The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is back in action this weekend as they’ll head north to the Kentucky Speedway. Saturday’s Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET/NBCSN/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the 19th race of the season meaning there’s only eight races remaining of the regular season.
Here are the top storylines.
It’s no secret, one of the toughest turns in all of NASCAR happens to be the third turn at the Kentucky Speedway. Since the track was repaved a couple of years ago for a second time in as many years, track officials decided to reconfigure some of the race track too.
Turns 1 and 2 would be wide sweeping corners which would allow drivers to pretty much be flat out. Turn 3 however, that’s a different story.
The goal is going to be like usual – carry as much speed at Turn 2 exit as possible. That comes with a price to pay this weekend. The more speed you have exiting Turn 2, the quicker you’re going to go on the backstretch. The quicker you go down the backstretch, the more speed you carry into Turn 3.
That’s the problem.
Turn 3 is much flatter than Turns 1 and 2 and also more narrow with less banking. Translation? It’s much harder to get your car to stay on the low line around the 1.5-mile track in that corner.
Your car naturally wants to step out from under you in that turn. But, if you go too far the opposite direction, your car doesn’t want to turn and you want to push straight into the Turn 3 SAFER Barriers.
This is the corner that all drivers fear not just this weekend, but all season. It will bite some drivers this weekend. The ones to can brave Turn 3 the best, well they were leave Kentucky happy with a good finish.
3rd Straight 1st Time Winner?
Can history be made on Saturday night at the Kentucky Speedway? For the second straight weekend, we had a first time winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series when Justin Haley stole a win in last Sunday’s rain marred Coke Zero Sugar 400 at the Daytona International Speedway. That was his first career Cup win in just his third ever start in NASCAR’s premiere series.
That comes exactly a week after Alex Bowman earned his first career Cup win in the Camping World 400 at the Chicagoland Speedway. Now, can we go three-for-three on NBC Sports’ coverage?
If so, then who?
14 of the 36 drivers entered in Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 have failed to win a Cup race in their respective careers. That’s counting the two TBA entries for Rick Ware Racing as those drivers will likely be two drivers to have never won before too.
So, among the 12 that we do know, lets rank the top ones who can win.
William Byron – He’s been so close already. Byron, earned his first career top five finish last weekend in Daytona and has four top 10 finishes in his last six starts on the season including five in his last eight overall. For his Cup career, Byron has made 54 starts with 10 top 10’s. He does have 11 combined wins in the XFINITY as well as the Truck Series, so he knows how to win and has the top equipment among the winless drivers.
Daniel Suarez – Saturday night will be Suarez’ 91st Cup Series start. It’s hard to believe the Mexican driver hasn’t won a Cup race yet, but he likely will soon. Suarez, has six top five finishes and 27 top 10’s overall including two in his last five starts on the season. He’s got the second best car among the winless drivers.
Matt DiBenedetto – If he had a quality ride, DiBenedetto would have won by now. He’s made 158 career Cup starts with none of which being with one of the top teams. DiBenedetto, has consistently outran his equipment as he has one top five and six top 10 finishes in his career. He also has two top eight finishes in his last three starts on the season.
Daniel Hemric – It’s hard to believe Hemric has never won a NASCAR race. He’s made 136 career starts across the Trucks, NXS and Cup Series and the North Carolina native has never tasted victory lane. Hemric, has one top 10 finish this season with a fourth place run back in April in Talladega. He’s a rookie with a rebuilding RCR team, so forgive him if the results have been slow in 2019. But, in 66 career NXS starts, he has 23 top five finishes and 39 top 10’s. In 50 Truck Series starts, he had 15 top fives and 30 top 10’s. Hemric, knows his way to the front, he just needs to find the path again.
Ty Dillon – The Germain Racing driver has had a struggling start to his Cup career. But, he’s with a team without all the resources of his peers. Dillon, has made 108 starts in his career and just earned his first career top five finish last weekend in Daytona. He has three top 10 finishes in his career, two of which coming in 2019 too. But, it’s not like Dillon doesn’t know how to win though. Dillon, won four times in the NXS and Truck Series combined including over 100 combined top 10 finishes too. Like DiBenedetto, if he had quality equipment on a weekly basis, he’d be visiting victory lane much more.
