For just the second time, the Sprint Cup Series will take on the 1.5-mile track that is Kentucky Speedway.
Last season, Kyle Busch dominated the race and led 125 of the 267 laps. Brad Keselowski also led 79 laps, but finished seventh. Kyle's brother, Kurt, led 41 laps and came home ninth.
Last week's winner, Clint Bowyer, struggled at this track last season, as he got caught up in an accident with just a few laps remaining in the event. Because of that, Bowyer finished 35th when it appeared he had a car that was capable of finishing in the top 15.
Kentucky has always been one of those tracks that is hard to pass on, both in the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series.
Chances are it's going to be the same tonight.
During Friday's qualifying session, the cars seemingly got faster and faster as the time trials went on.
Jimmie Johnson was the third-to-last driver to go out and was able to knock Denny Hamlin off the pole. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch were the last two drivers to go out, but weren't able to surpass Johnson's time. Earnhardt will roll out seventh when the field takes the green flag, while Busch narrowly missed Johnson's time and will start on the outside of the front row.
Johnson has been reasonably fast in every qualifying session this year. But this time, he was able to finish the session with the pole, the first time he had nabbed the top position in the trials since Dover in 2010.
Clint Bowyer, Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Martin Truex Jr. will complete the top 10. Kurt Busch, who recorded a very surprising third-place finish last weekend at Sonoma, will start 14th.
The biggest headline belongs to Matt Kenseth, who announced earlier this week that he will not return to Roush-Fenway Racing for the 2013 season. The 2003 Cup champion already has a deal in place for next season, but it remains unclear as to where he will go.
All signs point to Joe Gibbs Racing, however. Either the famed NASCAR owner and former NFL head coach will open up a fourth shop or have Kenseth replace Joey Logano in the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet. Kenseth will start Saturday's race in 20th, while Logano will take the green flag in 18th.
Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards, last season's 1-2 finishers in the standings, both had disappointing qualifying runs. Stewart will start 22nd, while Edwards will roll out 25th.
Michael Waltrip, the owner of the No. 15, 55 and 56 will be participating in his second race of the season. Waltrip will be piloting the No. 55 with sponsorship from the University of Kentucky. Waltrip's Kentucky Wildcats basketball team claimed the NCAA Championship earlier this year.
Only two drivers, J.J. Yeley and Mike Skinner, failed to make Saturday's festivities.
Regardless, here are my predictions for Saturday night's Quaker State 400:
1. Kyle Busch
I believe Kyle Busch wins at Kentucky for the second straight year.
Busch and his No. 18 have had a predominantly fast car all week, as he has been one of the fastest guys in each practice. Busch was fastest in the series' first practice at the track and was ninth-quickest in the second edition. He also turned a very stellar qualifying lap, as he will start the night in the second spot.
Busch has had a rather tough 2012 campaign. Earlier this season, he was able to snag a victory at Richmond, perhaps his favorite track on the schedule. However, in three of the last four races, Busch has recorded finishes of 29th, 30th and 32nd. Busch also spun late in the race last weekend at Sonoma and finished 17th, although he had a car capable of finishing in the first 10 spots.
"Rowdy" needs a good finish, there's no doubt about that. He currently sits 12th in the standings and holds one of the highly-coveted wild-card spots. However, drivers like Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano are breathing down his neck and he has to perform and outlast those guys.
I believe that Busch is the most talented driver in NASCAR. Simply put, the guy can flat-out drive a racecar. Busch is just 27 years old, but has already won a total of 105 times in NASCAR's top three series. His 51 wins in the Nationwide Series are the most all-time, and he's still got 10, 15 or even more years left in him before he calls it a career. He's an amazing driver and likely has the best chance of winning tonight.
As stated earlier, Busch won the inaugural event at this track in 2011, as he led 125 of the 267 laps. He may not have a similar race tonight, but I believe he will end up as the first driver across the finish line. If he is able to win tonight's race, it will be just his second win of the 2012 campaign.
