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Quaker State 400 Preview: Showdown in the Heartland

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 prepares to return to night racing this weekend. This Saturday night the schedule offers the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kent. 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 last season this facility finally hit the big time. After years of efforts by ownership, the intermediate oval in Kentucky was added to the Sprint Cup Series lineup of tracks. So we're in for our second season of NASCAR's top division racing at this oval. 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 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 evolving race track by making good chassis and tire air pressures changes, will be the ones that are running strong at the end of 400 miles on Saturday night.

This will be just our second 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 one race a year ago to pull some numbers from. Granted the statistical sample is quite small, last season's inaugural Kentucky event will still be a helpful tool despite the small statistical sample. We'll also take a brief look back on 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 a good indicator of potential performance this weekend. The only noticeable difference between these 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 electronic scoring from last year's Kentucky race had some easily recognizable stars. Here are the loop stats for the 2011 race at Kentucky Speedway.

Kyle Busch1.02857125267145.6
Jimmie Johnson3.065220256119.8
Brad Keselowski7.0513179259118.6
Kurt Busch9.0442041266118.5
Carl Edwards5.05680257108.2
David Reutimann2.06637248105.8
Matt Kenseth6.074140262103.1
Juan Pablo Montoya15.05820257100.7
Tony Stewart12.05017117697.2
Kasey Kahne13.0447115394.6
David Ragan8.0602322594.1
Kevin Harvick16.0391017585.8
Ryan Newman4.032307985.5
Denny Hamlin11.0602516385.4
Greg Biffle21.04919020785.1
Joey Logano14.0540013780.8
Regan Smith17.014307779.4
Paul Menard24.0293017877.9
Jeff Gordon10.044308275.2
Martin Truex Jr.18.038017672.7

In the inaugural Kentucky race we saw Joe Gibbs Racing star Kyle Busch lead 125 of the 267 laps and dominate his way to the win one year ago. He didn't run away with that first Kentucky victory. There were many suitors for victory lane that hot summer night in Sparta. Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch and David Reutimann all led significant laps and battled at the front of the field with Busch in this event last season. Do we believe we're in for a sequel this weekend? Not likely. Busch has struggled with engine issues of late, his brother Kurt is doing well to finish races this season let alone win them, Keselowski has not been himself and Reutimann is a part-time driver. So we're likely in for a completely different cast of characters and scenario this Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, short of the driver of the No. 18 Toyota assuming the JGR team can overcome the blown engine bug. The recently completed race at Kansas Speedway in April is likely a good preview of what to expect in this Quaker State 400. 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. Denny Hamlin out-battled Martin Truex Jr. at Kansas to win his second victory of the season. We expect to see these two drivers in the mix and up front on Saturday evening. As far as the history of the Kentucky Speedway is concerned, many of the Sprint Cup Series drivers are very familiar with this oval. Many of these guys have raced in Nationwide, Truck or ARCA Series events at this speedway, so its confines aren't completely unknown to most of the drivers. Joe Gibbs Racing teams have won three of the last four Nationwide events at Kentucky, so we would have to give this camp an edge in light of this evidence and Busch's inaugural Cup victory here last season. 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

Tony Stewart -
Stewart is right in the middle of a red hot streak, so a win is almost certainly in the cards soon. With finishes of third-, second- and second-place in the last three weeks are evidence of how close the owner/driver is to pulling into victory lane. He led 127 laps and won earlier this season at the intermediate oval in Las Vegas. Stewart's strength throughout his Sprint Cup Series career has been these 1.5-mile tracks. Of his 46 career victories, 21 have come on the cookie cutter ovals. The timing is right for the No. 14 Chevrolet team to win.

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has only one career NASCAR start at the intermediate oval in Kentucky. However, that should be of little concern heading into this Saturday night's Quaker State 400. Johnson has been in winning form of late with two victories and five Top 5s in the last six races. This could be the weekend where the Hendrick Motorsports star picks up win number three of the season. Johnson qualified fifth and finished third here one year ago, so Saturday night's 400-mile race at Kentucky could be a memorable one for Johnson.

