Quaker State 400 Preview: Saturday Night Shootout

Quaker State 400 Preview: Saturday Night Shootout

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The Sprint Cup Series will race under the lights for a second consecutive weekend as the schedule offers the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kent. After years of hosting NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events the intermediate oval, Kentucky hit the big time in 2011, when the facility was awarded its place in the Sprint Cup Series schedule. The 400-mile event raced at night at Kentucky Speedway has now become a fixture in the 36-race schedule that crowns NASCAR's champion. It also signals the start of the summer part of the schedule which means a lot of racing under the lights. Including last week's race at Daytona, four of the next nine races will be held at night, so the Quaker State 400 is our second taste of that prime-time part of the schedule.

The Kentucky tri-oval has a very similar configuration to Kansas Speedway in terms of banking and size. The teams that just dominated at Kansas a few weeks ago are sure to be looking forward to this weekend's trip to Sparta. While Kansas offers 15 degree corner banking compared to 14 degree corner banking at Kentucky, the similarities are enough to warrant reconsideration of the same driver group that we had in the recently completed GoBowling.com 400. Both ovals are the tri-oval, "D" shaped variety so the handling characteristics will be much the same. Probably the only major difference we'll see this weekend at Kentucky Speedway is that our lineup of streaking

The Sprint Cup Series will race under the lights for a second consecutive weekend as the schedule offers the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kent. After years of hosting NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series events the intermediate oval, Kentucky hit the big time in 2011, when the facility was awarded its place in the Sprint Cup Series schedule. The 400-mile event raced at night at Kentucky Speedway has now become a fixture in the 36-race schedule that crowns NASCAR's champion. It also signals the start of the summer part of the schedule which means a lot of racing under the lights. Including last week's race at Daytona, four of the next nine races will be held at night, so the Quaker State 400 is our second taste of that prime-time part of the schedule.

The Kentucky tri-oval has a very similar configuration to Kansas Speedway in terms of banking and size. The teams that just dominated at Kansas a few weeks ago are sure to be looking forward to this weekend's trip to Sparta. While Kansas offers 15 degree corner banking compared to 14 degree corner banking at Kentucky, the similarities are enough to warrant reconsideration of the same driver group that we had in the recently completed GoBowling.com 400. Both ovals are the tri-oval, "D" shaped variety so the handling characteristics will be much the same. Probably the only major difference we'll see this weekend at Kentucky Speedway is that our lineup of streaking drivers is a bit different than when we visited Kansas. The last several weeks have seen some shifts in who is hot and who is not as the series pulls into the Kentucky oval. We'll take that information into consideration as we take a look at the historical numbers for this speedway.

This will be just our sixth Sprint Cup Series visit to Kentucky Speedway. To say that we're short on historical data would be a big understatement. Still, we do have the five prior races to pull some numbers from. Granted the statistical sample is quite small, the data will still be a helpful tool in evaluating the drivers. We'll also take a brief look back on the recently completed race at Kansas Speedway. These two ovals are quite similar, and the GoBowling.com 400 is so fresh statistically that these numbers are likely a good indicator of potential performance this weekend. As you'll see in the table below, the electronic scoring from last four Kentucky races has some easily recognizable stars. Here are the loop stats for the last five races at Kentucky Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch3.81191944371,270129.1
Brad Keselowski9.61402534081,104117.8
Jimmie Johnson7.41721292031,159111.9
Matt Kenseth4.623384381,230106.7
Joey Logano10.21384760936100.4
Kevin Harvick10.41861801,14397.1
Kasey Kahne12.218664184594.0
Carl Edwards13.4156343691292.2
Denny Hamlin18.8115527675591.6
Kurt Busch11.2168254183490.0
Ryan Newman15.014614287187.0
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.4119331068685.2
Martin Truex Jr.13.81517177685.2
Trevor Bayne13.0180012281.2
Clint Bowyer19.26912070880.8
Jamie McMurray20.811313043477.8
Paul Menard19.2829061574.3
Regan Smith25.0393013873.0
Aric Almirola23.0741031172.7
Austin Dillon21.7550033972.2