2. Brad Keselowski
Keselowski, like Kyle Busch, is one of the more popular picks for tonight's race, as he won at this track last year. The only difference is that Keselowski's win wasn't in the Sprint Cup Series. Keselowski captured the win last year in the Nationwide race in dominating fashion, as he led 132 of the 200 circuits.
Keselowski had a solid Cup race at this track in 2011 as well, as he led 79 of the 267 laps. However, he would fade down the stretch and come home in a disappointing seventh. It appeared for a while that the No. 2 had a lot for Busch, but at the end of the night, it was the No. 18 celebrating in victory lane.
Who will win tonight's race?
Even with a backup car, Keselowski was able to record an eighth-place qualifying run. Needless to say, Keselowski's back-up car is just as fast as his primary car, if not faster.
Additionally, in the two practices, the No. 2 finished the sessions in eleventh and second, respectively.
I firmly believe that Keselowki's No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge has all the capabilities of winning the race. Of course, it will take some luck, good pit stops and solid decision-making. If he is able to make good decisions and have good pit stops, he could very well win the race.
When the laps are winding down, I think it will be Busch and Keselowski battling for the win.
3. Martin Truex Jr.
I think there's a very good chance that Truex and the No. 56 could win tonight's race.
Kentucky Speedway is eerily similar to Kansas Speedway, the track Truex almost won at earlier this year. Truex completely dominated the April 22 race, as he led 173 of the 267 laps. Unfortunately for Truex, his car got tighter and much worse as the laps winded down. With about 30 laps to go, Truex surrendered the lead to Denny Hamlin, who would go on to win the race.
With Michael Waltrip Racing getting much more competitive as the weeks go on, it seems that Truex is destined to win a race before the 2012 season concludes.
Tonight could be one of Truex's best shots for the remainder of the season. Truex had a rough night at this event last year, as he started 16th and finished 18th.
However, I believe that he will definitely turn things around tonight. Truex will start the night from the 10th position, and he finished the two practice sessions in fifth and 26th, respectively. I really wouldn't worry about the second practice speeds, though.
Lately, Truex and his No. 56 NAPA Auto Parts machine has been slipping. Truex was headed towards a top-eight finish last Sunday at Sonoma, but was turned around in the waning laps. Instead of recording another top-10 finish, Truex finished in a disappointing 22nd.
Currently, Truex sits ninth in the standings and is just one of two drivers—the other, Kevin Harvick—not to win in 2012 but still sitting in the top 10 in points. Like Kyle Busch, Truex needs a solid finish, and that could come tonight.
4. Jimmie Johnson
As I stated above, Johnson was able to knock Denny Hamlin off the No. 1 spot for his first pole since Dover in 2010.
If Johnson is on the pole for an event, you just know he's going to have a fast racecar. And of course, that will be tonight.
Regardless, Johnson's No. 48 has been since his car was first rolled off the trailer. Johnson was able to nab the pole position for tonight's race and also finished the two practice sessions in third and 12th, respectively.
Johnson, affectionately known as "Five-Time," has already won twice this year with dominating performances at Darlington and Dover. With such a fast car, he could very well surpass the group of Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski for the most wins of the 2012 season.
Johnson's No. 48 has been remarkably consistent since his 35th-place outing at Talladega, a track that is always considered to be a crapshoot. Since that lackluster finish, the driver has registered finishes of first, 11th, first, fourth, fifth and fifth. Prior to Talladega, Johnson had even recorded four top-fives and seven top-10 finishes.
If it weren't for his 42nd-place finish at Daytona and the 35th-place effort at Talladega, Johnson could very well be the points leader right now—thank God he isn't.
Johnson has 26 wins on 1.5-mile tracks, the most among active drivers. So clearly, Johnson will be in the hunt for a win tonight, and I believe he comes home with a top-five finish.
5. Denny Hamlin
Before Jimmie Johnson came along and ruined everything, Hamlin was sitting on the pole position. His teammate, Kyle Busch, knocked him off the front row, as well.