Ryan Preece – He’s only made 81 career NASCAR starts but Preece has the potential to be a big name if he can get to a big team. He bet on himself and it paid off. He’s in the Cup Series. While his team isn’t necessarily a top team, he can land in one eventually. Preece, has one top five and two top 10 finishes in 23 career Cup starts. He’s won twice in 58 career NXS starts.
Darrell Wallace Jr. – A win isn’t coming any time soon with RPM. But, it’s not like Wallace isn’t talented. He just can’t get the most out of a struggling car. Wallace, has six Truck Series wins to his credit but he can’t beat the other six with where he’s at right now.
Matt Tifft – Like most of the drivers above him, unless it’s a superspeedway track, Tifft will have a hard time finding victory lane. Tifft, is a rookie in the series and just made his 18th career start. He did have nine top five finishes and 38 top 10’s in 77 career NXS starts but failed to win in that series too. Overall, Tifft is a lot like Hemric in that he’s been solid in all three NASCAR divisions but he’s yet to win.
Michael McDowell – His car has been better lately, but it’s still not a race winning caliber of one away from superspeedway’s. McDowell, has one NASCAR win in 399 career starts. He’s 0-for-303 in the Cup Series with just two top five finishes and seven top 10’s. I don’t see a win coming soon.
Corey LaJoie – He earned his first top 10 finish last weekend in Daytona. GoFas Racing unfortunately doesn’t have the equipment to win away from Daytona or Talladega. They can be that storybook top 10 every once in a while, but a win is far fetched.
1 Of 3 Tracks Johnson Hasn’t Won At
Jimmie Johnson has been superb nearly everywhere he’s raced. He’s won seven Cup Series championships, tied most all time. Among his 83 career wins in NASCAR’s premiere series are four Brickyard 400 crowns, four Coca-Cola 600 victories, two Daytona 500 triumphs and two Southern 500 trips to victory lane. To go along with that are four wins in the All-Star race and two in the Clash.
He’s won at Dover 11 times, Martinsville nine times, Charlotte eight and Texas seven times respectively. Among the only few things missing is, the Chicagoland Speedway.
There are only three tracks that Johnson has yet to win at on the Cup Series schedule. One of which is this weekend in the Quaker State 400. Another was a couple of weeks ago in Chicagoland, a race he finished fourth in. The third is in August at Watkins Glen.
Other than winning an eighth Cup Series title, winning on every track on the schedule is high on his priority list.
He actually started off pretty good at Kentucky but has since tapered off. He finished third, sixth, ninth, 10th and ninth respectively in his first five starts. But, over his last three, he’s been 32nd, 40th and 14th respectively. The third place run in the inaugural race is his lone top five in eight tries too.
Now, he’s looking at finishing strong again on the season though. The problem is, he brings a 77 race winless streak into the weekend. That’s the longest of his storied career. He only has five top five finishes in his last 61 starts but two of which have come in the last two weeks too though. After having double digit top five finishes in literally every year of his career, he’s only had four in 2017, two in 2018 and just three again in 2019.
This is a rough patch of his career. Can he make up for it with a win on Saturday night?
He is in a predicament though. Johnson, needs a win but he also needs stage points. If you give up stage points to position yourself for the win and you don’t actually win, you could be in a huge hole.
Truex Going For 3 Peat
Kentucky has been the place that Martin Truex Jr. has dominated at. He’s led the third most laps in track history (373) with a majority of them coming in each of the last two years.
Truex, led 152 laps in a win in 2017 and 174 more in his dominating victory lane year. Also, he started on the front row in each too. That earned him stage wins in both races meaning he’s won all four stages, led 326 laps and won both races.
Now, can he earn a three peat on Saturday night?
Truex, enters this weekend fifth in the Cup Series points standings. He’s scored four wins already, all coming since April. He also has three top 10 finishes in his last four starts on the season with the only exception being at Daytona last weekend. With three top three finishes in his last five starts on the year too, watch out for his No. 19 Toyota on Saturday night.
If it’s not Truex, it’s been either Kyle Busch or Brad Keselowski dominating in Kentucky. Busch, has two wins himself in the Quaker State 400 including a top 10 in all but one start overall. Furthermore, Busch has five top five finishes in his last six Kentucky starts to go along with four top fives in his last five starts on the season in his No. 18 Toyota.
He’s led a track high 549 laps at Kentucky too.
