NASCAR’s slate of 1.5-mile ovals have been called “cookie-cutters” for a reason. Often the same size and shape, they suffer from the same generic problems: too little passing, too much predictability and a fan base increasingly anxious for better competition.
Heading to Kentucky this weekend, on the surface you’d be expecting more of the same. Only three drivers have ever won here in the five years it’s been a part of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup schedule; and only once has this 400-mile race reached 20 lead changes. A track that was once a promising part of the sport’s future has suffered from attendance woes in recent years, struggling from traffic problems and losing fans who’d rather attend nearby races in Indianapolis or Bristol, Tenn.
This year, though the vibe is very different. A recent repave was combined with some adjustments to the banking in Turns 1 and 2; the end result has increased the level of difficulty for drivers. New tweaks to the rule package combined with limited practice time have added an air of unpredictability. Drivers like Kyle Larson and the Dillon boys (Austin and Ty) have cracked the top speeds list while others, like six-time champ Jimmie Johnson wrecked and will have to go to a backup car.
It’s a little shuffle NASCAR hopes continues into race time. After a Coke Zero 400 that produced a rare ratings increase this season they’re hoping to ride that wave of momentum by placing their bets on a track seeking to break the “cookie-cutter” mold it’s been given.
2016 Quaker State 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday night)
Track: Kentucky Speedway (Sparta, Ky.)
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Team Penske
The two-car team, earning their 100th victory on the Cup level with Brad Keselowski at Daytona, has been leading a bit of a comeback for Ford this summer. Further back, Roush Fenway Racing put all three cars inside the top 10 Saturday night but it’s Penske who’s been the most impressive. Teammate Joey Logano ran inside the top 5 and hasn’t finished outside it since Memorial Day Weekend at Charlotte. As for Keselowski? His five career victories on plate tracks, including Daytona, have some thinking he’s on the verge of reaching Earnhardt-like status with this type of NASCAR competition. Speaking of...
Who’s at the Back: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Remember when Earnhardt dominated the restrictor plate tracks last season? For much of his Cup career? That all seems like a distant memory. After getting involved in a wreck not of his making Saturday night Junior ran outside the top 20 for the third straight event at Daytona and Talladega. Last season? He won twice and never ran lower than third.
It’s a weakness in Earnhardt’s profile that worries onlookers as he now sits just 28 points above the Chase cutoff. Up ahead, the road could be rocky for Earnhardt with Kentucky, Loudon and Indianapolis, a three-race stretch where he’s not at his best. The No. 88 team, nearly two years removed from the departure of crew chief Steve Letarte could certainly use some of his cheerleading skills right now. He always brought the best out of Earnhardt. Can Greg Ives do the same?
NASCAR veteran Tony Stewart, continuing his retirement tour, will make his 600th career Sprint Cup Series start at Kentucky. That’s the 24th-most in the sport’s history as the three-time champ seeks another milestone Saturday night: his 50th career win.
XFINITY Series driver Darrell Wallace Jr. is a little lighter in the wallet this week for invoking... Kermit the Frog? That’s right. Wallace lost $15,000 after he openly criticized NASCAR officials for their handling of the end of Friday night’s 250-mile race at Daytona. “Got the Muppets up there officiating tonight!,” he said. “Never know how to react under pressure... Whatta joke.”
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cautions at Daytona, the fewest for a Sprint Cup race there since 2004.
Cars out of 40 that were involved in Daytona’s big midrace wreck, an easy explanation for why some of the racing there wound up tamer down the stretch.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch. Brad Keselowski. Combined, they’ve won four of the five races NASCAR has held at Kentucky Speedway. Considering they finished 1-2 Saturday night at Daytona you’d have to think they’re solid picks to run consistently on a night some of the better drivers may struggle.
Kyle Larson ran top 5 in virtually every practice in Kentucky while working with a setup that’s had success on the 1.5-mile oval. Teammate Jamie McMurray has finished second here with Chip Ganassi Racing and Larson could easily follow in his footsteps. The 2015 pole sitter here, Larson enters the weekend with six straight top-15 finishes to claw his way back into Chase contention on points. A win would make that playoff bid so much easier... and do wonders for your roster.
Ty Dillon has quietly had some solid runs this season, both substituting for Tony Stewart in Cup and with the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing car. That team just earned a top 10 Saturday night with Michael McDowell in Daytona and gets some support from Richard Childress Racing; don’t underestimate them on a track like this one.
Looking for a quieter, more consistent pick? Casey Mears is coming off arguably his best run of the year, contending for the win at points in Daytona and has run between 18th and 23rd his last four starts in Kentucky. An RCR alliance also puts his No. 13 in better position heading into the weekend.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch are tied at the top here with 6/1 odds. Only Busch has tasted victory at Kentucky in a Cup car but before making it big Logano dominated at the track in NASCAR’s now-XFINITY Series.
What I Think
It’s time for Kyle Larson to have a breakthrough performance. The trickiness of the new pavement doesn’t faze this young talent and he finally pulls through for the first win of what will be a long Sprint Cup career.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)