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Quaker State 400 Preview: Kentucky's Night to Shine

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Sprint Cup Series schedule gets a shakeup this weekend. In the various changes that were made by NASCAR prior to the season, Kentucky Speedway has finally been added to the Cup Series schedule. This 1.5-mile tri-oval has played host to several NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events in the last 10 years, but this weekend Kentucky will finally play host to the top division of NASCAR. This 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 licking their chops for this first-ever visit to Sparta, Kentucky. 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 STP 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 is that the new Kentucky Speedway event is raced at night, under the lights whereas the Kansas Speedway race is held during the heat of the day. We'll see the handling change as the night wears on at the Sparta oval, so the teams that can stay ahead of the game making changes to their chassis and tire air pressures, will be the ones that are strong on that final green-flag run.

Since we're making our first-ever Sprint Cup Series visit to Kentucky Speedway, we need to take a brief look back at the recently completed race at Kansas Speedway. These two ovals are quite similar, and the STP 400 is so fresh statistically that these numbers are likely our best indicator of potential performance this weekend. The only noticeable difference between this two events are that the Kansas race was held during daylight hours, and this weekend's Kentucky race will be held in the cooler evening air. As you'll see in the table below, the statistics from the recent race at Kansas Speedway had some easily recognizable stars. Here are the loop stats for the recently completed STP 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Kurt Busch9.02948152267135.0
Carl Edwards5.0443129267121.7
Tony Stewart8.0434120267117.5
Jeff Gordon4.051190255112.4
Kyle Busch12.041911263106.9
Denny Hamlin3.0611634232105.6
Matt Kenseth6.05690259104.2
Jimmie Johnson7.063180223103.1
Kevin Harvick11.04550256102.8
Brad Keselowski1.05159218102.4
Greg Biffle10.0535025196.0
David Ragan13.0571023889.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.2.041907987.5
Kasey Kahne14.025608583.5
Juan Pablo Montoya17.04561016380.3
Clint Bowyer18.0320011778.8
Paul Menard19.0301013578.5
Joey Logano23.0361012876.3
Brian Vickers16.025106874.8
Martin Truex Jr.20.017108474.2

Even though it was the No. 22 team and driver Kurt Busch that dominated recently at Kansas, it was his Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski that was seen hoisting the trophy in victory lane afterwards. This past STP 400 came down to fuel mileage, which is a bit unusual for a race at Kansas Speedway. We wouldn't rule out pit strategy and fuel mileage coming into play at Kentucky this weekend, but we'd rate it as unlikely at best. So we're more inclined to put our stock in the driver rating from the chart above. The drivers that led laps, turned fast laps and raced up front at Kansas Speedway are the ones likely to put on a repeat performance in this inaugural Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. As far as the history of this oval is concerned, many of the Sprint Cup Series drivers are very familiar with the oval at Kentucky. Many of these guys have raced in Nationwide, Truck or ARCA Series events at this oval, so its confines aren't completely unknown to these drivers. For instance, Joe Gibbs Racing youngster Joey Logano has won the last three straight Nationwide Series events at Kentucky Speedway. We're sure he and his JGR teammates will be eagerly anticipating this race. Also, current championship standings leader Carl Edwards has one Nationwide Series win to his credit at the Sparta oval. Given how well the No. 99 team performed recently at Kansas Speedway, we'd be remiss if we omitted Edwards from our fantasy racing lineups this Saturday night. We'll highlight the fantasy racing drivers you need this weekend to dominate the evening at Kentucky Speedway.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kurt Busch –
Busch is probably the hottest driver in the Sprint Cup Series. The Penske Racing star collected his first win of the season a couple weeks ago at Sonoma, and he's been leading laps in every race for nearly the last month. The visit to Kansas a few weeks ago was no exception. Busch dominated by leading 152 of the 267 laps, but he was dealt a blow for the victory when the race came down to fuel mileage. In visiting the similar oval of Kentucky Speedway this weekend, we expect to see a sequel from the No. 22 team.

Jeff Gordon –
Now with two wins on the season, the No. 24 team has climbed back into the position of being a regular contender for the win each week. Gordon has been amazing the last month. With a superb victory at Pocono and a nice runner-up finish at Sonoma, the Hendrick Motorsports icon is on a roll. Gordon raced with the leader and finished in the Top 5 at Kansas Speedway recently, so the intermediate oval performance of this driver and team are solid as a rock right now.