In last season's Kentucky race we saw our second repeat winner at the oval in just the fifth season of this event's existence. Kyle Busch led 163 of the 267 laps and dominated the evening at the Sparta oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing star would hold Joey Logano at bay and claim his second-career victory at Kentucky Speedway. While we saw the No. 18 Toyota up front most of that night, he wasn't the only contender to get some attention in the Quaker State 400. There were many suitors for victory lane that hot summer night in Sparta. Kyle Busch was joined by Logano, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin as major players at the front of the pack. With the Busch win, Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing has taken the first five wins at this 1.5-mile oval and has effectively locked Chevrolet out of victory lane here to this point. JGR has always had some edge on the competition at this track no matter what division of NASCAR is racing. Between Sprint Cup and Xfinity Series racing at Kentucky Speedway, Gibbs drivers have dominated at this particular oval. This date in the schedule looks like a wonderful opportunity for drivers of this stable to add to their win totals and bolster their position in the Chase standings.

The recently completed race at Kansas Speedway in early May is likely a good preview of what to expect at this similar oval. The drivers that led laps, turned fast laps and raced up front at Kansas are the ones likely to put on a repeat performance at the Kentucky oval. Several different drivers swapped the lead that evening at Kansas, but it was Martin Truex Jr. that dominated that event, however, it would be Busch that would go onto victory lane that night. We expect to see these two drivers in the mix and up front this Saturday evening. As far as the history of the Kentucky Speedway is concerned, it's no surprise that Busch is our loop stat leader coming into this weekend's race. With the driver of the No. 18 Toyota having won earlier at Kansas and having finished runner-up this past weekend at Daytona, we have to give him a lot of cred coming into this 400-mile race. Among the lower tier contenders, we need to keep both Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick in mind. Truex is mired in a mini-slump right now, but he's been strong on these intermediate ovals in 2016. Harvick has been equally good on the mid-size ovals and he's racing extremely well entering this weekend. If a Chevrolet driver is finally going to break through at Kentucky, either of these two would be top choices. We'll highlight the fantasy racing drivers you need to dominate the evening at Kentucky Speedway this Saturday night.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kyle Busch –
The Joe Gibbs Racing star checks in as our top contender this week. The winner of two Kentucky races, including this event one year ago, Busch should have an edge on most of the field this Saturday night. He's been strong on the intermediate ovals this season with two victories and four Top-5 finishes in the five events to-date. Busch is putting some consistency issues behind him right now, but his runner-up finish at Daytona this past weekend signals the current struggles are over for now. Kentucky is simply one of his favorite places to race. Busch is one of only three drivers to visit the Top-10 in all five Kentucky races to-date. Busch has led a whopping 437of the 1,335 laps raced at Kentucky Speedway.

Brad Keselowski –
The Penske Racing driver is looking to build on the momentum of his big Daytona victory this past week, and a visit to Kentucky Speedway may be just what the doctor ordered to keep the No. 2 team on a roll. Keselowski has been pretty strong on the intermediate ovals this season with one win and four Top-10 finishes. He's one of only four drivers to have won on these cookie cutter ovals this season. The driver of the No. 2 Ford won this event in 2012 and 2014, so Keselowski is a two time winner at Kentucky Speedway. He combined to lead 408 laps in his five Kentucky Speedway races. That's a great sign of potential success for the veteran driver coming to Sparta, Kentucky this Saturday night.

Kevin Harvick –
In this season's intermediate oval races, no one has been hotter than Harvick in the Sprint Cup Series. He's earned the second-most points of any driver with 182. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has two runner-up finishes, 133 laps led and five Top-10 finishes in those five events. The No. 4 Chevrolet team should stay on a roll in the Quaker State 400. Harvick posted those two runner-up finishes in our last two 1.5-mile oval races at Kansas and Charlotte, so he's warming up on these intermediate ovals. Harvick has yet to win at Kentucky or on the cookie cutter tracks this season, but the timing may finally be right for him to break through this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Furniture Row Racing star fell into a bit of a rut in June, but he'll be very glad to get back to intermediate ovals this week. Truex has been one of the top performers on these style tracks in 2016. The driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet won the pole position at Kansas and finished 14th (due to poor fuel strategy), but won the pole at Charlotte and took a dominant victory in the Coca-Cola 600. In those two races alone Truex combined to lead well over 500 laps. We see the Denver, Colorado-based team bringing that excellence to the Sparta oval this Saturday night. Truex should be racing with the leaders and contending for the win in the Quaker State 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Joey Logano –
The No. 22 Penske Racing team built on their current five-race Top-10 streak with a strong fourth-place Daytona finish last weekend. The good times should keep on rollin' for Logano at Kentucky Speedway. He has earned a pair of Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season. The young driver has 78 laps led combined in these five races, so he's not quite as strong as he has been in the past, but Logano has been very consistent on the intermediate ovals. Kentucky Speedway brings another opportunity to shine to the No. 22 Ford team. Logano has a three-race Top-10 streak at this oval and has led a combined 60 laps in just his last two outings. He should be wired tight for this 267-lap battle.

