The storylines to watch for the seventh running of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night:
Another ‘BK vs. KB’ show?
In its brief Cup Series history, Kentucky Speedway has become the epicenter for one of NASCAR’s hottest drivers’ rivalries.
Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch — who are not exactly BFFs — have dominated the Quaker State 400, combining to win five of the first six runnings.
Of the 1,602 Cup laps run at Kentucky Speedway, Keselowski (483) and Busch (437) have combined to lead 57.4 percent of them.
Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford has three Cup wins in Sparta — 2012, 2014 and last year.
Busch in the No. 18 Toyota won the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011, and then returned to victory lane in 2015.
“It does seem to come down to (Keselowski) sometimes being able to outduel us,” Busch said. “I hope our cars are ready for (this year). I know I am.”
Truex Jr. the big threat?
If this season’s form holds, Martin Truex Jr., driver of the No. 78 Toyota, should be wicked fast at Kentucky Speedway.
This year at mile-and-a-half tracks — like Kentucky — Truex Jr. has two wins (Las Vegas and Kansas), a third (Charlotte) and two eighth-place runs (Atlanta and Texas).
Kyle Busch names Truex Jr. as the driver most likely to end the “BK-KB Show” at Kentucky.
“He’s been really fast,” Busch said of Truex Jr. “He was really fast last year (at Kentucky), and has been really fast … the last several years.”
Historically at Kentucky Speedway, Truex Jr. has three top-10 finishes, including 10th last year, but no top-fives in six Cup races.
Chevy futility at Kentucky
Kentucky Speedway is the only track currently on the Cup Series circuit where a Chevrolet has never entered victory lane.
NASCAR’s premier Chevy driver, seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, should have won the 2013 Quaker State 400.
Johnson dominated, leading 182 laps, only to see victory slip away late due to a bad restart. Matt Kenseth, driving a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing, claimed the victory instead. Johnson faded to ninth.
“Kentucky is a tough one for me,” Johnson says. “I have some early fond memories. That’s the first place I drove a Cup car when Hendrick (Motorsports) put me under contract. I was a test driver for quite a few reps, just getting my laps started there.
“So that is probably the only fond memory I have of that track. When I look at my Busch Series (now the Xfinity Series) days there, I wrecked a lot of race cars.”
A crash relegated Johnson to a 32nd-place finish in last year’s Quaker State 400. Before that, the driver of the No. 48 had never finished outside the top 10 in a Cup race at Kentucky. His best finish was third in the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011.
“It’s just a very unique track, always has been,” Johnson said. “The Turn 3 entry, regardless of the surface put down, it’s always been very challenging. I just haven’t mastered it yet.”
Kenseth is Sparta-strong
For all the Quaker State 400 domination by Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, neither is the only driver who has finished in the top 10 of all six Quaker State 400s.
Matt Kenseth has that claim to fame.
In addition to his 2013 victory, Kenseth has run sixth (2011), seventh (2012), fourth (2014), fifth (2015) and eighth (last year) in Cup races at Kentucky Speedway.
Kenseth, 45, the 2003 Cup Series champion, made some news Friday morning at Kentucky Speedway when he said he did not expect to be racing for his current team, Joe Gibbs Racing, next season.
“I’m not really worried about it but, as of today, I do not have a job for next year. Hope to still be racing,” Kenseth said. “I think I got some wins left in me and, hopefully, race for championships.”
New racing surface 2.0
After the 2015 racing season, the famously bumpy, original Kentucky Speedway track was resurfaced. The 2016 Quaker State 400 took place over brand-new asphalt.
The 2017 Quaker State 400 will too.
Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said problems around the “joints” of the repaved racetrack led to a second repave after last year’s racing. A new 4-inch layer of asphalt was laid on the track.
“It’s something that wouldn’t have shown up this year,” Simendinger says. “It wouldn’t have shown up, probably, the next couple of years. But it did not meet the construction spec(ification) and it would have eventually led to failure (of the asphalt) a lot quicker.”
After a tire test over the new asphalt in May, Goodyear decided to bring the same left side tire as last year to Kentucky. The tire maker brought a different right-side tire, however, that is designed to give more grip while also producing more wear.
Presumably, this will be the final Cup Series race in Sparta for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has announced his retirement from full-time racing at the end of this season.
It could also be the final race at Kentucky Speedway for Danica Patrick. The driver of the No. 10 Ford has one year left on her contract with Stewart-Haas Racing after this year, but the combination of uncertain future sponsorship and lackluster on-track results have raised questions about Patrick’s future in the Cup Series.