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Quaker State 400 Preview: Saturday Night Showdown

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, Ky. After years of playing host to 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. Five of the next 10 races 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 5-Hour Energy 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 fourth 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 three 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. As you'll see in the table below, the electronic scoring from last three Kentucky races has some easily recognizable stars. Here are the loop stats for the last two races at Kentucky Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson6.0108118203783125.9
Kyle Busch5.376104243740125.2
Matt Kenseth4.71576738775109.3
Brad Keselowski13.77672147573104.8
Kasey Kahne8.711652147298.2
Denny Hamlin16.383346353198.1
Carl Edwards15.3104203564394.5
Jeff Gordon7.711931051491.8
Martin Truex Jr.11.01016155590.7
Kurt Busch11.392214141790.6
Kevin Harvick12.31109062890.5
Joey Logano13.3927040287.2
Clint Bowyer18.04110043186.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.390271040386.0
Ryan Newman17.31033051281.3
Jamie McMurray17.75612023778.8
Marcos Ambrose15.36611035978.0
A.J. Allmendinger19.75611036775.9
Jeff Burton20.7704027971.5
Tony Stewart21.36121124370.9

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 three 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 Joe Gibbs Racing once again in victory lane at this 1.5-mile oval. This time it was Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 Toyota team that led the final 24 laps and out-battled Jimmie Johnson to win the Quaker State 400. JGR has always had some edge on the competition at this track no matter what division of NASCAR is racing. Given that Kenseth is still winless in 2014, he should be looking forward to this trip to the intermediate oval in Kentucky. Maybe Kenseth can rediscover his mojo this Saturday night. The recently completed race at Kansas Speedway in early 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. Kevin Harvick absolutely dominated that evening at Kansas leading 119 of the 267 laps run, but it was Jeff Gordon that went to victory lane that night. 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, Jimmie Johnson is our loop stat leader coming into this weekend's race. With the Hendrick Motorsports star having won three of the last five races, we can't overlook the No. 48 Chevy team this Saturday night. Johnson has yet to visit victory lane at this facility, but that could easily change in the Quaker State 400. 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

Jimmie Johnson -
The six-time Sprint Cup Series champion has only three 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, 203 laps led and three Top-10 finishes in those efforts. It doesn't get any more spotless than that. We saw him recently dominate at the similar oval in Charlotte to win the Coca-Cola 600. The No. 48 team is on a roll on the intermediate ovals. Johnson will for sure be racing with the leaders at Kentucky Speedway, and if the breaks fall his way he could be celebrating in victory lane at the end of the night.

Kevin Harvick -
Over the last couple intermediate oval races, no one has been hotter than Harvick in the Sprint Cup Series. He's earned the most points of any driver with 87. The Stewart Haas Racing veteran has one pole position, 219 laps led and a pair of runner-up finishes in those events. The No. 4 Chevrolet team should stay on a roll in the Quaker State 400. Harvick posted a 10th-place finish in this event one year ago, which was his career-best at the Kentucky oval. He has done nothing to distinguish himself at Kentucky Speedway in the first three 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 a victory and two Top 10s in those four races. The driver of the No. 2 Ford won this event two years 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.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon is continuing to lead the championship standings as the series pulls into Kentucky Speedway this weekend. Saturday night's race at Kentucky offers the No. 24 team another shot at winning a race coming off the brilliant runner-up finish at Sonoma Raceway. He owns Top-10 finishes in each of his three races at Kentucky Speedway, but no victories. That could easily change after this weekend. Gordon has been a top performer on these 1.5-mile ovals in 2014. He owns a victory (Kansas) and four Top-10 finishes in the four events. His Kansas win bodes well for a follow-up performance at Kentucky.

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

Matt Kenseth -
With no victories to this point in the season, Kenseth and the No. 20 team have to be viewed as a desperate and hungry bunch coming to the Sparta oval. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has Top-10 finishes in all four intermediate oval races this season and he's led a total of 36 laps across those events. While he may not roll into victory lane this Saturday night, he and the team have been steady and consistent enough to pencil in for Top 10s at these facilities. Kenseth won this event one year ago and has three Top-10 finishes in the three Kentucky Speedway races to-date.

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 7.2. Edwards enters the 17th-race of the season sixth in the championship standings and trying to close ground each week on leader Jeff Gordon, so there's a lot at stake. The driver of the No. 99 Ford finished fifth in the inaugural Quaker State 400, and he led 35 laps in last year's race at Kentucky Speedway before finishing a sub-par 21st. Coming off the big Sonoma Raceway win this past Sunday, the No. 99 Ford team will be fired up for this 400-mile race in the heartland.

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 pretty strong on the intermediate ovals in 2014. He has 22 laps led on these style tracks, and a pair of Top-10 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 two years ago, so unfinished business awaits.

