It would not be an overstatement to say much of Matt Kenseth’s persona is rooted in the understated. Save for some rare moments of controversy — notably his revenge-laced hit on Joey Logano at Martinsville last fall — the 2003 NASCAR Cup Series champion usually operates on the side of low key and quiet consistency.
Given his nature, it was right in line for Kenseth to grin and shrug when asked about the fact that he stands out as a gate-crasher of sorts in the young history of Kentucky Speedway’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series test. Too many variables change year in and out to draw too many conclusions, he pointed out. One thing that has yet to be altered heading into Saturday’s edition of the Quaker State 400 is the fact that Kenseth has yet to ever be out of the mix in his time over the 1.5-mile Sparta tri-oval.
In many respects, Kentucky Speedway has been the annual host of the Brad & Kyle show as 2012 Cup champion Brad Keselowski and reigning series champion Kyle Busch have combined to win four of the five prior editions of the Quaker State 400 and nine of the last 15 Cup, XFINITY and Truck Series races contested at the track each summer since 2011.
The lone driver to break up that two-man band is the veteran Kenseth, who prevailed over Jimmie Johnson at Kentucky in 2013 when the race was postponed one day due to inclement weather. Not only has Kenseth been the only contender to get his nose down over Keselowski’s Miller Lite Ford and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Busch, he has three top-5 runs and never come home worse than seventh in Sparta, giving him an average finishing position of 4.6 at the track — second only to Busch’s 3.8.
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Of course, all those runs came prior to Kentucky’s famously bumpy surface being repaved this year. While Kenseth said the approach to this year’s race is “basically like starting over”, the level of back class he and his No. 20 Dollar General Toyota team bring to the table here won’t likely be easily erased.
“Driving for Joe Gibbs Racing is a big advantage, all our cars are really fast,” Kenseth said Friday. “The cars are fast and it doesn’t take long to learn that you can’t win without fast race cars, it all starts with that.
“Typically with repaves, the track will obviously be really smooth and the groove usually at the bottom of the pavement, and the track will also usually be very forgiving. You’ll have a lot of grip until you don’t and then it can be really hard to catch cars usually on new pavement, so you’ll want to keep up as much momentum and your track position as much as you can after they repave a track. I’ve always thought that the racing has been really good at Kentucky over the years, so I’m looking forward to…seeing what it’s like now.”
Repave or not, Kentucky Speedway is a bit of a sight for sore eyes for Kenseth currently. Since collecting his lone win this year, prevailing at Dover on May 15, Kenseth has posted just two top-10 finishes and most recently finished 28th and 20th at Daytona and Sonoma, respectively.
Hindsight shows that the final lap of this year’s Daytona 500 — where Kenseth was leading only to have teammate Denny Hamlin dive underneath him and win a dogfight over Martin Truex Jr. — has been a microcosm of the kind of year the Dollar General team has had to date in 2016. The cars Kenseth has piloted have routinely been fast, but misfortune has too often crept into the end result.
“There have been some really good finishes this year and it’s been fun to be part of it, I just wish I was in the mix a little more often,” said Kenseth, currently 10th in the Cup points standings. “It’s very competitive now. There are a lot of cars running close to the same speed, and they have been for several years, but when you look at the lap times, the spread keeps getting tighter and tighter. There are a lot of good teams and good cars that haven’t won yet that can. But it feels like more weeks than not, you’re racing the same guys that have a shot to win.”
With qualifying canceled due to rain on Friday, the Quaker State field was set according to points putting Kevin Harvick and Keselowski side-by-side on the front row and Kurt Busch and Logano — the former of whom was wrecked by the latter on the last lap at Daytona last weekend — set to start from Row 2.
Kenseth and his Gibbs teammates have again been quick on the grid, with Hamlin posting the fasting speed in the second practice and Carl Edwards fastest in the third. What bears watching is if any Chevy driver can break through for the win as Kentucky is the only track at which the manufacturer does not own a Cup win.
“I think this weekend is a little bit of an unknown,” Harvick said. “We spent two days here testing and obviously we had to make some adjustments – Goodyear had to make some adjustments to the tires coming back to make them live. We’ve scrambled a little bit. I felt like we were better the second time out on the race track. I think hopefully being able to get some more practice will be beneficial because we still don’t really have a good idea of exactly where we need to be as far as balance and what is going to happen the longer you run the car.”
NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker State 400
Where: Kentucky Speedway in Sparta
When: 7:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Defending champion: Kyle Busch
On the pole: Kevin Harvick
Weather forecast: Sunny with a high near 85. Race-time conditions: 80 degrees. Clear skies.
Stay on top of all the action at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday with live Twitter updates from the Herald-Leader’s writers at the Quaker State 400 —Mark Story (@markcstory) and Alicia Wincze Hughes (@horseracinghl).
Quaker State 400 champions
Previous winners of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway:
2015: Kyle Busch
2014: Brad Keselowski
2013: Matt Kenseth
2012: Brad Keselowski
2011: Kyle Busch