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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 makes its return to night racing this weekend as the schedule offers the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Kent. After years of playing host to the NASCAR Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events the intermediate oval in 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 beginning of what is the start of the summer part of the schedule which means a lot of racing under the lights. Half the races over the next two months will be held at night, so the Quaker State 400 is our first 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 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 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 third 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 two 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 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 two Kentucky races has some easily recognizable stars. Here are the loop stats for the last two races at Kentucky Speedway.

Kyle Busch5.55292243516133.0
Brad Keselowski4.06872147526128.2
Jimmie Johnson4.5925621523119.5
Denny Hamlin7.0693263430105.0
Matt Kenseth6.512219051098.2
Kasey Kahne7.57631127696.7
Carl Edwards12.59110045694.3
Kurt Busch14.065204127292.6
Jeff Gordon7.59314033589.8
Martin Truex Jr.13.0774133988.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.17.06818030188.3
Kevin Harvick13.5775042488.2
Greg Biffle21.08823042084.9
Juan Pablo Montoya14.5644030584.6
David Reutimann12.5664724880.2
Paul Menard18.0575030580.2
Ryan Newman19.0653028379.5
A.J. Allmendinger18.54211025778.7
Marcos Ambrose16.5498021475.7
Joey Logano18.0700017074.2

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 two years 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 that event. Last year it was Keselowski who prevailed over the Gibbs duo of Denny Hamlin and Busch. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge won the race off pit road during the final caution and led the final 56 laps at Kentucky to win last season's Quaker State 400. Given that Keselowski is still winless in 2013, he should be looking forward to this trip to the intermediate oval in Kentucky. Maybe Keselowski can rediscover his mo-jo this Saturday night. The recently completed race at Kansas Speedway in late April 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. Matt Kenseth absolutely dominated that day at Kansas leading 163 of the 267 laps run and cruised easily to the victory over Kasey Kahne. 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 six 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 in 2011. 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

Matt Kenseth -
With victories already this season at the Las Vegas and Kansas ovals we have to give our highest recommendation to the No. 20 Toyota team and veteran driver Kenseth at Kentucky Speedway. Kenseth's two victories on intermediate ovals this season is a good barometer for what could happen this Saturday night at the Sparta oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's dominant performance a few weeks ago at Kansas Speedway that yielded 163 laps led and a victory from the pole stands fresh in our memory. Kenseth has sixth- and seventh-place finishes at Kentucky Speedway to this point, so a career-best effort should be in store.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star checks in on the contenders list this week. The winner of the inaugural Kentucky race, Busch should have an edge on most of the field this Saturday night. Busch's recent performance at Texas Motor Speedway is a great illustration of this. He led 171 laps from the pole and took the victory at the Fort Worth oval. Busch is dealing with some consistency issues right now, but he should rebound from his Sonoma crash and poor finish. Kentucky is simply one of his favorite places to race. Busch has led a whopping 243 of the 534 Sprint Cup laps raced at Kentucky Speedway. This is not by accident.

Kasey Kahne - Kahne shook off his recent bad luck with a good performance at the Sonoma road course last weekend. Just in time to get him rolling for the stretch run to the Chase. Now as we enter the summer, the Hendrick Motorsports driver will look to rediscover that groove and momentum he had early in the season. Kahne has been lights out on the intermediate ovals in 2013. He has 275 laps led on these style tracks, and three runner-up finishes. Kahne's quest for victory lane on the 1.5-mile ovals continues Saturday night in the Quaker State 400. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet finished runner-up in this event one year ago, so unfinished business awaits.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star gets the perfect follow-up race to complement his victory at Sonoma Raceway this past weekend. Truex Jr. insists that he isn't finished with victory lane in 2013, and who are we to argue? The No. 56 Toyota team has been the most consistent performer on the intermediate oval circuit this season. Truex has 188 laps led and four Top-10 finishes on these style ovals. That's the best in the series. He grabbed an eighth-place finish in this race one year ago and we feel he'll better that mark by a great degree in Saturday night's Quaker State 400.

