Quaker State 400 Preview: Saturday Night Shootout

Quaker State 400 Preview: Saturday Night Shootout

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The Monster Energy 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, Ky. After years of playing host to 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 Monster Energy 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.

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 KC Masterpiece 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.

The Monster Energy 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, Ky. After years of playing host to 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 Monster Energy 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.

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 KC Masterpiece 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 eighth Monster Energy 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 seven prior races to pull some numbers from. Granted the statistical sample is a bit small when compared to other tracks on the circuit, 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 KC Masterpiece 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 the last seven Kentucky races has some easily recognizable stars. Here are the loop stats for the last seven races at Kentucky Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Kyle Busch5.11912685491,796125.9
Brad Keselowski12.61802674831,455109.6
Matt Kenseth6.930396401,763106.4
Kevin Harvick10.0248691281,674104.1
Erik Jones6.04350272102.7
Martin Truex Jr.11.42181601991,30399.5
Jimmie Johnson15.61801342031,27497.5
Chase Elliott17.0645035394.6
Joey Logano14.015951671,13691.0
Denny Hamlin16.119461761,19690.4
Kurt Busch12.922427511,18586.3
Kasey Kahne16.12246411,05285.1
Ryan Newman14.31851421,10384.7
Jamie McMurray16.919319087683.6
Kyle Larson24.013327065982.2
Ryan Blaney22.54011027981.4
Clint Bowyer18.910512089277.1
Daniel Suarez18.0301018376.7
Darrell Wallace Jr.11.0230013275.2
Paul Menard19.311210081273.4

In last season's Kentucky race we saw Martin Truex Jr. step up and take the victory in a dominant performance. He led 152 of the 274 laps and held off Kyle Larson to take the win at the Sparta oval. The Furniture Row Racing star would collect his first-career victory at Kentucky Speedway. While we saw the No. 78 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. Truex Jr. was joined by Kyle Busch, Larson and Chase Elliott as major players at the front of the pack. With the Truex win, Toyota have taken two of the last three wins at the Kentucky oval and has effectively knocked Ford off the top of the heap at this facility. It will be interesting to see if Truex can out-duel the other two members of the "big three" this week. Kevin Harvick and Busch will be his biggest competition on an intermediate oval.

The recently completed race at Kansas Speedway in mid-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 Harvick that dominated that event, and would cruise to the win that night. Larson would lead significant laps, and Truex would be there to press Harvick at the end. We expect to see these three 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. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a two-time Cup winner and three-time Xfinity winner at the Kentucky oval. This has long been one of his favorite facilities to race each season. Among the lower tier contenders, we need to keep both Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola in mind. Both were very strong at Chicago recently, and they should bring fast cars to Kentucky. 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 at the top of the contenders list this week. The winner of two Kentucky races, including this event three years 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 three victories and one runner-up finish in the six events to-date. Busch will look to put the disappointment of crashing out of Daytona last weekend behind him. Kentucky is simply one of his favorite places to race. Busch cracks the Top 5 at this oval at a ridiculous 71-percent rate. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has led a whopping 549 of the 1,876 laps (29-percent) raced at Kentucky Speedway. Busch is the man to beat this Saturday night.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing star has been hot through June into July. Truex has won two of the last five races, and he finished runner-up this past Saturday night at Daytona. He has been one of the top performers on these style tracks this season with five Top-5 finishes in the six events to-date, but still winless. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota won this event one year ago in dominant fashion. He and crew chief Cole Pearn should have some very good notes from that outing. The veteran driver has finished runner-up in two of the last three intermediate oval events (Kansas and Charlotte), and the team is nearing victory lane on these style ovals. Truex should be racing with the leaders and contending for the win in the Quaker State 400.

Kevin Harvick -
In this season's intermediate oval races, few drivers have had as much success as Harvick in the Monster Energy Cup Series. He's earned the second-most points of any driver with 250. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has three victories, five Top-5 finishes, 600 laps led and one pole position in those six events. The No. 4 Ford team should stay on a roll in the Quaker State 400. Harvick posted one of those three victories at the very similar oval Kansas Speedway, so he's dialed-in on these style tracks. Harvick has yet to win at Kentucky Speedway during his career, but the timing may finally be right for him to break through this weekend.

