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 once again this weekend as the schedule offers the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky.  After years of playing host to the  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 Digital Ally 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 once again this weekend as the schedule offers the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky.  After years of playing host to the  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 Digital Ally 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 ninth Monster Energy Cup Series visit to Kentucky Speedway.  To say that we're a bit shorter than other tracks on historical data would be a bit of an understatement.  Still, we do have the eight 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 Digital Ally 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 eight Kentucky races has some easily recognizable stars.  Here are the loop stats for the last eight races at Kentucky Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch5.02242905492,061124.4
Brad Keselowski11.41912805211,659109.6
Martin Truex Jr.10.12422253731,567105.7
Kevin Harvick9.4279901281,934105.5
Erik Jones6.57311052199.2
Jimmie Johnson15.42051342061,44695.1
Ryan Blaney15.77034154194.7
Joey Logano13.518152721,36291.2
Chase Elliott15.71025060190.5
Kurt Busch12.024240961,44289.3
Denny Hamlin16.120467761,28188.4
Kyle Larson21.017351085285.0
Ryan Newman15.11891821,15782.4
Clint Bowyer18.01351601,14079.6
Daniel Suarez16.5535033978.4
Paul Menard18.31471001,06575.6
Aric Almirola20.01199064375.2
Austin Dillon20.39421153369.9
William Byron20.06002365.3
Darrell Wallace Jr.19.0310015264.8

In last season's Kentucky race we saw Martin Truex Jr. step up and take the victory in a dominant performance.  He led 174 of the 267 laps and held off Ryan Blaney to take the win at the Sparta oval.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star would collect his second-straight 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, Blaney and Brad Keselowski as major players at the front of the pack.  With the Truex win, Toyota drivers have taken three of the last four 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 big stars this week.  Keselowski 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 Truex Jr. that dominated that event, and would cruise to the win that night.  Busch would lead significant laps, and Joey Logano would be there to press Truex 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 Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson in mind.  Both were very strong finishing 1-2 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

Martin Truex Jr. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has been hot through May into July.  Truex has won four of the last 10 races.  He has been one of the top performers on these style tracks this season with one win and three Top-5 finishes in the six events to-date.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has won the last two Kentucky races, both in dominant fashion.  He and crew chief Cole Pearn should have some very good notes from those outings.  The veteran driver won at the Charlotte oval in May, and recently cracked the Top 10 at Chicago.  Truex should be a top contender to defend his Kentucky turf in the Quaker State 400.

Kyle Busch Busch always checks in among the contenders each time we visit Kentucky Speedway.  A two-time Kentucky winner, including this event four 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 two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the six events to-date.  Busch will look to put the disappointment of his 14th-place finish at 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 75-percent rate.  The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has led a whopping 549 of the 2,143 laps (26-percent) raced at Kentucky Speedway.  Busch is a top contender to win this Saturday night. 

Brad Keselowski The Penske Racing driver is looking to build momentum on his strong 3-win 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 victories (Atlanta and Kansas) and four Top-5 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 has combined to lead 521 laps in his eight Kentucky Speedway starts.  That's a great sign of potential success for the veteran driver coming to Sparta, Kentucky this Saturday night.

Alex Bowman After the show that Bowman put on at Chicago a couple weeks ago, he gets bumped to contender status this week.  He's riding a three-race intermediate oval Top-10 streak into Saturday night's action at Kentucky.  One of those Top 10's was a victory and the other a runner-up finish recently at both Kansas and Chicago.  We're witnessing Bowman and the No. 88 team ascending to contender status on these cookie cutter ovals.  The young driver has three prior starts at Kentucky Speedway, but none of those are noteworthy.  However, this driver and team are clearly a surging group coming into the Quaker State 400.  Bowman should crack the Top 5 and challenge for the win in this 400-mile battle.

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

Kevin Harvick In this season's intermediate oval races, few drivers have had as much consistency as Harvick in the Monster Energy Cup Series.  He's earned the most points of any driver with 251.  The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has two pole positions, two Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes and 383 laps led in those six events.  The No. 4 Ford team should stay on a roll in the Quaker State 400.  Harvick is winless so far this season on these cookie cutter ovals, and the primary reason we have him in the solid plays list this week instead of the contenders.  However, he did lead a season-high 132 laps at Chicago two weeks ago, so Harvick could be turning a corner on these style tracks coming to Kentucky Speedway. 

Joey Logano You'll not find a steadier or more consistent driver on the intermediate ovals since the spring.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford has been like a rock each time we visit a 1.5-mile track of late.  Logano's second- and third-place finishes recently at Charlotte and Chicago have been impressive, 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 disappointing 25th-place finish at Daytona this past week.  Kentucky Speedway brings an opportunity for the No. 22 Ford team to shine.  Logano has five Top 10's in eight-career starts at this facility with 72 laps led combined.  He should be wired tight for this 267-lap battle. 

Kyle Larson The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet is the best positioned driver to potentially upset the big stars this weekend.  As we return to the cookie cutter ovals we have to look at Larson's recent work on intermediate tracks.  The results are very good, and have been improving of late.  Larson finished runner-up two weeks ago at Chicago, and he finished eighth at Kansas a few weeks ago.  The Chip Ganassi Racing driver only has five-career Kentucky Speedway starts to his credit, and the results have been quickly improving.  Larson rides a two-race Kentucky Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and that includes a runner-up finish in this event two seasons ago.  That meshes nicely with his runner-up finish at Chicago just a couple weeks ago. 