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 fourth-, fifth- and first-place at the tracks of Charlotte, Kansas and Fort Worth. Those numbers are nothing short of flawless and show the Roush Fenway Racing veteran's excellence on the 1.5-mile ovals. 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.

Denny Hamlin -
It should come as no surprise to see Hamlin in the contenders list at Kentucky Speedway this week. Hamlin has one win and one runner-up finish in his last two intermediate oval starts. Joe Gibbs Racing has had a lot of success at Kentucky Speedway in the Nationwide Series, and a lot of victories. Hamlin should be able to bring that excellence into Saturday night's Quaker State 400. The No. 11 Toyota team should be a top contender for this prime time racing rumble.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt Jr. is a perfect 4-for-4 in Top 10s 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 solid seventh-place finish. We should see a similar performance from the No. 88 Chevrolet team at this intermediate oval. The NACAR icon should bring his A-game and a likely Top-10 finish in this 400-mile race.

Jeff Gordon -
With Top 10s in the last two races, the Hendrick Motorsports star has started to climb back into usual form. Gordon also has Top 10s in two of the four intermediate oval races this season. He raced to a Top-10 finish in last season's inaugural event at Kentucky Speedway, so those notes should come in handy for this Saturday night. Gordon is the class of the sport and we should see that excellence again as the No. 24 team continues to build on the momentum of good recent performances.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star checks in on the solid plays list this week. The winner of last year's inaugural Kentucky race, Busch should have an edge on the field this Saturday night. Busch's recent performance at Charlotte Motor Speedway is a great illustration of this. He led 55 laps and finished a brilliant third that night at the North Carolina intermediate oval. Busch is dealing with some consistency issues right now, but he should have the potential to crack the Top 10 in the Quaker State 400. His one career victory and three Top-5 finishes in Nationwide Series competition at this oval speaks volumes.

Matt Kenseth -
We have to give a hearty recommendation to the No. 17 Ford team and veteran driver Kenseth at Kentucky Speedway. Kenseth's two Top 5s and three Top 10s on intermediate ovals this season is a good barometer for what could happen this Saturday night at the Sparta oval. The Roush Fenway Racing star's workman-like performance a few weeks ago at Kansas Speedway that yielded a fourth-place finish can't go unrecognized either. Kenseth posted a sixth-place finish a year ago at Kentucky Speedway, so we should expect similar results from the championship standings leader this weekend.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star has right in the middle of a career season in the Sprint Cup Series. Sixteen races into this season, Truex has four Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes and comes to Kentucky this weekend ranked ninth in the championship standings. When we raced earlier this season at the intermediate oval in Kansas, it was Truex who dominated. He led 173 laps en route to the runner-up finish. The driver of the No. 55 Toyota has been one of the top performers this season on tracks of this style with two Top-10 finishes in four starts and a respectable average finish of 9.2.

Kasey Kahne -
Kahne has cooled from his spring hot streak. Now as we enter the summer, the Hendrick Motorsports driver will look to rediscover that groove and momentum. One year ago Kahne qualified fourth and finished 13th in his old No. 83 Toyota of Red Bull Racing in the inaugural Kentucky Speedway race. Since moving to Hendrick's No. 5 Chevy, his level of performance has gone up as expected. Top 10s at Fort Worth and Kansas are noteworthy, and his big victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Memorial Day weekend needs to stay in the back of our minds this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose -
In the last four intermediate oval races, the Richard Petty Motorsports driver has had some pretty good equipment. Ambrose has three Top 20s in the four intermediate oval races this season. It all culminated in his last 1.5-mile oval event at Charlotte where he qualified on the outside pole and led 20 laps before mechanical issues derailed a sure Top-5 finish. The driver of the No. 9 RPM Ford should be up to the task of cracking the Top 15 at Kentucky Speedway in Saturday night's Quaker State 400.