Kyle Larson -
The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is the best positioned driver to potentially upset the "big three" this weekend. As we return to the cookie cutter ovals we have to look at Larson's body of work on these style tracks in 2018. The results are very good, and have been improving of late. Larson has three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in the six intermediate oval events to-date. His 10.2 average finish on these style tracks ranks him sixth among all drivers in average finish. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver only has four-career Kentucky Speedway starts to his credit, and the results have been less than impressive to this point. However, he turned in a career-best runner-up Kentucky finish in this event one year ago. That meshes nicely with his runner-up finish at Chicago just a couple weeks ago.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing driver is looking to build momentum on his strong but winless season, and a visit to Kentucky Speedway may be just what the doctor ordered to keep the No. 2 Ford team on a roll. Keselowski has been pretty strong on the intermediate ovals this season with two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes. The driver of the No. 2 Ford won this event in 2012, 2014 and 2016, so Keselowski is a three-time winner at Kentucky Speedway. He combined to lead 483 laps in his seven Kentucky Speedway starts. That's a great sign of potential success for the veteran driver coming to Sparta, Kentucky this Saturday night.

Joey Logano -
You'll not find a steadier and consistent driver on the intermediate ovals this season. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has been like a rock each time we visit a 1.5-mile track. Logano has earned a Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes on the intermediate oval circuit this season, so the cookie cutter ovals have been solid to the core. The Penske Racing star is coming to the perfect track to get him back into the positive side of the ledger after his crash and DNF at Daytona this past week. Kentucky Speedway brings an opportunity for the No. 22 Ford team to shine. Logano has four Top 10s in seven-career starts at this facility with 67 laps led combined. He should be wired tight for this 267-lap battle.

Clint Bowyer -
The last time we saw Bowyer in action on an intermediate oval, he shot himself in the foot, but still managed to finish in the Top 5. However, it was the awesome speed that his No. 14 Ford displayed that really caught our attention. Bowyer could have been the class of the field at Chicago two weeks ago, but the pit road penalties took a potential win away. The SHR veteran will take another crack at the checkered flag at Kentucky Speedway. This is not an oval where Bowyer has enjoyed much career success, so we're basing this pick mostly on what we witnessed at Chicago two weeks ago. If Bowyer can rally from laps down to crack the Top 5 there, just imagine what he can accomplish at the Kentucky oval if he stays out of trouble. A Top-10 finish would be on the low end of expectations.

Kurt Busch -
Busch has a good career record at the Kentucky oval and he comes into this event looking to continue his success on the larger ovals this season. The SHR veteran driver will look to keep it going in Saturday night's Quaker State 400. Busch has displayed his usual expertise on the intermediate ovals this season. He has an average start position of 6.5 and four Top 10s in his six starts on these style tracks to this point. Busch's performance at the similar oval in Kansas a few weeks ago yielded a steady eighth-place finish, and another eighth-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway at the end of May. The Stewart Haas Racing driver has two Top-10 finishes in his last three Kentucky Speedway starts, so he clearly loves this oval in central Kentucky.

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

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is on a roll on intermediate ovals entering this weekend. He rides a three-race Top-10 streak of Kansas, Charlotte and Chicago into Saturday night's 400-mile race. In total, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has four Top 10s in the six events this season on 1.5-mile ovals. Hamlin owns three Top-5 finishes in seven-career Kentucky starts, so he seems to be either brilliant or subpar here in equal parts. The one thing the veteran has going for him is that Hamlin finished fourth in this event one year ago. Given his current string of performance, we'd bet on the Hamlin of last season showing up this Saturday night for the Quaker State 400.

Aric Almirola -
With struggles at Chicago and Daytona the last two races, Almirola and the No. 10 team have to be viewed as a determined and hungry bunch coming into the Sparta oval. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has Top-10 finishes in two of the last five intermediate oval races this season. The big takeaway from Chicago two weeks ago was not Almirola's 25th-place finish, but his speed to lead 70 laps in that event. Better circumstances would have really rewarded him in that race. He'll look to bring that same speed to Kentucky Speedway Saturday night. Almirola only has a pair of Top-15 finishes in five-career starts at the Kentucky oval, but all those starts came with lesser equipped teams than his current situation.

Erik Jones -
The winner of this past Saturday night's Coke Zero Sugar 400 will saddle up again and go racing at Kentucky this Saturday night. Jones is probably still on cloud 9, but he should quickly get back into the groove with a race at an intermediate oval on tap. Jones has four Top-10 finishes in six events on these style ovals this season, and he finished an impressive sixth at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago. He'll look to duplicate that success at Kentucky Speedway. Jones made his Kentucky Speedway debut one year ago, and didn't disappoint. He reeled-in a strong sixth-place finish in last year's Quaker State 400. All the variables seem to be pointing to a similar result this weekend.