Kurt Busch –
Busch has a good career record at the Kentucky oval and he comes into this event having just ended a 10-race Top-10 streak at Daytona. The SHR driver will look to start a new string in Saturday night's Quaker State 400. Busch has displayed his usual expertise on the intermediate ovals this season. He has two pole positions, 93 laps led and five Top 10s in his five starts on these style tracks to this point. Busch's performance at Kansas Speedway, which is a very similar oval to Kentucky Speedway, yielded a brilliant third-place finish. The SHR veteran has been looking very fast in recent weeks, and he's a Top-5 threat each week no matter the style of track.

Jimmie Johnson –
The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion has only five-career Sprint Cup starts at the intermediate oval in Kentucky. The sample size is small, but the stats count the same. Johnson owns one pole position, 203 laps led and five Top-10 finishes in those efforts. It doesn't get any more spotless than that. We've seen Johnson perform well on the cookie cutter oval circuit this season with a victory at Atlanta, and Top 5s in four of the five events. The No. 48 team may be inconsistent on the larger ovals and short tracks this season, but they're dialed-in on the intermediate ovals. Johnson will for sure be racing with the leaders at Kentucky Speedway this Saturday night.

Chase Elliott –
After a couple weeks of racing on road courses and superspeedways, Elliott will be glad to get back to the intermediate oval circuit. The No. 24 team and their rookie driver were a bit exposed on the more challenging Sonoma circuit and the high-stakes/big-risk racing of Daytona. The more predictable Kentucky Speedway should get Elliott back inside the Top 10 this week. This will be his first Sprint Cup start at the oval in Kentucky, but not to worry. His intermediate oval pedigree this season shows four Top-10 finishes in the five events to-date. Elliott's four-career Xfinity Series starts at Kentucky were good prep, and they yielded a pair of Top-5 finishes between 2014-15.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Kentucky who can provide a solid finish

Matt Kenseth –
With struggles at Sonoma and Daytona the last two races, Kenseth and the No. 20 team have to be viewed as a desperate and hungry bunch coming to the Sparta oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has Top-10 finishes in two of the five intermediate oval races this season and he's led a total of 80 laps across those events. While he may not roll into victory lane this Saturday night, he and the team have been steady and consistent enough to pencil in for Top 10s at these facilities. Kenseth won this event three years ago, and is a perfect five-for-five in Top-10 finishes at Kentucky Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt Jr. has three Top-10 finishes in five starts on these style tracks this season. Coming off a disappointing Daytona performance, the No. 88 team should be a highly-motivated bunch coming to Sparta, Kentucky. Earnhardt collected a steady eighth-place finish at the similar oval in Las Vegas earlier in the season, so these lower-banked 1.5-mile tracks are in the Hendrick star's wheelhouse right now. He earned a pole position and a pair of Top-5 finishes in his five Kentucky Speedway starts. We're willing to bet he rebounds well in Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at the Kentucky oval.

Ryan Newman –
The RCR veteran's two Top 10s in the last five events entering this week has shook off the malaise of an early-season soft patch for the No. 31 Chevrolet team. The return to intermediate ovals should only bolster and extend Newman's current Top-10 performances. He boasts two Top 10s in the last two 1.5-mile track races (Kansas and Charlotte). His Kentucky stats show a pair of Top-5 finishes in five starts with a career-best third-place finish in this event two years ago. Newman's not running downhill towards the Chase yet, but he's gathering momentum and still looking for his first win of the season coming to Kentucky Speedway.

