NASCAR at Kentucky 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for Quaker State 400
Put away your fancy hats, this particular race in Kentucky doesn't have quite as strict of a dress code as the Derby.
After a detour to a topsy-turvy road course in Sonoma last week, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to left-turns-only land this week at the Quaker State 400 race at the Kentucky Speedway.
It's only the fourth time the Sprint Cup Series has come to Kentucky, and the past three winners Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth will be trying to become the first repeat champions at the Speedway.
Keep clicking to find out all you need to know about the 2014 Quaker State 400.
By the Numbers: Kentucky Speedway
Place: Kentucky Speedway
Date: Saturday, June 28
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: TNT, 6:30 p.m. ET (Countdown to Green pre-race show)
Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN), SiriusXM Ch. 90
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)
Defending Race Winner: Matt Kenseth
Defending Pole Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Race Record: Brad Keselowski, Dodge, 145.607 mph, 6-30-2012
Qualifying Record: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 183.636 mph, 6-29-2013
Races Won from the Pole: none
Youngest Kentucky Pole Winner: Jimmie Johnson (6-30-2012—36 years, 9 months, 13 days)
Oldest Sonoma Pole Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr. (6-30-2013—38 years, 8 months, 20 days)
Youngest Sonoma Winner: Kyle Busch (7-9-2011—26 years, 2 months, 7 days)
Oldest Sonoma Winner: Matt Kenseth (6-30-2013—41 years, 3 months, 20 days)
All-Time Winners: Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Matt Kenseth (one)
The Short Field
For the first time since 2001, there might be fewer than 43 cars in the field for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race. As of Wednesday, only 42 cars are on the entry list. Any cars wanting late entry would have to be at the track for inspection by noon on Thursday.
However, according to Bob Pockrass of Sporting News, this won't affect any NASCAR or broadcast obligations:
The current 43-car field in the Sprint Cup Series has evolved over the years, yet it’s not necessarily a magic number," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. "There are a variety of contributing factors that determine the size of the field, including the ebb and flow of the race teams. A field with less than the maximum is still very much a highly competitive field, and that’s what we’ll have this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.
Hendrick Motorsports' Quest For Continued Domination
Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. currently hold the top three spots in the Sprint Cup Standings and have won five of the last eight races. They are officially the cream of the crop.
But last year, Hendrick drivers didn't do well at the Kentucky Speedway, with nobody finishing above eighth place at the 2013 Quaker State 400. They'll be looking to improve upon that this year, and Gordon will have extra motivation. Mr. 24 will be looking to win his first race at the Kentucky Speedway—it's the only track on the Sprint Cup schedule where he hasn't won.
Matt Kenseth Looks to Defend Title, Get First Win in 2014
Kenseth hasn't had a bad season—he's currently ranked No. 4 in the Sprint Cup standings, right behind the Hendrick trio. However, he still doesn't have a victory this season, and this track where he came up victorious last year might be his best bet.
The 42-year-old had a bad crash last week at Sonoma and was unable to finish the race, so he'll be looking to bounce back quickly.
Drivers to Watch
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Always keep an eye on Junior. He already has two wins this year, and now he's looking to get a third and put pressure on his teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in the Sprint Cup rankings.
Earnhardt Jr. won the pole at Kentucky last year, but ended up finishing a disappointing 12th. His best finish at this track was fourth back in 2012. But he finished third last week in Sonoma and is putting together one of the best seasons of his career.
According to Robert Edelstein of TV Guide, Earnhardt Jr. is a consistent threat now because he has finally grown up:
I find myself looking back in the past at my morals and values and priorities and wondering why I did things a certain way," says Earnhardt, who has done his share of partying at Whisky River, the bar he owns in Charlotte. "It's not so much regret - I had a lot of fun. But some people get it right away and I sat there and was a frat boy for 10 years and didn't mature as quickly as maybe I should have. I look back and it's like a totally different life.
Busch was the inaugural winner of this event back in 2011. He's done well since, finishing 10th in 2012 and fifth last year. However, MotorSport.com points out that Busch's success in Kentucky started well before 2011:
Busch has notched victories at Kentucky Speedway in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions – Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck. Add his 2003 ARCA series win at Kentucky and Busch has been victorious in four racing divisions and has made quite a Kentucky home of his own in Kentucky’s second-most-famous victory lane.