Joey Logano -
The No. 22 Penske Racing team has cooled the last couple weeks, but Logano's intermediate oval performance this season is too good to ignore. Logano has earned the second-most points of any driver in the series on these 1.5-mile tracks, second only to Jeff Gordon. The young driver has a whopping 215 laps led and three Top-10 finishes on the intermediate oval circuit. Kentucky Speedway brings renewed confidence to this driver and team. Logano earned an impressive fourth-place finish in this event one year ago. He should be wired tight for this 267-lap battle.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt Jr. has a pair of Top-5 and a pair of not-so-good finishes on these style tracks this season. However, coming off a career-best finish at the road course in Sonoma has to surely have the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet walking tall coming to Sparta, Kentucky. Earnhardt collected a strong fifth-place finish at the similar oval in Kansas a few weeks ago, so these lower-banked 1.5-mile tracks are in the Hendrick star's wheelhouse right now. He earned the pole position and finished 12th in this race one year ago. We're willing to bet he does much better this time around.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star checks in on the sleepers 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 is dealing with some consistency issues right now, but he should rebound from his poor Sonoma finish. Kentucky is simply one of his favorite places to race. Busch is one of four drivers to visit the Top-10 in all three Kentucky races to-date. Busch has led a whopping 243 of the 801 laps raced at Kentucky Speedway. This is not by accident.

Jamie McMurray -
The 13-season Sprint Cup veteran is working on his best season in quite some time. After a pole position and fourth-place finish at Sonoma this past weekend, McMurray comes to the Sparta oval with a lot of momentum. He should keep it going in this 400-mile race. McMurray's last intermediate oval outing was an impressive fifth-place finish over Memorial Day weekend in Charlotte. He led 34 laps that night in Concord, North Carolina and raced with the leaders the entire race. His last two Kentucky starts have yielded 15th- and 2nd-place finishes for the No. 1 CGR team.

Brian Vickers -
Vickers head to Kentucky Speedway in the No. 55 Toyota this week after cracking the Top 15 at the Sonoma road course this past Sunday. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has been pretty steady on these style ovals in 2014 with a pair of Top-10 finishes in four starts. The skills are quite clearly there, and if the team can put a fast car under Vickers then more Top-10 finishes are possible. We'll find out as soon as this Saturday night. To this point, Kentucky Speedway has been a facility of struggles for the Michael Waltrip Racing driver, but we're forecasting an upturn for the Quaker State 400.

Paul Menard -
The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet is on pace to blow away his 2013 performance for Richard Childress Racing. Menard has been solid everywhere the series competes, including the intermediate ovals. Finishes of third-, ninth-, 17th- and eighth-place has been his resume on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. That's pretty impressive, reliable and safe from a fantasy racing standpoint. Menard has a personal Kentucky Speedway best of 12th-place in this event two years ago. We know he'll challenge or better that mark this Saturday night, so you could certainly do far worse at the end of your fantasy racing lineup than Menard.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver should continue building on what has been a good season in 2014. The 1.5-mile ovals have been good venues for the No. 43 Ford team. Almirola has three Top-15 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 15th in this event one year ago, so we're expecting a similar performance this time around.

Danica Patrick -
The most noteworthy performance of the season for Patrick has been that impressive Top-10 finish that came a few weeks ago at Kansas Speedway. That Saturday night in the heartland saw the No. 10 Chevrolet team finish seventh in the 5-Hour Energy 400. Some advice from teammate Kevin Harvick on which lines to run at that 1.5-mile oval paid big dividends. With the similarities between Kansas and Kentucky being so striking, we wouldn't rule out a similar follow-up performance this Saturday night. Patrick's only Kentucky finish was a so-so 23rd-place effort in this race one year ago. She'll do much better this time around.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The second-year driver for Roush Fenway Racing hasn't found the going easy on these 1.5-mile tracks this season. With finishes of 27th-, 26th-, 22nd- and 26th-place at Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Kansas and Charlotte the No. 17 team is just simply looking for the ingredients to finish these races on the lead lap. Stenhouse has only one career Cup start at Kentucky Speedway, so the experience doesn't run very deep with this young driver. Given his struggles on the intermediate ovals this year, and his lack of experience at Kentucky, we have to recommend passing on Stenhouse for this 400-mile event.

Kurt Busch -
Despite a great career record at the Kentucky oval, we have to give the slow down downgrade to the No. 41 SHR team this weekend. Busch has been just dreadful on the intermediate ovals this season. He has two DNF's and no finishes inside the Top-25 in the four races to-date. Busch's performance at Kansas Speedway, which is a very similar oval to Kentucky Speedway, yielded an unimpressive 29th-place finish. The SHR veteran has been looking better and more consistent in recent weeks, but there are all kinds of bad indicators coming into this intermediate oval race. It's better to err to the side of caution with Busch this Saturday night.

Greg Biffle -
The driver of the No. 16 Ford has been a hit-or-miss performer in recent weeks. Biffle has fallen from 11th- to 15th-place in the series standings since Memorial Day weekend. That has come based on the lack of Top-10 finishes for much of the last two months. Intermediate ovals have been a challenge for the No. 16 Ford team in 2014 with only one Top-10 finish and a 16.2 average finish in those four events. His Kentucky resume doesn't exactly instill much confidence either. Biffle has a pair of 21st-place and one 34th-place finish in his three Kentucky starts.

Tony Stewart -
Smoke comes to Kentucky Speedway at a crossroads. He enters the Quaker State 400 17th in the championship standings and hoping to improve his chances of making the Chase for the Cup in September. However, the going has been tough as his sub-par 19th-place finish at Sonoma Raceway last weekend showed. Stewart needs to up his level of performance this weekend, but his intermediate oval efforts have been sadly lacking in 2014. The Kentucky Speedway resume for this driver is no better. With 12th-, 32nd- and 20th-place efforts the last three seasons at the 1.5-mile oval in Sparta, we're having a difficult time expecting anything big from this driver this weekend.