Ryan Blaney -
The Penske Racing youngster has had tremendous speed this season on cookie cutter ovals, but his luck has been coming up short of late. After recording Top 5s at Las Vegas and Fort Worth early in the year, Blaney has really struggled in his last three intermediate oval outings. That's not to say he hasn't had speed. The driver of the No. 12 Ford has qualified on the outside pole twice and led 73 combined laps in those three events. Kentucky Speedway presents a shot at redemption for the young driver. Blaney has two-career starts at this oval, and he finished 10th in this event one year ago. He is a driver to watch closely in this 400-mile battle under the lights.

Paul Menard -
Like a lot of drivers, this past Saturday night at Daytona did not go according to plan for Menard and the No. 21 team. However, the veteran pilot will look to hit the reset button this weekend in Sparta, Kentucky. Menard's career performances at this oval are lackluster with three Top-15 finishes in seven starts and a 19.3 average finish. However, it's not that bad when we put it in context. The No. 21 Wood Brothers team has brought Menard to the track with good cars at these intermediate ovals in 2018. With two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in six races, you can't argue with results. Menard even won the pole position at Chicago two weeks ago, snapping a near-decade long drought for the driver of the No. 21 Ford. He has tremendous upside in this event at Kentucky Speedway.

Alex Bowman -
Bowman seems to be slowly figuring things out. He's riding a three-race Top-10 streak into Saturday night's action at Kentucky. One of those Top 10s came at the similar oval in Chicago just two weeks ago. We're witnessing Bowman and the No. 88 team growing together at last. The young driver also has a pair of Top 10s in his last two intermediate oval races (ninth at Charlotte, 10th at Chicago), so track specific performance has also picked up. This will be Bowman's first-ever start in a Hendrick Motorsports car at Kentucky Speedway, so the history is next to nonexistent. However, we believe current momentum is good enough to ride this driver and team to a Top-10 finish in the Quaker State 400.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

William Byron -
The tough season continues for the rookie Hendrick Motorsports driver. Byron led some laps and looked fast at Daytona this past week, but still found trouble and crashed out way before the finish. With only one Top-10 finish through the first 18 races, it's been a long hard season for the No. 24 team. Byron's making his first ever Cup start at Kentucky Speedway, so we're sure it will be an adventure. His intermediate oval record this season is less than assuring. With one Top-10 finish in six events and a 24.5 average finish across the span, it's best to seek your fantasy racing help elsewhere this weekend.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Another driver struggling to put it all together on the cookie cutter ovals this season is Allmendinger. The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has only one Top-20 finish vs. two finishes outside the Top 25 in six races this season on intermediate ovals. That span includes his most recent 24th-place finish at the oval in Chicago two weeks ago. Allmendinger's seven-career Kentucky Speedway starts have only netted one Top-10 finish and an average finish of 23.3. Those numbers look surprisingly similar to his record this season. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet seems pegged to finish in the mid-20s this week, and that's not likely good enough to justify a start in any fantasy racing format.

Austin Dillon -
After cracking the Top 10 this past week at Daytona, we have to give the downgrade to Dillon and the No. 3 team this week. It's not that they're awful on intermediate ovals, they're just terribly underwhelming. Dillon's body of work this season on the intermediate oval circuit has been finishes of 14th-, 13th-, 26th-, 17th-, 34th- and 37th-place. That's just way too inconsistent to rely on in any way. It works out to a 23.5 average finish, and well back in the pack. Dillon's Kentucky Speedway career has been similar. Three Top 20s vs. Two finishes outside the Top 20 for an average finish of 20.0. We just can't see the No. 3 Chevrolet team being very impressive Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson - The seven-time Monster Energy Cup Series champion has fantastic Kentucky Speedway stats, so the slow down list call this week is based on current trends. Johnson's last two starts at the Sparta oval have been complete disasters. He crashed and finished 32nd two years ago for his first-ever DNF at the facility. Johnson returned in this event one year ago and found the wall again to crash and finish 40th. The intermediate ovals haven't been particularly kind to Johnson in 2018. Aside from the Top-5 Charlotte finish, Johnson has finishes of 27th-, 12th-, 35th-, 19th- and 14th-place on the 1.5-mile oval circuit to this point. That is far from consistent for a driver and team of this caliber. It's also illustrative of Johnson's "uneven" season to this point. Incredible successes mixed in with unexplainable power outages.

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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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