Denny Hamlin –
Considering how hard Hamlin has worked recently to turn around his slow start to the 2011 season, its no surprise to see him in the contenders list at Kentucky Speedway. Hamlin has one win and three Top 10's in the last five races, so the No. 11 team is well on their way to becoming a dominant force again. Joe Gibbs Racing has had a lot of success at Kentucky Speedway in the Nationwide Series. JGR has won the last three Nationwide events at the Sparta, Kentucky oval with driver Joey Logano. This success should give Hamlin an edge this weekend.

Carl Edwards –
The Roush Fenway star has been a regular face in the Top 5 each week. For that reason, Edwards enters this race thick in the middle of the championship hunt. He had a very good run at the similar oval in Kansas a few weeks ago. Edwards led 29 laps and turned a good number of the fastest laps of that day's event. He went on to crack the Top 5 in the STP 400. Edwards is a one-time Nationwide Series winner at Kentucky Speedway, and he should use that experience to his full benefit in this Saturday night's Quaker State 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jimmie Johnson –
Our reigning Sprint Cup Series champion has never competed in a NASCAR sanctioned event at the intermediate oval in Kentucky. However, that should be of little concerning heading into this inaugural event. Johnson has not been in winning form of late, but the No. 48 team has managed to do what they do best and that is to scratch Top 10's out of sub-par cars. The Hendrick Motorsports star's recent hard-fought seventh-place finish is a good example of this. We wouldn't be surprised to see a repeat performance of that at Kentucky Speedway.

Tony Stewart –
While Stewart is winless on the season, he's been very close to breaking out of that slump on more than one occasion this year. His heartbreak at Las Vegas is one example, and his poor pit strategy at Kansas is yet another. Luck and strategy aside, we can't overlook the fact that the No. 14 team has given Smoke excellent cars in those intermediate oval events. He led 20 laps recently at Kansas Speedway, and also turned the second-most fast laps of that race with 41. Fuel mileage and pit strategy torpedo Stewart's effort to win that event, but he still cracked the Top 10. We have to give him his due respect at this 1.5-mile tri-oval.

Kyle Busch –
The Joe Gibbs Racing dominance at Kentucky Speedway should be well-illustrated in Busch's efforts this Saturday night. While the No. 18 team hasn't been winning races, they have managed to lead laps and race with the leaders most weekends. Busch's recent performance at Kansas Speedway is a great illustration of this. There is an ingredient missing from his team's chemistry right now, but they still manage to post Top-10 finishes. Busch's Nationwide and Truck Series portfolio at Kentucky Speedway is well established. They include one victory and four Top-10 finishes in six career starts.

Matt Kenseth –
We have to give a hearty recommendation to the No. 17 Ford team and veteran driver Kenseth at Kentucky Speedway. Kenseth's 103-laps led and Top 15 performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway a few weeks ago is a good barometer for what could happen this Saturday night at the Sparta oval. The Roush Fenway Racing star's workman-like performance at Kansas Speedway that yielded a sixth-place finish can't go unrecognized either. Like Johnson, Kenseth has never started a NASCAR event at the intermediate oval of Kentucky, but that should be of little concern.

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

Marcos Ambrose –
In the last four intermediate oval races, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has gone three for four in Top 10 runs. Ambrose's only slip up came at Kansas a few weeks ago, but he managed finishes of 4th-, 6th- and 6th-place at Las Vegas, Fort Worth and Charlotte this season. Those are pretty impressive numbers for the No. 9 Ford team. Ambrose has two career Nationwide Series starts at Kentucky Speedway with 11th- and 6th-place finishes to his credit. He should be up to the task of cracking the Top 15 at Kentucky Speedway this weekend.

Greg Biffle –
The driver of the No. 16 Ford just comes to life on certain tracks and the outing at Kentucky Speedway should be no different. Biffle's last three intermediate oval starts have netted finishes of 4th-, 13th- and 10th-place. While those numbers are a bit under what we expect from this Roush Fenway Racing veteran, it's still reliable stats and it comes with a lot of upside. Biffle is capable of winning on ovals like the one in Sparta, Kentucky so for that reason alone you want to consider stashing him in your lineup this Saturday night. The last of his five career Nationwide Series Top 10's at Kentucky came in 2007, but we don't expect to see any “rust” in this event.

