The Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday starts the 10-race sprint to the 2020 NASCAR playoffs. We're only seven weeks away from the scheduled end of the regular season at Daytona International Speedway on Aug. 29.
It's as good a time as any to assess the sport's postseason bubble. And how the 16-driver race gets shaken up will depend on the ability of four cagey veterans to sort out their rollercoaster seasons.
Let's start with Kyle Busch. It seems unthinkable the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion is winless 16 races in after a 2019 campaign that saw him capture five victories (and 14 overall within the sport's top three series). Busch has led only 130 laps, on pace for the lowest total in his full-time Cup career, and has never risen higher than eighth in the season standings.
Right now, he's 10th, over 100 points ahead of the playoff bubble (teammate Erik Jones). On paper, that seems safe. But remember what type of year this has been; a lot of wild and wacky things can happen in the next 10 races. All it would take is a few crashes, some underdog winners and suddenly? Busch, known for his volatility, could be in a more precarious position.
Then, there's seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson, still reeling from testing positive for COVID-19 last Friday morning. Johnson, who missed Indianapolis, was cleared for racing this weekend at Kentucky Speedway after two negative tests within 24 hours. However, a missed race was costly, dropping him to 15th in the standings and only 36 points ahead of the bubble. Long gone is the early-season momentum that nearly ended his three-year winless streak; Johnson hasn’t had a top-five finish since Bristol Motor Speedway seven races ago.
Those two could face extra pressure from two veterans in must-win scenarios. Matt Kenseth, who replaced Kyle Larson in Chip Ganassi's No. 42 Chevrolet, has spent much of the year struggling to adjust to the current NASCAR handling package. But the 2003 Cup Series champ figured it out last weekend at Indianapolis, finishing second for his best finish since November 2017. Kenseth suddenly looks good enough to win, becoming a bid-stealer over another winless driver who's run all the races.
That distinction also applies to Roush Fenway Racing's Ryan Newman. Newman's best finish remains a ninth in the season-opening Daytona 500, a race that nearly took his life and cost him three races on the schedule. That said, Newman remains a driver capable of winning at any track running that No. 6 Ford Mark Martin made famous. Daytona's regular-season finale could be the perfect bookend to deliver a victory that slipped out of Newman's grasp during the near-tragic final lap there back in February.
That quartet combines for nine Cup titles, almost 200 Cup victories and well over 130 pole positions. The next 10 races will show us whether that experience is enough to overcome the youthful exuberance of rookie Tyler Reddick, Jones and even a surging Bubba Wallace as the NASCAR playoffs come into focus.
The next chapter in that battle comes at Kentucky, the newest 1.5-mile oval on the Cup Series schedule. Less than a decade of competition there leaves the race somewhat unpredictable; only five drivers have won there thus far.
Guess who two of them are, though? Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. Will the veterans make the first move toward clinching their spots?
Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Kentucky Speedway (Sparta, Ky.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Remember when Harvick said Jimmie Johnson had a golden horseshoe? I think the 2014 Cup Series champ stole that good luck charm awhile back. When Denny Hamlin blew a tire at the closing laps in Indianapolis, Harvick took control to earn back-to-back victories in one of NASCAR's crown jewel events.
The win leaves Harvick with four overall this season, tied for the Cup Series lead. He's also seeking a fourth straight Championship 4 appearance, held at a track (Phoenix International Raceway) where he owns a record nine career wins. 2020, while miserable for many, has the potential to become Harvick's career best.
Who's at the Back: Justin Allgaier
Let's just take a moment to feel for Allgaier's tough luck as a Cup Series sub. Named as the backup driver for Johnson, he became just the second driver in history to race the No. 48 car for owner Rick Hendrick. It was a prime opportunity to turn in a top-notch audition for a ride that comes open in 2021. Allgaier, at 34, was unlikely to earn the full-time nod without a solid Indy performance to get him on the radar screen.
