Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in Kentucky

Brendan O'MearaFeatured ColumnistJune 23, 2014

Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in Kentucky

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    The sultry curves of Sonoma are, at last, in the rearview mirror for these drivers. Some relished the road course, namely Carl Edwards (winner), Jeff Gordon (runner-up) and Clint Bowyer (10th after a flat tire and a collision with Kevin "Pit Road Grim Reaper" Harvick).

    As the field heads to Kentucky, a state most famous for a different kind of horsepower, maybe no other driver is more excited to return here than Matt Kenseth. For more reasons dealing with this, you'll just have to wait a moment.

    Kentucky Speedway is a return to normalcy, back to the long sweeping left turns and arrow-line straightaways that characterize so much of the racing season. With the bluegrass on the horizon, let's see who's ready for the next race and who needs it most as the Chase looms ever closer.

Kenseth Needs to Put the Pieces Back Together

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    Matt Kenseth got awfully personal with the tire wall at Sonoma on Sunday when Dale Earnhardt Jr. assisted the No. 20 car to a short day and an express trip to the garage. Kenseth, while never a threat at Sonoma, had never incurred a DNF (did not finish) at the road course until Sunday.

    A return to Kentucky's traditional oval is exactly what Kenseth needs.

    He still hasn't won a race this year but remains the leader on the Chase Grid for drivers without a victory. But what better place to guarantee a spot in the Chase with a win than at a track where he won a year ago?

    Kenseth won the Quaker State 400 by taking a calculated pit stop for fuel with 23 laps to go. It was a gamble that paid off for him, as he told Kentucky Speedway's Mike Schmaltz:

    I didn't roll the dice, (crew chief) Jason (Ratcliff) did. I thought he was a slightly crazy when it happened. This is such a great team and a great opportunity for me.  It's been just an unbelievable season and year of my life, honestly. Jason did a great job. I didn't think there was any way we were going to hold on for that win. He made the right call at the right time and these guys got it done on pit road.

    It's hard to imagine another driver more hungry for a win than Kenseth. He's currently fourth in the Sprint Cup standings, riding the coattails of Hendrick Motorsports' Big Three (Jimmie Johnson, Gordon, Earnhardt). After the mishaps at Sonoma, seeing how Kenseth rebounds will be all the more interesting heading into Kentucky.

Will the Real Kevin Harvick Please Stand Up?

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    Is there a more frustrating driver for fans to watch than Kevin Harvick? It's like a basketball player draining threes, getting to the rack, then getting derailed—and ultimately losing—by calling a timeout with none left. A more fitting metaphor for Harvick's woes would be his sideline telling him to call said timeout and then getting the technical foul.

    The sideline in this case is his pit crew. He was quoted at Sonoma over the radio waves after a poor pit stop saying, "We got annihilated. It's getting really, really, really old."

    What more can be said? Harvick often has a top-five, maybe even top-three car, from week to week. He could win (as he has twice this year). He could finish second (three times). Or he could finish 20th, as he did at Sonoma. This type of inconsistency is why he's just ninth in the Sprint Cup standings instead of in the top five, where he likely belongs.

    Kentucky is a return to a more traditional form of racing. Will that be enough motivation for his team to quit driving on three wheels? Only time will tell. 

    He'll have another fast car and will lead for at least 10 percent of this race. The real question will be whether he's leading when it matters.

Jimmie Johnson: The Empire Strikes Back

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    Imagine leading 182 laps of a 267-lap race and losing. Not even losing, but finishing ninth. And then blaming the loss on the guy who won the race. Matt Kenseth, in essence, blew up the No. 48 Death Star. Kenseth flubbed up, according to Johnson, the restart that resulted in Johnson spinning out.

    It's about to get Rebel-Alliance-real in Kentucky. 

    In 2013, Johnson chimed over the radio that that "20 should be penalized for stopping everybody on that [naughty word] restart."

    That "20" is Kenseth.

    If ever there was a driver not to anger, it would be Johnson. He's got the Emperor in Chad Knaus clucking behind him in his battle station shooting electricity from his fingertips. 

    Enough of the Star Wars references. These Hendrick cars have been running on another gear. And after finishing seventh at Sonoma (worst of all the Hendrick drivers), Johnson, no doubt, is out for his fourth win of the year, and he's not going to let a scruffy-looking nerf herder like Kenseth stop him again. Sorry.

Bowyer vs. McMurray Part Deux

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Clint Bowyer drove one of the more impressive races at Sonoma. He got a flat, was rammed by the anti-serendipitous Kevin Harvick and still managed a top-10. That's what you call a fast car and a skilled road-course driver.

    What caused that wreck that cost Bowyer a shot at winning was the flat tire, yes, but it was Jamie McMurray playing the role of snowplow and spinning Bowyer out that was the real culprit. Bowyer was not too happy.

    On NASCAR.com, the blurb read, "Over the radio, Bowyer took issue with Jamie McMurray shoving him around the turn and vowed over the team radio to 'catch that No. 1 car.'" 

    Bowyer never caught up to McMurray, the pole-sitter, who finished fourth, but Kentucky could be Bowyer's chance. A year ago, he finished third in the Quaker State 400 behind Matt Kenseth, the winner, and McMurray, the runner-up. 

    Bowyer has all the fuel he needs, and like he said after the race Sunday, "If we keep bringing cars like this every week we'll be OK."

Kyle Busch an Unsung Threat

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    Kyle Busch is in a slump. Sunday's finish at Sonoma marked the third time in four races where Busch finished 25th or worse. Joe Gibbs may want to call for Mark Rypien. 

    Not so fast.

    Busch has won at Kentucky Speedway before, and he's led the most laps of any driver there—243 including the inaugural win in 2011. 

    "To get the win in the inaugural (Cup) race here was extra special. We loved that," Busch told the Lexington Herald-Leader's Mark Story in 2012. "And we'd love to be able to do it again when we come back."

    He may as well have said it yesterday.

All Eyes on Hendrick Motorsports

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    Most folks (some folks? all folks?) are sick of Hendrick Motorsports. Hendrick has the top three drivers in the Sprint Cup standings in Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. They've all won at least one race (including the Daytona 500), so they've all qualified for the Chase. Yet Kentucky humbled these guys a year ago.

    Gordon finished the best out of them in eighth, Johnson took ninth, Kasey Kahne finished 11th and Earnhardt pulled up the Hendrick rear in 12th. This was a race in which Johnson led for 182 laps.

    Will Kentucky humble this foursome again? The way they've been driving, it's more likely all four will be in the top 10, and the way Johnson left Sparta a year ago will make him all the more motivated to win in a spot he felt was his in 2013.

    Also, Kentucky Speedway is the only track on the circuit where Gordon has not won. Granted, NASCAR didn't start racing there until 2011—but still. If this is truly Gordon's last huzzah, wouldn't winning at every track be a nice way to go out?

Kyle Larson Needs a Solid Rebound

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    Kyle Larson has gotten under people's nails of late. He incurred the ire of Tony Stewart at Michigan, and he also ticked off Martin Truex Jr. exiting the pits at Sonoma. It's hard enough being a rookie without razzing NASCAR vets like that.

    Sonoma wasn't kind to the rookie. He finished 28th, his worst finish since Daytona, where he placed 38th.

    He's still in the top 10 in the Sprint Cup standings, and for those who think it's only a matter of time before he earns his first win, what better place than Kentucky's big oval? It's easily navigable, and if he keeps bringing fast cars to these tracks, he's sitting on a win.

    He'll have his hands full with a field that includes a hungry Hendrick team and several who ran well a year ago here.