David Ragan –
Roush Fenway Racing has been putting great cars under Ragan this season. His race-winning effort Daytona this past weekend is an excellent illustration. He recently peddled the No. 6 Ford to a steady 13th-place finish at Kansas Speedway and Ragan had an even more impressive runner-up finish at the intermediate oval in Charlotte in May. His two career Nationwide Series starts at Kentucky Speedway have resulted in a pair of Top-10 finishes, so Ragan's experience at this track has come with results. This young driver is really putting together an incredible season, and his success will be evident again in Saturday night's Quaker State 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt Jr. is only one of two drivers to go 4-for-4 in Top 10's on intermediate ovals this season. Not only does that put him in a small fraternity, but it also highlights just how good the No. 88 team has been this season. Earnhardt managed his fuel well and played great pit strategy at Kansas Speedway a few weeks ago and came away with a brilliant runner-up finish. While that level of performance may not be in the cards for a first-ever event at Kentucky Speedway this Saturday night, we expect the NACAR icon to bring his A-game and a likely Top-10 finish in this 400-mile race.

Brad Keselowski –
The Penske Racing youngster has taken some big steps this season towards becoming a star someday in this racing series. Keselowski picked up his second career Sprint Cup Series victory with his fuel strategy win at Kansas Speedway a few weeks ago. While pit strategy and fuel management were the primary reasons for his victory that day, we can't ignore the fact that Keselowski raced among the Top 10 for much of that race at that 1.5-mile oval. Now that we're making our next stop at a similar oval after that win, we have to give the No. 2 Dodge team some emphasis for this race. The fact that Keselowski has three Top 5's in three career Nationwide Series starts at Kentucky boosts our confidence level quite a bit.

Regan Smith –
If you're looking for help in deep leagues or weekly lineup leagues this weekend at Kansas, Smith is a great driver to consider. While the season as a whole has been an up-and-down affair for the Furniture Row No. 78 team, there have been some very bright spots along the way. With Top 25's in five of his last six races, Smith is racing fairly well for this small team and generally staying on the lead lap. In the last of his five career Nationwide Series starts at Kentucky Speedway, Smith earned the pole, led 45 laps and posted a Top-20 finish.

Joey Logano –
Logano has been climbing out of an early-season hole most of this year. With his sixth- and third-place finishes the last two weeks at Sonoma and Daytona, it appears that the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster now has his feet planted on firmer ground. Logano has built his Nationwide Series resume by dominating at Kentucky Speedway. He's won the last three events from the pole at the 1.5-mile oval. That accounts for three of his nine career wins in that division of NASCAR. Logano likes this intermediate oval a lot, and he's visiting here in a Cup car at just the right time.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jamie McMurray –
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing has been struggling with both their teams this season. McMurray has been getting the worst of it. He enters this race ranked a lowly 27th in the driver standings. The No. 1 team qualified a surprising sixth at Kansas a few weeks ago, but McMurray only brought home a 29th-place finish in the STP 400. 2011 has been a terrible season for the veteran driver and despite two career Nationwide Series starts at this oval, we can't see it getting any easer this Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Jeff Burton –
It must seem like we're picking on Burton every week in our race previews. We don't mean to, but when you riding a streaking driver to fantasy racing success, you avoid a slumping one like the plague. Burton's Top 10 drought has grown to a staggering 20 races. This slump dates back to October of last year. The No. 31 team has shown no signs of pulling out of this slump of late. Burton has unimpressive finishes of 21st and 25th in the last two intermediate oval events.

David Reutimann –
We normally equate intermediate ovals as good facilities for the Michael Waltrip Racing star. However, Reutimann seems to have fallen on hard times at these 1.5-mile tracks of late. His finishes of 22nd-, ninth- and 29th-place in the last three intermediate oval races show that the No. 00 team is struggling at these tracks. Reutimann has four career Nationwide Series starts at Kentucky Speedway, with a lackluster average finish of 18.5 and a scant one Top-10 finish to his credit.

Casey Mears –
The No. 13 Germain Racing team had been one of our favorite deep sleepers of the season to this point. However, Mears has fallen on hard times lately. Five straight finishes outside the Top 30 entering this weekend show just how deep the struggles are for this small race team. Mears has never started a NASCAR sanctioned event at Kentucky Speedway, so there seems to be little hope of a rebound this weekend for the veteran driver.