Kasey Kahne –
While recent performance issues make us think twice about recommending the Hendrick Motorsports star, but the Kentucky resume makes us rethink our position on the No. 5 team. Kahne sports a pair of Top 10s and four Top 15s in his five-career starts at Kentucky Speedway. Given his consistency issues the last three seasons, the numbers clearly show that this veteran driver finds his "A" game each time he visits the oval in Sparta, Kentucky. While Kahne has not been a world-beater on the cookie cutter ovals this season (two Top 10s and three Top 15s), he does generally finish in the Top 15 and does stay on the lead lap.

Austin Dillon –
The 26-year-old driver is working on his best season by far in the Sprint Cup Series in 2016. Dillon comes to Kentucky a career-best 12th in the driver standings and on pace to register about 17 Top-10 finishes this season. He's fresh off another Daytona Top 10, so the No. 3 team is riding pretty high coming into the Quaker State 400. Dillon doesn't have good stats in his three starts at the Kentucky oval, but his intermediate oval performance in general this season is greatly improved. Two of his five 1.5-mile oval starts have netted Top-10 finishes and he has an average finish of 10.6 across the spread. That is incredibly better than his career average to this point. Dillon should remain on a roll at Kentucky this weekend.

Ryan Blaney –
The Wood Brothers Racing rookie will be making his first-career Sprint Cup start at Kentucky Speedway this Saturday night. However, that is of little concern. Blaney has five-career Xfinity starts and the central Kentucky oval, and in those starts two victories and four Top-10 finishes. The driver of the No. 21 Ford should really be looking forward to his Sprint Cup debut at this oval. Blaney also boasts two Top-10 finishes this season in five starts on the intermediate oval circuit. Interestingly enough, one of those came at the similar oval in Kansas. He's excelled there in his brief Cup career with two Top-10 finishes in three-career starts. The low-banked intermediate ovals play right into Blaney's strengths as a driver, and the numbers show it.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Clint Bowyer –
The transition season between Michael Waltrip Racing and Stewart Haas Racing has been a bumpy affair for Bowyer. His No. 15 HScott Motorsports team just struggles to give him good cars, and struggles to hit the setup each weekend. The veteran driver did buck that trend with a good Daytona performance, but that had as much to do with luck as it did skill. The intermediate ovals have been a complete disaster for Bowyer. With only one Top-20 finish in five starts and one DNF, he's averaging a forgettable 27.4 average finish on these ovals this season. When we combine that with his subpar Kentucky resume (one Top 10 in five starts, 19.2 average finish) we get the clear indication to pass on Bowyer this Saturday night.

Greg Biffle –
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran won his first pole position since the 2012 season with his Daytona pole last week. That was a real bright spot in what has been a slow season for the No. 16 team. Biffle followed up with a Top-10 finish in the Coke Zero 400, but the news is bleaker this week as we return to the cookie cutter ovals. He's really struggled on these style tracks in 2016. No Top-10 finishes in five starts and a 22.0 average finish across the lot. That nearly parallels Biffle's Kentucky Speedway history. No Top-10 finishes in five starts and a 21.2 average finish. Sadly, it looks like the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing team will be returning to reality this week.

Kyle Larson –
The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is fresh off a Top-10 finish and scrape with disaster at Daytona this past weekend. Hopefully, he's no worse for wear despite the harrowing Coke Zero 400 and its many crashes. As we return to the cookie cutter ovals we have to look at Larson's body of work on these style tracks in 2016. The results are not good. Larson has only two finishes inside the Top 20 and an average finish of 24.4 across his five starts on these ovals. His 37.5 average finish in two starts at Kentucky Speedway are a good indicator of the struggles he's had at this facility. Don't pin your fantasy racing hopes on the young Chip Ganassi Racing driver at Kentucky.

Tony Stewart –
Smoke comes to Kentucky Speedway at a crossroads. He enters the Quaker State 400 30th in the championship standings and hoping to improve his chances of making the Chase for the Cup in September. However, the going has been tough as his sub-par 26th-place finish at Daytona last weekend showed. Stewart needs to up his level of performance this weekend, but his intermediate oval efforts have been sadly lacking in 2016. The Kentucky Speedway resume for this driver is no better. With no Top-10 finishes and a 21.6 average finish at the 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, we're having a difficult time expecting anything big from this driver this weekend.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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