Mash The Gas: Kentucky Preview

The green flag starts the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. [Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images]

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series continues its trend of night races this weekend as the Kentucky Motor Speedway hosts the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts on Saturday night.

Quaker State 400
Kentucky Speedway
400.5 miles (267 laps)
Saturday, July 11 7:30pm ET
NBC Sports Network, 7pm ET
PRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90
The Quaker State 400 will be the fifth Sprint Cup race contested in Kentucky and a new aerodynamic rules package that takes away downforce awaits the drivers. The new rules package coupled with a harder tire originally intended for use under the old aerodynamic rules should make the cars slide around more and drivers who favor a loose set up might be at an advantage.

Drivers have tested under these rules over the past year and a half but Saturday night will be the first time they are run with a full field of cars. That means no one really knows how the cars will handle in traffic so every driver and team is approaching this race with a clean slate of notes, meaning the outcome is quite unpredictable. The teams were given extra practice time on Thursday after Wednesday’s session was rained out, further limiting track time. We’ll see how it all shakes out Saturday night in the Quaker State 400 from Kentucky but in the meantime, here are some drivers to watch…

Matt Kenseth (Dan Margetta)
In the previous four races at Kentucky, Matt Kenseth owns one victory and two top five finishes. He’s never finished outside the top ten and his 4.5 average finishing position is tied for the best among the current drivers. Kenseth was one of four drivers to test under the new rules package as recently as last Tuesday at Darlington Raceway. That test was conducted on softer tires that will be raced at Kentucky but any laps with the new package should prove to be beneficial. Matt Kenseth is also very good at providing feedback to assist on setting up the car and that should also come in handy this week at Kentucky. He’s listed at 10-1 odds to win this week and I feel he’s a safe bet to be one of the cars up front this week.

Kyle Busch (John Wiedemann)
Widely considered one of the best pure drivers in NASCAR, Kyle Busch will put his skills on display at the Kentucky Speedway. If there is a driver that can adapt quickly to the new rules package, it is Kyle Busch. Busch won the inaugural Sprint Cup Series race at Kentucky and has finished in the top five in three out of the four events including a runner-up finish at this race last season and has led over 25% of all laps in those four events. Still looking at an average finish of around 13th to make his way into the top 30 in the standings by Chase time, this is a weekend that Kyle can really make up some points. Cole Whitt (30th, 128 points ahead) and Justin Allgaier (29th, +134 points) are the targets for Busch. Average finish aside, those are the drivers that Busch needs to outpoint by as big a margin as possible. I can see Busch picking up win number two at Kentucky and really closing the gap this weekend.

Jeff Gordon (DM)
Jeff Gordon has finished in the top ten in every Sprint Cup race run at Kentucky and owns a respectable average finishing position of 7.25. However, the one thing missing at Kentucky for Jeff Gordon is a win and it’s very significant as Kentucky is the only circuit on the tour that Jeff Gordon has not won at. This is his last shot at picking up that win and it must be circled on his calendar because if he accomplished that feat he would be the only driver to score victories on every track the series competes. Gordon is listed at 10-1 odds this week and his season has been filed with ups and downs including some conflicts with his crew chief. Crew chief Alan Gustafson has to step up his game this week as well as getting the car dialed in under the new rules will be a key factor in obtaining that elusive Kentucky win for Jeff Gordon. Gordon has run well at Kentucky in the past and with his last shot at a victory in Kentucky coming in a race that is unpredictable under new rules, determination could be what drives Jeff Gordon to victory lane on Saturday night.

Brad Keselowski (JW)
Brad Keselowski has been pretty quiet of late and has faded since putting up some nice results in the six races following the Daytona 500. In those races he finished in the top 10 each race with three of those in the top five and one of those a win. In the last six races following the All-Star race, Keselowski scored two top ten finishes and has averaged a 15th place finish. Kentucky should be a turn-around for the Team Penske driver as they run well on mile and a half tracks and Keselowski has two wins in the four Kentucky races including last season where he won and led 199 laps after starting on the pole. Brad Keselowski will be one to watch to see if he can get the magic back.

Kyle Larson (DM)
If drivers who like to drive loose race cars should have an advantage at Kentucky on Saturday night, then look no further than Kyle Larson, who seems to live driving sideways through the turns. Larson finished a dismal 40th in his only Kentucky start last year but with the new aerodynamic rules, his sprint car background and experience could play right into his hands as the Cup cars slide around this week. So far 2015 has been somewhat of a disappointment for last season’s Rookie of the Year but Saturday’s Quaker State 400 with less downforce could be what turns this team around. Larson is listed at 22-1 odds to win this weekend and if the team can keep the car dialed in under him, Larson should have no problem adapting to the new aero rules. A first career victory is not out of the question for Kyle Larson this weekend so don’t count him out.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
With all the talk about drivers winning a race and locking a spot in the Chase, it is important to point out that it is just not true. Yes, a win probably gets a driver in the Chase, but it is certainly not a lock. The only driver truly locking into the Chase at this point is Kevin Harvick. With nine races to go, including this weekend’s race, Harvick will lock himself into the top 30 in points by starting the race on Saturday. With the top 30 point position locked in and two wins, Harvick is all set. Now what will they do with the guarantee, will they go into test mode? My thought is they will continue on their same path and maybe take more strategic gambles to capture race wins. But, it’s Kevin Harvick, he is going for the win no matter what. Nothing else really matters to him on raceday. Harvick has two race wins at Kentucky in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series and has been improving his finishes each season in the Sprint Cup Series from a 16th in the inaugural 2011 race to a 7th last season. Looks like at least a top five and probably a shot at the win for Harvick on Saturday night.

Tony Stewart (DM)
Tony Stewart has definitely struggled the past two seasons, part due to injury, part due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and part due to the current aerodynamic rules package. At 50-1 odds, Stewart is my long shot pick this week as the new aero rules have to be something he is looking forward to. The decrease in downforce and looser cars fit right in with his sprint car background and it could be time to see the return of the Tony Stewart of old. The rhetoric around the #14 team of late has been that Stewart is ready to return to his old form and Kyle Busch returning to victory lane following a similar injury has to provide some additional motivation. If Tony Stewart is ready to race up front again, Saturday’s Kentucky race with the looser cars should provide a good stage to accomplish that.

Kasey Kahne (JW)
Kasey Kahne needs a win bad. Currently 13th out of 16 in the Chase standings, Kahne has a solid 55 point lead over Aric Almirola who is on the outside looking in. But considering that Kyle Busch could make his way into the Chase, Kahne’s position looks a little unsteady. A victory would jump Kahne up in the Chase standings to around eighth and really improve his chances. Kentucky is a track that should be good to Kahne who has a solid average finish of 8.5, but collectively in all four races he has only led one lap. Kahne’s best finish this season has been fourth at both Dover and Phoenix and his expected dominance of the 1.5 mile tracks with Hendrick Motorsports has never really materialized. Kentucky will give Kahne another shot at a win and it will be interesting to see what he does with it.



Share Button