Hamlin has had a predominantly fast car all week, as evidenced by his third-place qualifying run.
In both practices, Hamlin had a very fast car and ended the practice sessions in seventh and eighth, respectively. Clearly, Hamlin has a great opportunity to succeed tonight and capture his third win of the 2012 campaign.
One of those wins came at Kansas in April, and as I stated earlier, Kentucky is very similar to Kansas. Both tracks are configured the same, and both are somewhat hard to pass on.
However, even though Hamlin won the race, he did not have the dominant car. That belonged to Martin Truex Jr, who was out front all day and led 173 of the 267 laps. Unfortunately, his car got worse as the race went on, while Hamlin's got better. With about 30 circuits to go, Hamlin was able to overtake Truex for the lead, and they would finish in that order.
Like his teammate, Kyle Busch, Hamlin has struggled over the last two weeks. At Michigan, Hamlin was involved in a crash and his car caught on fire in the midst of all the mayhem. He had to take his car to the garage and finished 34th. Last weekend at Sonoma, Hamlin appeared to be headed towards a top-10 finish, but he was punted by Joey Logano, his teammate, late in the race.
Where will Matt Kenseth land in 2013?
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt was finally able to knock the giant monkey off his back two weekends ago at Michigan. For the first time in over 140 events, NASCAR's most popular driver was in victory lane. It was undoubtedly the best moment of the season, as there were many fans rejoicing around the nation.
However, it would be very hard for Earnhardt to repeat the following week at Sonoma. "Junior" has always been very mediocre at road courses, as he has never won one of those events in the Sprint Cup Series—he was able to capture the checkered flag at Watkins Glen in 1999 while driving his No. 3 ACDelco Chevrolet in the then-Busch Series.
Regardless, things were going to be tough, and there wasn't a very great chance that he would win in consecutive weeks.
Earnhardt appeared to be headed towards a top-15 finish at the tricky road course, but was spun late in the race. Because of that, the No. 88 finished the race in 23rd, the first time he had finished outside the top 20 in 2012.
Obviously, Earnhardt has been one of the most consistent drivers in Sprint Cup this year and has arguably been the best driver in the Hendrick stable.
The No. 88 has been relatively fast since arriving at Kentucky, as he will take the green flag from the seventh-position. Earnhardt also finished both practice sessions in second and seventh, respectively.
But it appears now that he knows the track a lot better than he did last year. He recorded a great qualifying run and practice times, and because of that he should record another top-10 finish.
7. Clint Bowyer
Bowyer was able to capture the first win of 2012 for Michael Waltrip Racing last weekend at Sonoma. Bowyer completely dominated the race, as he led 71 of the 112 total laps.
The driver of the No. 15 has been on a surprising hot streak lately, as he has jumped to seventh in the standings.
After a 36th-place finish at Kansas, Bowyer has come back and registered finishes of seventh, sixth, 11th, 13th, fifth, sixth, seventh and, of course, his victory last weekend at Infineon Raceway.
It has also been a phenomenal help that his team, Michael Waltrip Racing, has gotten progressively better and better as the season has wore on. It seems that one of the three drivers—Martin Truex Jr., Bowyer or Mark Martin—are always in contention for the win. Even Brian Vickers, who has been piloting the No. 55 in select events, finished fourth last week in just his third race of the 2012 season.
They are doing some great things over at Michael Waltrip Racing, and it has been proved. MWR could very well have four wins at this point—Bowyer could have won at Martinsville; Truex almost got a win at Kansas if it weren't for a very tight racecar; and Mark Martin almost got a win at Pocono, but he slipped up and got passed by Joey Logano with a few laps remaining. And of course, there is also Bowyer's sixth career win that came six days ago.
Because of Bowyer's stellar performances, it seems as though he will register another top-10 finish tonight. Unfortunately for Bowyer, he was involved in a late-race crash last year at this track and finished 35th.
However, he has had a fast car since the drivers arrived at Kentucky. Bowyer will take the green flag from the sixth spot, and he finished the two practices in fourth and 27th, respectively. Despite one bad practice, I believe Bowyer will be in contention for the win tonight, just like Truex.
