."

Nice try, Junior. But please. Please.

Might any young driver -- especially Dillon -- be driving No. 3 because he or she remembers that Junior Johnson drove it for a while? Or that Babe Ruth wore it? Or that Dillon's grandfather and team owner, Richard Childress, drove that number during his journeyman career as a driver?

Childress was Earnhardt Sr.'s car owner and closest friend for most of the Intimidator's career. Childress owns both the number in NASCAR and the copyright to the legendary left-slanted 3.

The plan for the return of No. 3 to prominence has been fairly obvious. Childress has reintroduced it in small steps, first for his grandson in Trucks and now in Nationwide. And Ty Dillon, Austin's younger brother, is still driving No. 3 in Trucks.

So gracious move, Junior, to bless the return of 3.

But "Maybe he's not even an Earnhardt fan"? Polite as that was, Junior really, really had to be kidding.

-- Ed Hinton

Kenseth expecting better show at Daytona

Matt Kenseth, arguably the most dominant plate racer for the past two seasons, doesn't expect a replay of this year's somewhat bland Daytona 500 in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.

Kenseth has but two wins to show for his strong outings in the past six plate races, but the wild shuffling of the draft has cost him, and a blown engine took him out of this year's Daytona 500 while he was leading.

Still, he's the reigning authority on the subject.

The Daytona 500 drew fan criticism as dull, but "it was the first race for the Gen 6 car," said Kenseth, who has a series-leading four wins this season, though none have come on plate tracks. "Certainly, you're going to learn."

The Talladega plate race in May was much wilder, improving the reputation of the Gen 6 -- although Kenseth dominated that one before losing as a sitting duck on the last lap to the underdog tandem of David Ragan and David Gilliland.

"There's going to be an evolution, not just the setup stuff, but we're going to learn more about drafting and where you want to be," Kenseth said. "I thought Talladega was a totally different race than Daytona -- which honestly surprised me. I expected it to be exactly the same [as the Daytona 500], and it was not at all.

"You had to do a lot of things a lot different. And I expect that it [Saturday night's race] will be a cross between Daytona and Talladega. Probably more like Talladega.

"I'm not sure why. I'm not sure why Talladega would have been different, other than just people learn more about the cars ... figure out how to put them in different situations to make more passing and more side-by-side."

-- Ed Hinton

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Here's the look @ClintBowyer is sporting this weekend at Daytona. #NASCAR pic.twitter.com/FOzNbdih1z

— NASCAR on ESPN (@ESPNNASCAR) July 5, 2013

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Smoke and (green-screen) mirrors

For weeks, a sideshow of curiosity among NASCAR fans has been this question: Did Tony Stewart really do that gymnastics split in the new Mobil 1 commercial with Formula One driver Jenson Button?

"Let's be clear," Stewart, notorious for his flouting of physical conditioning, said Friday afternoon. "If I had done that, I'd still be down there [on the floor].

"No, they didn't ask me to do that. They had me get down on the ground for the camera shot, but they had green screen [a special effects technique]. They had some male gymnast do [the split]. I don't know who it was. I didn't want to be there when he did it."

As for the "soda cookies" line in the commercial, where Stewart dunks an Oreo in Coca-Cola and eats it, he actually did that. However: "I've eaten Oreos and chased them with a Coke, but I can't say I've done a lot of dunking," he said.

"But it's actually pretty good."

-- Ed Hinton

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espnw -- Tony Gibson lured by crack at history with Danica Patrick http://t.co/YlKWFihqqI

— ESPN_Motorsports (@ESPNMotorsports) July 5, 2013

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It's hot, but not that hot!

When you've been coming here to cover this race, in this heat, for 39 years, you're easier to please than some in the modern media corps.

So the hot but stiff breeze that has been whipping across Daytona International Speedway the past two afternoons, while an annoyance to some, is, to me, a breeze.

Any breeze.

And that makes it a welcome breeze indeed. A wonderful breeze.

The heat soared to 95 degrees Thursday and seems headed there again Friday.

But I've been here quite a few summers, through the decades, when temperatures were in the high 90s and there was no breeze.

None. Just dead air, thick and heavy with Central Florida's trademark humidity.

The media center is, of course, air conditioned, but at least I've yet to return dripping with sweat after navigating the garage area, the fan areas (nowhere do I admire the toughness of NASCAR fans more than here in July) and the infield parking lots.

No sweat.

Knock on wood.

-- Ed Hinton