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

Clint Bowyer -
Fifth- and eighth-place finishes recently at Kansas and Charlotte foretell what to expect from the MWR No. 15 team this weekend. Bowyer has been a go-getter on these intermediate ovals of late. He has also been a strong performer in Nationwide Series competition at this oval earlier in his career. Bowyer scored three Kentucky Top 10s in four starts in that lower NASCAR division. While his first two Cup efforts at this track were less than inspiring, we believe that's of little concern entering this weekend. Bowyer and his team are thick in the middle of the championship picture, and they'll race like it at Kentucky Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson -
The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion has only two 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, 21 laps led and a pair of Top-10 finishes in those efforts. It doesn't get any more spotless than that. We don't expect the No. 48 team to be the top contender to win the Quaker State 400, but Johnson will do his best under-the-radar hang around that we often see on these style ovals. He'll for sure be in the Top 10 and if the breaks fall Johnson's way he could be celebrating in victory lane at the end of the night.

Kevin Harvick -
Over the last six races, no one has been hotter than Harvick in the Sprint Cup Series. He's earned the most points of any driver with 234. He's collected one victory. He's claimed three Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes during this span and he's climbed from 10th- to fourth-place in the driver standings since the Darlington race. The No. 29 Chevrolet team should stay on a roll in the Quaker State 400. Harvick stole a win in the last intermediate oval race at Charlotte, and he's claimed a pair of Top 10s in the four intermediate oval races this season. Harvick has done nothing to distinguish himself at Kentucky Speedway in the first two races at this track, but we have a strong feeling that's about to change.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing driver is looking for anything to get him on a roll, and a visit to Kentucky Speedway may be just what the doctor ordered for this race team. Keselowski has been pretty steady on the intermediate ovals this season with three Top 10s in those four races. He scored an impressive sixth-place finish at the similar oval in Kansas a few weeks ago. Keselowski won this event one year ago, and he finished seventh in the 2011 installment of the Quaker State 400. He combined to lead 147 laps in those first two Kentucky Speedway races. That's a very good sign for the No. 2 Ford team coming to Sparta, Kentucky this Saturday night.

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

Carl Edwards -
In the last four intermediate oval races, the Roush Fenway Racing star has a pair of Top-5 finishes and an impressive average finish of 9.0. Edwards enters the 17th-race of the season as the runner-up in the championship standings and trying to close ground each week on leader Jimmie Johnson, so there's a lot at stake. The driver of the No. 99 Ford finished fifth in the inaugural Quaker State 400, but his follow-up at Kentucky Speedway wasn't as impressive with a 20th-place effort in this event one year ago. We're certain that all the variables are in place for a great performance by the back-flipping bandit.

Kurt Busch -
If you get the sense that Busch is putting on a show with his great performance in the No. 78 Chevrolet, you would be correct. The former champion appears to be showcasing his talents for a higher profile ride in 2014. The things that are said about athletes in contract seasons apply just the same in NASCAR as it does the major team sports. Busch should continue his current strong run in Saturday night's 400-mile race at the Kentucky oval. He led 41 laps and finished ninth in the inaugural Quaker State 400 while he was still with Penske Racing. Busch was very strong in our last intermediate oval race when he finished third Memorial Day weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon is steadily extracting himself from the hole he fell in to start the season. He's picked up a pair of Top-5 finishes in the last four races, but he's still searching for consistency on the cookie cutter ovals. Saturday night's race at Kentucky offers the No. 24 team a shot at redemption and momentum building with Gordon coming off the brilliant runner-up finish at Sonoma Raceway. He owns 10th- and 5th-place finishes in the last two races at Kentucky Speedway. Those two performances should offer a morale boost to the Hendrick Motorsports star. If the pesky DNF bug can stay away this weekend, Gordon should have a great performance at the intermediate Kentucky oval.

