As I sat down to write last week’s predictions, I didn’t know how true my words would be. Not only had Dale Jr redeemed himself two weeks ago at Michigan, but Clint Bowyer got the job done last week on the Sonoma Road course for the Toyota/Save Mart 350 for his first win of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) season. Clint indeed ran well at Infineon, besting a charging Tony Stewart for the win after a number of near Caution-flag causing contacts within the pack following a late-race restart.
Kurt Busch, after finishing third in running the Nationwide race at Road America in Wisconsin, repeated the that third-place performance at Infineon. Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon Greg Biffle, Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger, and Joey Logano rounded out the top ten finishers. Dale Earnhardt Jr, after running in the top-fifteen all day on a course he’s not thrilled with, got caught up in a late-race incident and left him finishing twenty-third. Jr will certainly be happy he’s back on a more traditional race this week.
We return to the oval tracks at the Kentucky Speedway (KS) for some Saturday Day/Night racing for only its second NSC race, with the seventeenth race of the 2012 Cup season in the Quaker State 400. As many NASCAR enthusiasts remember, last year’s race at this 1.5-mile track caused a lot of anger amid teams and fans alike, particularly when thousands of fans could not even make it into the speedway because of traffic snarls to watch the race. Speedway Motorsports, Incorporated (SMI), the company that owns Kentucky Speedway, and its ever-controversial owner Bruton Smith, pledged to work with the Kentucky state government to improve the roads and highway interchanges, thus permitting a more efficient way to get fans into and out of the track. After $10 million of dollars in investments and a lot of hard work, the construction is complete. An outside contractor was also hired to handle the parking arrangements. So the big question now is not so much who will win the race, but rather just how will those improvements work? We’ll see today where the traffic jams actually occur.
Race coverage begins Saturday at 4:30pm EDT with the NASCAR Raceday Pre-Race show on SPEED, TNT NASCAR Countdown at 6:30pm EDT, with the race broadcast itself on TNT starting at 7:30pm EDT. Quaker State exec Steve Reindl will be the Grand Marshall for the race, with country music and actress Laura Bell Bundy performing the National Anthem. A pre-race flyover of U.S. Navy T-45s from NAS Meridian in Mississippi will punctuate the National Anthem before Kyle Klingenberg, president, Major Brands Oil Company, waves the Green Flag at 7:46pm, starting this 267-lap, 400-mile event.
Since this is only the second Sprint Cup race at Kentucky, there’s not a lot of historical analysis that can be done. Looking at both finishing performances from last year, plus results of the last four 1.5-mile track races, can give some insight into who we can expect to see up front when the Checkered Flag flies.
Best Bets: Two top finishers from last year and on the 1.5-mile tracks lead us to Green for my BB’s this week.
Kyle Busch (#18 M&Ms Red, White & Blue Toyota)- Ol’ Rowdy was the winner of the inaugural NSC race here last year, so he starts off at the top of my list. KyBu’s suffered three straight engine failures in a row this season, before managing a seventeenth-place finish last week at Infineon. In the last four 1.5-mile track outings, Kyle has finished no worse than eleventh in three of them, including a third-place performance at Charlotte this spring. Eleven of his twenty-four wins have been on intermediate tracks like this, and despite his engine failures, he’s managed to put up a win, five top-fives, and seven top-tens so far this season. Kyle was only ninth-fastest in final practice, but will be on the outside of the front row when the Green Flag waves, so don’t be surprised if he gives Coors Light Pole Award winner Jimmie Johnson a run for the lead early on.
Greg Biffle (#16 American Red Cross Ford)- Biffle is currently the #1 points earner in the last four 1.5-mile track races, backed up by top five finishes in each of those four (including a win at Texas Motor Speedway). He only finished twenty-first last year here, but sixteen of his seventeen wins have been on 1.5-mile tracks. Considering Biffle and teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards often seem to have better luck on the 1.5-mile ovals, the “Roushketeers” have a bit of an advantage going into this race. Greg’s only starting eleventh, but was third-fastest in Happy Hour practice. You can bet he’ll be running up with the leaders tonight.