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 CGR 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 15.2 and four Top 10's 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 seventh-place finish, and a strong fifth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has threeTop-10 finishes in his last four 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

Chase Elliott Elliott has been heating up of late on intermediate ovals.  With a pair of fourth-place and one 11th-place finish in his last three starts, the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet is racing well coming to Kentucky Speedway.  The Kentucky oval hasn't been this young driver's best, but Elliott does have one Top-5 finish in three starts at this facility.  He'll look to start improving that resume in Saturday night's Quaker State 400.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver has led 123 combined laps this season on the cookie cutter ovals, so Elliott has had good speed at these tracks.  His 50-percent Top-10 rate this season on these configuration ovals is better than the norm.   

Jimmie Johnson The seven-time Monster Energy Cup Series champion has good Kentucky Speedway stats, so it's hard to overlook those accomplishments.  His five Top 10's in eight starts checks in at a good 63-percent rate.  Admittedly, his last three starts at Kentucky have not been the best, but there's good reason for hope this weekend.  Johnson has been coming on strong this season on 1.5-mile tracks.  Four Top-10 finishes in six starts places Johnson among the top drivers in the series on these configuration ovals.  His last start was a strong fourth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway just a couple weeks ago.  Johnson should stay on a roll this Saturday night.

Aric Almirola With some struggles at Chicago a couple weeks ago, 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 three of the six intermediate oval races this season.  The big takeaway is Almirola's 10.2 average finish on these style tracks this season.  When he's not cracking the Top 10, he's not far outside.  Almirola nabbed his first-career Kentucky Top 10 with an eighth-place finish in this race one year ago.  We should see a similar performance in this installment of the Quaker State 400.     

Erik Jones Jones absolutely loves this race track.  In just two-career starts he's notched sixth- and seventh-place finishes.  The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has been impressive this season on the cookie cutter ovals.  Jones has nabbed four Top 10's in six starts, with his most recent outing yielding a seventh-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway just a couple weeks ago.  The driver of the No. 20 Toyota is dialed-in right now on these style tracks.  Jones and crew chief, Chris Gayle, seemed to have this new aero package figured out and they're piling up the Top 10's in this style of racing.  The Quaker State 400 should be no different. 

Ryan Blaney The Penske Racing youngster has had tremendous speed this season on cookie cutter ovals, but the finishes have not materialized.  That trend finally changed at Chicago two weeks ago.  He peddled the No. 12 Ford to an impressive sixth-place finish in the Camping World 400.  Kentucky Speedway presents a shot at continuing the new trend for the young driver.  Blaney has three-career starts at this oval, and he's nabbed a runner-up and two Top-10 finishes in those efforts.  The runner-up finish came in this event one year ago.  The Kentucky Speedway playbook is coming into focus for the No. 12 Penske Racing team.  Blaney is a driver to watch closely in this 400-mile battle under the lights.     

William Byron The young driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has really turned it up a notch since the late spring.  That boost in performance has really correlated to the intermediate ovals, and the results show it.  Byron has led an 80-combined laps this season on the 1.5-mile tracks, and he's collected three Top-10 finishes in his last four starts on these style tracks.  That includes a surprising pole position at Charlotte Motor Speedway in late May.  Byron is setting a pretty good standard and starting to generate some expectations for his performance on these intermediate ovals.  Byron has just one-career start at Kentucky Speedway, and it was a subpar 20th-place finish in this event one year ago.  We guarantee he'll be much better in this weekend's start.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Clint Bowyer The last time we saw Bowyer in action on an intermediate oval, he shot himself in the foot, and crashed out at Chicago.  He was nearly as disappointing finishing 24th at Charlotte in May.  That has been the trend for the No. 14 Stewart Haas Racing team of late.  Things have just gone from bad to worse.  Bowyer's tough luck could easily continue at Kentucky Speedway.  This has not been one of his better intermediate ovals.  Bowyer has just one Top-10 finish in eight career starts here, and an average finish of 18.0.  In terms of average finish, it's his second worst intermediate track on the circuit.  Bowyer only has a higher average finish at Atlanta with 19.6. 

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 four Top-15 finishes in eight starts and an 18.2 average finish.  The No. 21 Wood Brothers team has brought Menard to the track with subpar cars at these intermediate ovals in 2019.  With no Top-10 and three Top-15 finishes in six races, the average finish stands around 17.8.  Menard's last start was an unimpressive 21st-place finish at Chicago two weeks ago.  There's just not enough performance here on the cookie cutter tracks to dictate any major expectations for this Saturday night. 

Denny Hamlin Another driver struggling to put it all together on the cookie cutter ovals this season is Hamlin.  The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has only two Top-10 finishes vs. two finishes outside the Top 15 in six races this season on intermediate ovals.  That span includes his most recent 15th-place finish at the oval in Chicago two weeks ago.  Hamlin's eight-career Kentucky Speedway starts have only netted three Top-10 finishes and an average finish of 16.1.  Those numbers look surprisingly similar to his record this season.  The driver of the No. 11 Toyota seems pegged to finish in the mid-teens 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 at Chicago two weeks ago, we have to give the downgrade to Dillon and the No. 3 team this week.  Considering that was his only Top 10 of the season on intermediate ovals, it's definitely the outlier.  The season average finish stands at a lofty 19.3 for the No. 3 Chevrolet team.  There's little reason to expect a reversal at the Kentucky oval.  Dillon's Kentucky Speedway career has been similar.  Three Top 20's vs. three finishes outside the Top 20 for an average finish of 20.3.  The lack of consistency is a disturbing trend entering the Quaker State 400.  We just can't see Dillon being very impressive Saturday night.

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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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