Joey Logano -
Logano has been racing well and carrying momentum into the next race each week for the past several races. With a pole position and four Top 10s in the last six races, it appears that the Joe Gibbs Racing youngster now has his feet planted on solid ground. Logano has built his Nationwide Series resume by dominating at Kentucky Speedway. He's led 202 laps and won three of the last four Nationwide events at the 1.5-mile oval. Logano should have no trouble cracking the Top 15 at Kentucky Speedway and possibly posting a Top 10 in this 400-mile night race.

Paul Menard -
The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet hasn't had quite the season in 2012 that he had in his first season with Richard Childress Racing last year. Still, Menard has managed to maintain a decent level of performance on the intermediate ovals. Finishes of seventh-, 18th-, 18th- and 15th has been his resume on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. While that's not eye-popping it is predictable, stable and safe. Menard does have four Top-10 finishes entering this event, so the potential is there. You could certainly do far worse at the end of your fantasy racing lineup than Menard.

Clint Bowyer -
Coming off the big win at Sonoma, we're still on board the Bowyer train coming to Kentucky Speedway. While we won't likely see the MWR star hoisting the trophy again this weekend, we should be in store for a very solid run and potential Top-10 finish. Bowyer had an engine failure ruin a sure Top 10 at Kansas Speedway earlier this spring, and his last effort on a 1.5-mile oval netted a respectable 13th-place finish at Charlotte. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota carries a four-race Top 10 streak into this weekend, so we like Bowyer to stay on a roll at Kentucky Speedway.

Casey Mears -
If you're looking for help in deep leagues or weekly lineup leagues this weekend at Kansas, Mears is a great driver to consider. While the season as a whole has been an up-and-down affair for the Germain Racing No. 13 team, there have been some very bright spots along the way. With six Top 25s in the last eight races, Mears is racing fairly well for this small team and generally staying on the lead lap. In the last intermediate oval race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, he piloted the No. 13 Toyota to a respectable 22nd-place finish. We should see similar results at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

A.J. Allmedinger -
The Penske Racing driver was a Top-10 finisher at the Sonoma road course this past weekend, but we have to give him a downgrade going to the Kentucky oval on Saturday night. Allmendinger has finishes of 37th-, 15th-, 32nd- and 33rd-place on the 1.5-mile ovals this season. This lack of performance in the No. 22 Dodge team is quite troubling coming to the Quaker State 400. Allmendinger finished an uninspiring 28th in this event one year ago.

Jeff Burton -
The Richard Childress Racing veteran has been nearly invisible this season despite finishing a respectable 11th this past weekend at Infineon Raceway. Burton has just three Top-10 finishes on the season compared to two DNF's and an average finish of 18.8. The 1.5-mile ovals have been particularly difficult with two finishes outside the Top 20 in four starts and an average finish of 21.0. Burton and the No. 31 Chevrolet team may not be awful in the Quaker State 400, but we're willing to bet they won't get much TV camera time either.

David Ragan -
Ragan has had his share of difficulties on the intermediate oval circuit this season. With three finishes outside the Top 30 and one DNF, we have to be very concerned about the Front Row Motorsports No. 34 team going to Kentucky Speedway. Ragan finished 30th earlier this season at the similar oval in Kansas, so a repeat performance wouldn't be at all surprising. Current trends are just squarely stacked against this driver and team this weekend.

Kurt Busch -
It may seem implausible to put Top-3 Sonoma finisher Busch in the flops list week, but we're convinced that is the position to take this week. The week before Busch was challenging for the win at the California road course he was slipping and sliding all around the two-mile oval in Michigan to a lowly 30th-place finish. The veteran driver's intermediate oval resume this season bears finishes of 35th-, 13th-, 17th- and 27th-place, so consistency is really what's in question here. Busch could crack the Top 20 on Saturday night at the Kentucky oval, but he could just as easily fade below the Top 30.