But the veteran never got the chance to show off. Starting from the rear after the driver change, Allgaier played it safe and only gained a handful of spots before an early caution. Then, on his first trip down pit road, a nasty crash took him out of the race long before the end of stage one. Poor track position led to Allgaier becoming an innocent victim.
Add in Johnson's speedy return and the glass slipper broke on his Cinderella bid long before the clock struck midnight.
Best wishes to Ryan Blaney's rear tire changer, Zach Price, who will be out 3-4 months after a nasty crash on pit road in Indianapolis. Price was hit by rookie Brennan Poole, whose No. 15 could not avoid him in a fracas that involved over a half-dozen cars. Reportedly, a fractured knee is the diagnosis, although doctors expect Price to make a full recovery.
A number of PPP loans made public this week revealed how many NASCAR teams were struggling initially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly half the Cup Series grid was approved for a loan, including playoff-caliber teams in Richard Childress Racing (the most, up to $10 million) and Chip Ganassi Racing. Just because a team was approved, however, doesn't mean they actually used the loan. NASCAR's quick recovery from the pandemic (just a two-month suspension) may mean some owners ultimately chose not to take the money.
NASCAR released the rest of its regular-season schedule for the Cup Series this week. No longer on it was the road course at Watkins Glen, New York, which failed to secure a government waiver to hold an athletic competition at the racetrack. Instead, NASCAR will venture down to Daytona and run the track's infield road course for the first time in series history.
The 2020 NASCAR All-Star Race has a new twist added to the cars in the field this year: underglow lighting. The quirk will be paired with a new number placement as the sport experiments with a new look for its race cars.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight Cup starts by Jimmie Johnson before missing the Cup race at Indianapolis last Sunday.
Laps led at Indy by Denny Hamlin, including 19 on Sunday before blowing a tire. He's now 0-for-15 for his career, one of the few major NASCAR events he hasn't won.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch has been a popular pick of mine in recent weeks. At some point, I just feel like the 2019 Cup Series champ has to jumpstart his season, right? Kentucky offers a prime opportunity as a racetrack where Busch has never finished lower than 12th. There are also the 621 laps led and a career average finish of 4.7 at this place. Sure, Busch will be expensive. But he's worth the money.
Don't sleep on Brad Keselowski, a driver whose Kentucky history comes with a weird quirk. Here are his finishes in even-numbered years: 1st, 1st, 1st and 3rd. I'd expect 2020 will keep the pattern going after a disappointing 20th-place result here last season.
We talked about how Jimmie Johnson needs a good performance. A slump of poor performances at Kentucky (four straight runs outside the top 15) will make him cheaper for Sunday's race. Take the chance and don't bet against a seven-time champion in his final full-time season. It's one of the few tracks on the circuit Johnson hasn't won at and he comes in ready and eager to knock it off his bucket list.
Kurt Busch is the defending winner at this track after a thrilling OT victory last season over brother Kyle. He did it with a No. 1 team that also ran well here historically with previous driver Jamie McMurray. Add in Matt Kenseth's recent surge and it feels like it's a good time to play the hot hand at Chip Ganassi Racing.
Rookie Christopher Bell signed a new sponsor this week in Germania Insurance. Kentucky's the perfect place to keep the momentum going despite his first Cup race at the 1.5-mile track. Four top-5 finishes in five starts in NASCAR's Xfinity and Truck series make him a good bet to sustain that success.
Not to be outdone, fellow rookie Cole Custer earned his first career top-5 finish in Cup this past weekend at Indianapolis. It's perfect timing heading to a track where he's the defending Xfinity Series race winner.
What Vegas Thinks
Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch are tied with 6/1 odds to win the Kentucky event. Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are right behind at 7/1, according to oddsmaker vegasinsider.com.
Ryan Newman would be one heck of a longshot; the payout is sitting at 100/1.
What I Think
I'm going to go with Brad Keselowski to take the victory, his fourth in the Bluegrass State. Now watch; the one time I go against Kyle Busch is when he finally gets his season back on track.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)