Brian Vickers -
Vickers will retain the driver's seat of the No. 55 Toyota this week after cracking the Top 15 at the Sonoma road course this past Sunday. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver is inching closer to taking this ride over full time in 2014, and he's still in “audition mode” as far as his racing urgency goes. Vickers has made two starts on the intermediate oval circuit this season, with one of those being a Top-10 finish for the No. 11 team while in relief of the injured Denny Hamlin. The skills are quite clearly there, and if the team can put a fast car under Vickers then Top-10 finishes are more than possible.

Paul Menard -
The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet is on pace to equal or better his 2012 performance for Richard Childress Racing. Menard has been solid everywhere the series competes, including the intermediate ovals. Finishes of 10th-, 17th-, 10th- and 13th has been his resume on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. While that's not eye-popping it is predictable, reliable and safe. Menard does have four Top-10 finishes entering this event, so the potential is there. He posted a respectable 12th-place finish in this event one year ago, so you could certainly do far worse at the end of your fantasy racing lineup than Menard this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver should continue building on what has been a career-best season in 2013. The 1.5-mile ovals have been good venues for the No. 43 Ford team. Almirola has a pair of Top-10 finishes in those four races, including an impressive eighth-place finish at the similar oval in Kansas a few weeks ago. That performance should surely be beneficial to Almirola in preparing for Saturday night's Quaker State 400. He finished a sub-par 26th in this event one year ago, so we're expecting vast improvement this time around.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The Rookie of the Year front-runner comes to Kentucky this weekend with a resume full of consistency this season, but lacking in the Top-10 finishes department. That could change at Kentucky Speedway. The last time we saw Stenhouse in action at an oval of this type, he led 26 laps and finished 11th at Kansas Speedway. With two Top-15 and three Top-20 finishes on the intermediate oval circuit this season, the Roush Fenway Racing rookie provides some solid performance and sure results. His start in Saturday night's Quaker State 400 has a lot of upside potential possible.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt Jr. has really struggled on the 1.5-mile ovals this season. Finishes of seventh-, 29th-, 16th- and 39th-place has been his body of work in 2013. Outside of that solid Top 10 at Las Vegas, it's been a rough ride for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt certainly has the talent to right the ship at Kentucky Speedway this weekend. He did finish fourth in this event one season ago. However, we feel that there are enough performance variables and challenges for the NASCAR icon to call him a reliable fantasy racing play for the Quaker State 400.

Greg Biffle -
The driver of the No. 16 Ford has been a top performer in recent weeks. Biffle has climbed from 13th- to sixth-place in the series standings since Memorial Day weekend. That has come on the strength of a victory and three Top-10 finishes in the last five races. However, the Roush Fenway Racing veteran may be poised for a cool down this weekend. Intermediate ovals have been a challenge for the No. 16 team in 2013 with only one Top-10 finish and a 17.8 average finish in those four events. His Kentucky resume doesn't exactly instill much confidence either. Biffle has a pair of 21st-place finishes in his last two Kentucky starts.

Tony Stewart -
Smoke comes to Kentucky Speedway at a crossroads. He enters the Quaker State 400 15th in the championship standings and hoping to improve his chances of making the Chase for the Cup in September. However, he just snapped a four-race Top-10 streak with a shockingly bad performance at Sonoma Raceway. Stewart needs to up his level of performance this weekend, but his intermediate oval efforts have been sadly lacking in 2013. The Kentucky Speedway resume for this driver is no better. With 12th- and 32nd-place efforts the last two seasons at the 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, we're having a difficult time expecting anything big from this driver this weekend.

Danica Patrick -
She was the most talked about driver of Speed Weeks at Daytona to start the season, but 16 races into the 2013 campaign we're gradually starting to see Patrick become irrelevant. The driver of the No. 10 Chevrolet has only cracked the Top 20 once in the last 10 races. She's mired deep in the driver standings at 27th-place overall, and struggling to maintain Top 30 status. Patrick's last four intermediate oval races have yielded only one Top-25 finish. To top it all off, she's making her first career Cup Series start at Kentucky Speedway this Saturday night.