Logano won three straight NASCAR Nationwide Series events at the Kentucky Speedway from 2008-2010, so he certainly feels comfortable navigating this track.
Last year, the 24-year-old had a great Sprint Cup race on this track and was in contention until a late restart caused him to finish in fourth. This is his 200th start in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, and he will be looking to make it one to remember.
History of Kentucky Speedway
The Kentucky Speedway is located in Sparta, Kentucky. Construction began on the track in 1998, and it officially opened in 2000.
The track is a 1.5-mile tri-oval with 14-degree banking in the turns and a 1,600-foot backstretch. The grandstand at the track has a capacity of 107,000.
The track has hosted races for the Camping World Truck Series, Nationwide Series, IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights Series.
The inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker Stake 400 was held at the Speedway in 2011.
This week, as reported by Torin Koos of USA Today, President Obama called the six-time champion the "Michael Jordan of NASCAR." Remember back when Johnson was struggling this season and couldn't win a race? Yeah, that feels like a lifetime ago at this point.
Johnson has finished in the top 10 in his last six races, winning three of them. He's never won at Kentucky, but he did finish in the top 10 in all three of his previous races on the track. With his current form and love for 1.5-mile tracks, Johnson is the clear favorite.
According to oddsmakers, Harvick is the second favorite behind Johnson, which makes sense considering he has two wins already this year and finished second in the past two races on 1.5-mile tracks.
Harvick has a Hendrick engine, so even though he races for Stewart-Haas, he still gets the Hendrick turbo boost that has been dominating the Series lately. The 38-year-old is a serious threat this week.
Keselowski won this race in 2012, but a wreck last year caused him to finish 33rd. The 30-year-old is currently ranked No. 5 in the Sprint Cup standings, and he is trying to get his second win of the season. He's finished in the top three in three of his last four races, and with his past success at Kentucky has a great chance to get back in the top spot.
Twenty-one-year-old Kyle Larson is a Sonoco Rookie of the Year candidate, and with a top-10 spot in the rankings and a car that seems to be in contention week in and week out, he's likely to win sooner rather than later.
Curtis Pashelka of the San Jose Mercury News took a look at Larson's impressive rookie season before last weekend's race in Sonoma:
It's been a magical rookie season for Larson, heralded by some as the most complete driver to enter the Cup series since Jeff Gordon in 1990. He is eighth in the standings with seven top-10 finishes in the first 15 races and has a legitimate chance to advance to the season-ending Chase for the Cup.
"I thought we'd be fighting to get a top 15 finish every week, and it seems like we're in the top 10 for the most part every race," said Larson, who took over the No. 42 car previously driven by Juan Pablo Montoya for Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
After a 28th-place finish in Sonoma, Larson will be happy to get back on an oval track where he feels more comfortable. He's fighting for a spot in the postseason, and the youngster isn't content with what he's accomplished so far—he's ready to win now.
There aren't many things left for Jeff Gordon to accomplish in NASCAR, but No. 24 can cross one of those things off with a victory at the Kentucky Speedway this week. As mentioned earlier, it's the only track on the Sprint Cup Series schedule where he hasn't found himself in victory lane.
The 42-year-old is at the top of the Sprint Cup standings right now, and has finished in the top 10 in five of his last six races, with one win. He was in second place last week in Sonoma on his beloved road course, but he's been pretty great on traditional ovals in his career too.
Gordon told Tom Groeschen of USA Today that winning in Kentucky is a priority right now:
[A win at the Kentucky Speedway] would be fantastic. I think everybody's goal is to be able to win at every track and to win consistently. One of the things we've been fortunate enough to do with the 24 car is to win consistently, and one stat that is important is to win at every track.
Winning at Kentucky is now high on my list. We had a shot last time, and I'm pretty excited about coming back.
This is only the fourth year of the Quaker State 400, and Gordon has finished in the top 10 the previous three years. I suspect that this will be the year that he crosses the finish line first.