8. Jeff Gordon
In the midst of the worst season of his career, Jeff Gordon has yet to win a race in the 2012 season.
However, he has had very solid racecars, but he hasn't been able to turn those into victories. He had a remarkably fast car at Martinsville, but was involved in a late-race crash when Clint Bowyer swan-dived it into Turn 1. Gordon had a blazingly fast car last weekend at Sonoma, as he qualified second and was fastest in all three practices.
Unfortunately, he would run out of gas late in the race, but was able to make it to pit road. Gordon finished sixth, but had a car capable of winning.
As of right now, Gordon is the only driver in the Hendrick stable not to win in 2012—Jimmie Johnson won at Darlington and Dover, Kasey Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won at Michigan two weekends ago, successfully breaking his 143-race losing streak.
Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne are all outside the top 10 in the standings but have wins in 2012. In order to get one of those coveted wild-card spots, Gordon has to win a race or two before the "regular season" ends at Richmond a few months from now.
The No. 24 may have a great chance of doing that tonight. Gordon finished 10th at this race last year, although he never led a single lap. When the field takes the green flag, Gordon will be in the ninth spot. Additionally, Gordon was a mediocre 16th in the first practice, but apparently made great adjustments to the car and had the fastest car in the second practice session.
Gordon may have a fast car tonight, but I still believe he remains winless when the 267 laps conclude.
9. Matt Kenseth
The driver of the No. 17 has been one of the most consistent drivers in the Sprint Cup Series this season.
He currently leads the points standings over teammate Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. However, news has surrounded Kenseth this week, as it was announced that he would not be part of the Roush-Fenway stable for the 2013 season.
According to reports, the 2003 Cup champion has already signed with a team for next season, but it remains unclear as to where he will go. It will likely be to Joe Gibbs Racing, as he would either replace Joey Logano in the No. 20 or be part of a new fourth team.
Kenseth will start the race in the middle of the pack in the 20th spot. Additionally, he was 19th and 35th in both practice sessions. It appears that he does not have a fast car like Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin or Jimmie Johnson, but that doesn't mean anything when the field takes the green flag.
For Kenseth, history should be on his side. There has just been one race for the Sprint Cup Series at Kentucky, and in that event, Kenseth took the checkered flag in sixth. It appears that Kenseth knows the track fairly well, and that will help him in the 267-lap event.
The No. 17 hasn't been necessarily fast, but Kenseth is one of the most consistent drivers in NASCAR history. Because of that, I firmly believe he will accumulate a top-10 finish and will likely retain the points lead once the race concludes.
10. A.J. Allmendinger
"The Dinger" has been one of the biggest disappointments in 2012.
Allmendinger was tabbed to take over for Kurt Busch in the No. 22 for Roger Penske after spending multiple years in Richard Petty's stable. Many people expected Allmendinger to compete for wins and maybe even have one before tonight's race.
However, that hasn't been the case.
Allmendinger has vastly struggled in 2012, as he has just two top-10 finishes. He lucked into a second-place run at Martinsville earlier this season and registered a ninth-place effort at Sonoma last weekend.
To put it nicely, Allmendinger has struggled mightily, as he currently sits a disappointing 23rd in the points standings. He has to start turning things around, and with his ninth-place outing last Sunday at Sonoma, things may be turning positive.
Allmendinger has had a reasonably fast car since his car was taken off the truck. He will take the green flag from the 16th position, and he also ranked 11th and fourth in the practice sessions, respectively.
Allmendinger needs a solid effort tonight, and I believe he will record a decent finish. He definitely needs it.
Other Finishers (11-20): Greg Biffle (11th), Tony Stewart (12th), Kevin Harvick (13th), Carl Edwards (14th), Kurt Busch (15th), Joey Logano (16th), Jamie McMurray (17th), Marcos Ambrose (18th), Kasey Kahne (19th), Michael Waltrip (20th)
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