It will be hard to top the holiday spectacle put on by the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in Daytona a week ago, yet Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the cast will attempt to do so Saturday during the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
As expected, the Coke Zero 400 kept in line with the rest of the season so far, putting up a shock winner in the form of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., while Daytona legend Dale Earnhardt Jr. landed 32nd despite it being a marquee point on his retirement tour.
What Kentucky holds in store for the series is impossible to say at this point. The playoff picture is a mess with the stage-based format helping 11 drivers clutch checkered flags so far, meaning even winners aren't necessarily safe in the postseason bracket.
Below, let's take a look at one of the summer's most important events, which is amplified more than usual thanks to the newfound parity sweeping the sport.
Where: Kentucky Speedway
When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Darrell Wallace Jr
Martin Truex Jr.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Standings
|1. Jimmie Johnson||516|
|2. Kyle Larson||667|
|3. Martin Truex Jr.||649|
|4. Brad Keselowski||535|
|5. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||395|
|6. Kevin Harvick||557|
|7. Ryan Blaney||435|
|8. Kurt Busch||408|
|9. Ryan Newman||399|
|10. Austin Dillon||323|
|11. Kyle Busch||559|
|12. Chase Elliott||524|
|13. Jamie McMurray||504|
|14. Denny Hamlin||498|
|15. Clint Bowyer||469|
|16. Matt Kenseth||445|
Drivers to Watch
It's almost easy to forget Kyle Larson given the chaos on the leaderboard and the seemingly endless storylines surrounding the season.
Yet, sort the leaderboard by points alone and the 24-year-old tops the list.
To be fair, the fact Larson has finished worse than 20th in each of his past two outings makes it easy to gloss over him. But it's a mistake—while wrecks and other issues hurting a finishing line aren't ideal, keep in mind he has won two poles over his last three outings.
For those counting, Larson has two wins and four poles on the year, not to mention all of seven finishes outside of the top 10. The momentum isn't limited to this series, either, as NBC pointed out on Twitter:
Obviously it would be nice for Larson to grab some momentum by putting together more top-10 performances. But this isn't any driver on a perceived cold streak based on his finishes—it's arguably the hottest current driver in the series having a bit of bad luck near the end of races.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Before the season, someone suggesting Stenhouse would be one of the sport's multi-race winners by mid-July would've been laughed out of the building.
Only the Roush Fenway Racing driver is laughing now.
Stenhouse stunned the series by stealing a win at Talladega in May, leading all of 14 laps before taking what seemed like an almost fluky checkered flag. Last week, he led all of 17 before taking his second of the year.
ESPN Stats & Info provided some much-needed context:
"I kept my Talladega car and told them to build a new one," Stenhouse said, per Jayski.com (via ESPN.com). "They built a Fifth Third Ford that was really fast..."
Stenhouse might need to stop saving cars he's won this season because he hasn't showed any signs of slowing while becoming an unexpected title contender.
It sounds funny, but Stenhouse is one of the big winners of the new format this year. He's locked into the playoff hunt and riding a wave of momentum few can match.
Each week there seems to be a driver who needs to turn things around and happens to head into a perfect locale to do so.
This week the status belongs to Brad Keselowski, he of three wins in this event dating back to its inaugural running in 2011. He's won two of the last three, showing a dominance of the track few have at any venue.
Keselowski could use the turnaround after finishing 31st at Daytona a week ago, though he did win the first stage. Despite the storylines here, he's spent most of his time in the week leading up to the race talking about how the sport overall can improve, as captured by Fox Sports on Twitter:
For now, Keselowski will have to settle for dominating in his Ford once again, provided he's his usual self at Kentucky.
It's worth noting there hasn't been anything usual about Keselowski as of late. Over his last six outings, he's finished 16th or worse four times. He's led laps in four consecutive races, but it's important for him to rediscover his form at one of his best venues, regardless of his two checkered flags on the season so far.
Stats and info courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.