Mark Story

Is this the year someone overthrows Kyle, Kez and Truex at Kentucky Speedway?

In this burgeoning era of legal sports wagering, it’s hard to imagine any major event where the odds of picking the winner correctly are better than the Quaker State 400.

Of the prior eight races in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series run at Kentucky Speedway, three drivers have combined to win all but one.

Brad Keselowski has won three times in Sparta — 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Kyle Busch has won twice — the inaugural Cup race in 2011 and 2015.

Martin Truex Jr. has won the past two — and done so in dominant fashion.

When the green flag flies Saturday night on the ninth renewal of the Quaker State 400 Presented by Wal-Mart, the question is whether two variables introduced in 2019 may finally open victory circle in Sparta to someone new.

This year’s Cup race at Kentucky Speedway will be the first run under NASCAR’s new down-force package that was instituted before the 2019 season. Track officials at Kentucky Speedway have also applied a traction compound known as “PJ1 TrackBite” to the racing surface that is designed to produce wider racing lanes.

Add those to the still fairly new track (the most recent repave came before the 2017 race) at the Speedway, and one school of thought is this year is a whole new ballgame in Sparta.

“When you put this traction compound down, you might as well repave the track and move it someplace else,” says defending Cup Series champion Joey Logano. “It is completely different. It’s nowhere near the racetrack we have raced in the past.”

No one would have more reason to lament the idea that racing at Kentucky Speedway will be fundamentally altered than Truex Jr. In both 2017 and ‘18, Truex Jr. won every Quaker State 400 stage.

“I definitely hope it is not the case. But I think (the racing) is going to be totally different,” Truex Jr. said. “Everyplace we’ve been this year with the new rules has just been so different than last year. It is really hard to use any past experience when it comes to preparing the car and getting it set up right.”

Truex was not fast in Friday’s final Cup Series practice session, standing 20th, but bounced back to qualify eighth.

Kyle Busch 2015 Kentucky win
Kyle Busch sprayed his drink in Victory Lane after the 2015 Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway. Busch also won in Sparta in 2011. Timothy D. Easley AP

In his career, Busch has won eight overall races at Kentucky Speedway — the two Cup wins, plus three in the Xfinity Series, two in trucks and an ARCA victory. In the Cup series, however, Busch has not been as dominant in Sparta since the famously bumpy original racing surface was repaved following his 2015 Quaker State 400 win.

“We always had a first to third car when (the track) was rough and bumpy,” said Busch before qualifying 10th. “Now, we’ve kind of moved ourselves to about a third to fifth (car). We always come here with a chance, but we are not as dominant as we used to be.”

keselowski 2016 win at Kentucky
Brad Keselowski celebrated in Victory Lane at Kentucky Speedway after winning the 2016 Quaker State 400 at Sparta. Keselowski also won the Quaker State 400 in 2012 and 2014. Timothy D. Easley AP

Keselowski may be best bet to adjust to new racing conditions at Kentucky. In 2016, the Penske Racing No. 2 Ford driver won the first Cup race run in Sparta after the initial repave.

In Friday’s final Cup Series practice session, Keselowski was fastest. He went on to qualify third, behind pole-winner Daniel Suarez and Aric Almirola.

“I feel like I was a better driver here when the track was really rough,” Keselowski says. “I was a little more comfortable before the track was repaved.”

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger says he thinks the reputation of the track has been enhanced by the dominance of three of the elite racers in the Cup Series.

“I don’t think it is a bad thing to be tied into Truex, Kyle Busch and Keselowski as the guys who dominate at your track,” Simendinger said. “To me, those are three of the best drivers on the circuit. That means you have to be that good to win at Kentucky — and that’s a good thing.”

Besides Kentucky Speedway’s Big Three, who could be “that good” in 2019?

Kevin Harvick, still looking for his first win of 2019, was second fastest in the final Cup practice and qualified fifth. Without ever winning here, Harvick’s average finish in the eight Cup races in Sparta (9.4) is actually better than Truex Jr’s (10.1) or Keselowski’s (11.4).

Logano, Keselowski’s teammate with Penske Racing, won three straight races in Sparta in what is now known as the Xfinity Series (2008-10).

“Yeah, there’s gonna be a different winner — I am going to win,” Logano said with a laugh.

Fact is, no matter how the track changes, there’s no reason ever to pick anyone other than Kyle, Kez or Truex Jr. to win a Cup race at Kentucky Speedway until somebody proves differently.

The hunch here is that it is Keselowski’s turn.

NASCAR races at Kentucky Speedway

Truck Series: Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 (Thursday’s winner: Tyler Ankrum)

Xfinity Series: Alsco 300 (late Friday)

Cup Series: Quaker State 400, 7:30 p.m. Saturday (NBC Sports)

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.