But, Keselowski can’t be denied either. Keselowski, has the second most laps led (521) and has three wins on the 1.5-mile track. Combined, these two and Truex have won in seven of the eight years that NASCAR’s premiere series has been coming to Kentucky.
The only driver not named Busch, Truex or Keselowski to win at Kentucky was Matt Kenseth in 2013.
Keselowski, finished third in this race last year and has finished in the top seven in six of his eight years. He also has four top six finishes in his No. 2 Ford in his last seven starts on the season as well.
Penske/JGR Battle For The Win
While the win for Saturday night’s race has to go through Truex, Busch or Keselowski, what if they don’t win? I know it’s hard to ask that question of the Quaker State 400 at the Kentucky Speedway when they’ve literally won in all but one year on the 1.5-mile track, but in the event that they don’t reach victory lane, who does?
I wouldn’t look much further than one of their teammates in the Joe Gibbs Racing or Team Penske camps. I mean, combined, they’ve won every year. JGR and Penske have each scored three wins a piece. The only other team to have won was Furniture Row Racing with Truex in each of the last two years but that team has since folded a bunch of those members are with JGR now as that was a satellite team anyways.
Plus, JGR and Penske have combined to win on all but one 1.5-mile track this season.
Denny Hamlin has two top four finishes in his last four Kentucky starts. Erik Jones finished sixth as a rookie in 2017 and seventh last year in a pole winning effort in his No. 20 Toyota. Jones, five top eight finishes in his last eight starts on the season too.
What about Penske?
Joey Logano has been so strong at Kentucky since joining Team Penske. He has five top 10 finishes in six tries including a 10th place effort last year. He also has four top seven finishes in his last six starts on the year and eight in the last 11.
Ryan Blaney could be a factor too. He was 10th in 2017 and runner-up last year. That’s right, Penske went 2-3-10 in 2018 to go along with having all three cars in the top six of the finishing order two weeks ago on another 1.5-mile track in Chicagoland.
So, if you asked me, these are the teams to beat, especially when their top rivals have struggled.
Chase Elliott has one top 10 finish in three tries with a third place run in 2017. He was 13th last year. William Byron finished 20th last year. Alex Bowman was 39th. Jimmie Johnson has one top five finish in eight tries including his last three finishes being 32nd, 40th and 14th respectively.
Their true test will be how much does Chicagoland transfer over? HMS has typically struggled at Kentucky but they were so good in Chicago, a similar 1.5-mile track. Does that success bode well for Saturday night?
Stewart-Haas Racing struggled other than Kevin Harvick in Chicago and has typically struggled at Kentucky too.
Harvick, led a race-high laps at Chicago but finished 14th after getting into the wall. He did finish fifth in last year’s race at Kentucky and enters with six straight top 10 finishes but his fifth place run is also his only top five in eight career tries on the 1.5-mile track too. He hasn’t scored a top five in the last six races run on the season either and has a best finish of fourth overall in 2019.
Aric Almirola has one top 10 finish in his career at Kentucky as that came last year with an eighth place result. It’s been 14 races since he last scored a top five on the season as well.
Clint Bowyer has one top 10 as that came via a third place run in 2013. His finishes with SHR as 13th and 12th respectively.
Then there’s Daniel Suarez who has finishes of 18th and 15th respectively at Kentucky.
With all that being said, it adds up to a JGR/Penske show again on Saturday night.
We have plenty to watch here. Yes, the bubble on the bottom half of the playoff standings is tight, but what about at the top of the overall standings?
Currently, Joey Logano leads Kyle Busch by just 18 points. Where this is huge is that the winner of the regular season points race gets an additional 15 playoff points. Brad Keselowski is 67 points behind his teammate in Logano, so these three want to be the one standing on top after race 26. With such a tight battle, they need to go for stage points too.
So does the bottom half.
Stage points will play a crucial role on Saturday night.
Aric Almirola is +72 while Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Larson are sitting good at 68, 58, 34 and 33 points up respectively.
But, the final few spots are close. Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman are four and three points up respectively. SHR’s Daniel Suarez is only three points out while JGR’s Erik Jones is 13 points back himself. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-45) and Paul Menard (-53) are within striking distance but I have a feeling this will shape up as a four way battle between Bowyer, Newman, Suarez and Jones for the final two spots.