It seems just as though yesterday teams were gearing up for the season-opening weekend.  With new rules, new setups and some drivers in new rides, NASCAR descended upon Daytona and spent two weeks preparing for the race that millions wait for once the final checkered flag waves at Homestead.

Fast forward to July; the season has now come full circle.  NASCAR is set for the first July race of the season, and it's back where the season started.  This time, unlike February, there's no rain forecasted, and the primetime start was already on the schedule.

A sign that summer is in full swing, the summer Daytona event has seen many great moments in it's history.  Richard Petty's 200th win came on July 4, with President Reagan watching from the press box.  Then came 1998, the first race under the lights.

It's a night that is often remembered for unexpected wins, or major catastrophes.

That kind of occurrence has the writers on edge because so much is out of their control once more this week.  Still, whether by a stroke of luck or just choosing a name wisely, the picks have been locked in.

Take a look at the choices they made for the Coke Zero 400:

 

Misan Akuya:  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt Jr's amazing 2012 season continues.  Could be the best season of his career consistency speaking.  Sonoma was his first race outside the top 20 and he responds by posting a top five finish at Kentucky.

He is the plate king.  Notching another win will solidify him as a serious title contender.

James Broomhead:  Kevin Harvick

No reason.

Kelly Crandall:  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Was going to go with either Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer or any other driver who lately has been a good shot to win at Daytona.  But, now that Junior has a win under his belt, and the team bringing the same car back from the Daytona 500, why not?

WRITER NOTE:  Kelly is on her yearly trip to the track, so be sure to catch up on all her columns on Speedway Media and Frontstretch.com.

Billy Fellin:  Matt Kenseth

He and Biffle were dominant at Daytona in February and despite the "lame duck"-ness of his season now, I believe Kenseth when he said that he is focused on winning the championship. A win at Daytona would be certainly help.

Michael Hirshbein:  Kyle Busch

No reason.

Christopher Leone:  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It's July 4th weekend, because America, I don't see why I need to offer a coherent sentence today... I mean, that should pretty much cover the sentiments of just about everyone.

Kara Martin:  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He better win because I'm at Daytona to see just that!!

WRITER NOTE:  As you can tell, Kara is also at Daytona to enjoy the weekend of action.

Ryan O'Hara:  Jeff Gordon

Throwing it out there. He'll rebound from his restrictor plate troubles this season.

Dustin Parks:  Jeff Gordon

I could give you all his stats at this track (6 wins, 12 top-fives, 19 top-10's) or I could tell you he's on a strong run of finishes (6th at both Michigan and Sonoma, 5th last week).  I could also say he needs a win to put himself into the Wild Card race.

But, I'll give you the main reason I am choosing the No. 24...I don't like Coke.  I don't drink Coca-Cola, can't stand Coke Zero, and the last time Gordon won this race was when it was named the Pepsi 400, where he outlasted the seven Coca-Cola Racing Family cars, all dressed in special Coca-Cola C2 colors, to give a free 2-Liter bottle of Pepsi Edge to America.

This year, you can bet I'll have enough Pepsi Max to let everyone know who I'm going for in Saturday's event.

Patti Rodisch:  Matt Kenseth

This race is a toss up as we know anyone can win this race; just ask David Ragan. Still, there are some favorites this weekend but I am going to go with a guy who pulled off a win here in February. He might be in a lame duck situation at Roush Fenway Racing but Kenseth is determined to bring home a championship in his final season with the organization.

His numbers aren't spectacular here but he did the best job with overheating issues and avoiding the melee that restrictor plate racing can bring. Kenseth has been as consistent as anyone with season and leading the points heading into Daytona I suspect win number two on the season coming on Saturday night.

Kenseth has five top-fives and 12 top-10 finishes at DIS, with an average finish of 16.7. Kenseth will better that average with a season sweep of DIS.

Sal Sigala Jr:  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

No reason.

Rob Tiongson:  Jeff Gordon

No logic, no reasoning, just picking him. It's a crap shoot and I could use another win.

 

Standings following Kentucky:

Billy Fellin (621) Brad Keselowski WON (3)

Sal Sigala Jr. (598) Jimmie Johnson finished 6th (1)

James Broomhead (572) Jimmie Johnson finished 6th (2)

Christopher Leone (569) Martin Truex Jr. finished 8th (1)

Misan Akuya (567) Tony Stewart finished 32nd (1)

Kelly Crandall (560) Tony Stewart finished 32nd (2)

Kara Martin (547) Jimmie Johnson finished 6th (1)

Rob Tiongson (539) Clint Bowyer finished 16th (3)

Dustin Parks (536) Carl Edwards finished 20th (1)

Ryan O'Hara (523) Jimmie Johnson finished 6th (1)

Patti Rodisch (522) Greg Biffle finished 21st (2)

Michael Hirshbein (503) Kyle Busch finished 10th (1)

 

Final Thoughts:  It's not hard to tell who is the favorite at this track, nor the drivers anyone would expect to be strong at Daytona.  At the same time, everything at the track is out of the drivers' hands, and a lot of the time it's relying on someone else to get the win.

Sure, the two-car tango won't happen often, at least not until it's "Go Time" late in the race.  But, there is nothing like a Saturday night shootout on a 2.5-mile speedway, where at each corner, anything can happen.

TNT is going "Wide Open" this weekend with it's limited national commercials and more expanded race coverage.  Everything kicks off at 6:30 p.m. with Countdown to Green.

 

Summary of Picks:

Dale Earnhardt Jr-5

Jeff Gordon-3

Matt Kenseth-2

Kyle Busch-1

Kevin Harvick-1