Probables: Two two-time winners so far this season in those whom you’ll likely see up front tonight.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- Jimmie finished third last year here at Kentucky, and has been second highest in NSC points earning on the last four 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been no worse than eleventh in those last four races, including two runner-up finishes. His two wins, nine top-five, and twelve top-tens put him as the most consistent finisher so far this season, despite sitting still twenty-five points behind NSC points leader Matt Kenseth in fourth place. “Five Time” only ran twelfth in final practice, but with him leading the field to Green as the Coors Light Pole Award winner, you know crew chief Chad Knaus will pull out some stops (even if they’re “bump stops”) and keep Jimmie up front.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Express Toyota)- Denny had started last week’s race off on a good foot, especially with some of the bad engine luck he’s had this season. Unfortunately, a suspension issue (busted track bar) sidelined him before the Checkered Flag waved, putting him in a disappointing 35th-pace finish. Hamlin’s got two wins, seven top-fives, and eight top-tens this season despite his recent problems, putting him eighth in overall standings, but he’s been on a downslide. Those two wins could come in handy, though, putting Hamlin in a Wild Card playoff spot with ten races to go until the Chase starts should he fall out of the top-ten. He finished eleventh here last year, and has been no worse than twelfth in three of the last four 1.5-mile outings, including a win and runner-up finish. That puts Denny second overall in points earned on the 1.5-mile tracks. With thirteen of his nineteen wins on intermediate tracks, Hamlin has something to prove this week. He’ll start behind Jimmie Johnson in third, and was eighth-fastest during Happy Hour.
Dark Horses: A rather large selection of DH picks to choose from this week, since there are a number of drivers who, while potentially not finishing well last year at Kentucky, have put up a good showing so far this season.
Jeff Gordon (#24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy)- I’m not saying that Jeff Gordon is “due” like I was with Dale Jr a lot this season, but Gordon has had race cars very capable of finishing well this season, only to fall victim to a number of unfortunate bits of luck. Jeff’s finished no worse than twenty-first in the last four 1.5-mile races, including a fourth-place finish at Texas. He finished tenth here last year, and has managed to put up a top-five and five top-tens so far this season. Jeff’s won about half of his 85 victories on intermediate-length tracks, and while he starts ninth, he won Happy Hour final practice. Is this week his week? Only if he doesn’t run into Mr. Murphy again.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Brad has been up and down in the finishes this season so far, but his two wins, four top-five, and six top-ten finishes has him sitting tenth in the NSC points standings. He finished seventh in last year’s race, and has put up a fifth and eleventh-place finish in two of the last four 1.5-mile races. K’ski has two of his six wins on this size of track, so he’s got a legitimate shot at Victory Lane. He’ll start eighth, and was second-fastest in final practice.
Other drivers to keep on the radar this week include Dale Earnhardt Jr (#88 Diet Mt Dew/National Guard Chevy), Carl Edwards (#99 UPS Ford), and maybe Matt Kenseth (#17 Fifth Third Bank Ford). Kenseth and Edwards, as mentioned before, both do well on the 1.5-mile tracks, but Edwards is starting way back in 25th (but was fifth-fastest in final practice), with Kenseth having a more problematic time starting 20th and 35th in practice. Dale Jr, though, starts seventh and was seventh-fastest in final practice, putting up top-ten finishes in all four of the last 1.5-mile track races.
Rumor Mill: One major bombshell in this week’s news.
Matt Kenseth, Jack Roush to part ways- Announced this week was that Matt Kenseth would be leaving Roush-Fenway Racing after the 2012 season. How smart a decision to announce right during a run for the Cup will remain to be seen. Roush was rumored to have remarked that somehow he let Matt “get away” but many could contend that he is looking at the financial standpoint of that team, and that he could do more (i.e. not have to pay as much) with the same sponsor budgets with a younger, less-established driver in Ricky Stenhouse Jr, who will be taking the wheel of the #17 machine next season. Roush did wish he had done a little more to keep Kenseth, but he did add, “From my standpoint, he will be moving to the dark side. But the friendship part for us will survive. I’ve not lost respect for Matt and I hope he hasn’t for me. I’ve enjoyed the 15 years with Matt and the success he’s had as a driver. He is a cornerstone here and his DNA is all over this organization.” (ESPN.com) One rumor is that Kenseth, 2003 NSC Champion, will be potentially moving to Joe Gibbs Racing, possibly to replace Joey Logano. But that is still very speculative.
This will be a good, HOT race weekend, with temperatures in most of the southeast well over 100 degrees. Sparta, KY will be no exception at the track, where one could see track temperatures pushing into the 120s and even 140s. Hydration will be the key this weekend, as will just staying cool. There’s little chance of rain, so it’s expected to go Green on time tonight. As of right now, no cars are reported to be moving to the rear of the field, but there’s always a late pre-race adjustment that may change that. So turn in to TNT, your local PRN affiliate (or even online now at www.goPRN.com), or SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (channel 90) for the hard-driving action. And don’t forget to follow me on Twitter (@Speedglutton) for in-race updates, news, and my occasional rantings.
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