Weekend Preview: Kentucky Speedway

Thursday, Jul 09 306

If Kyle Busch were going to allow himself to feel super optimistic and keenly confident in scoring his first win of the season, this may be the week as the NASCAR Cup Series arrives at Kentucky Speedway for Sunday’s Quaker State 400 Presented by Walmart (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Busch was the inaugural winner (2011) at Kentucky, added another trophy in 2015 and his 621 laps led there is most among all his competitors. He’s led 100 laps or more in a race four times in the nine-year history of the event, including a dominating 163 of 267 in his 2015 win. He has eight top-10 finishes in nine races, including seven top-five results – two of which were runner-up showings in addition to his victories.

Busch’s most recent runner-up effort came last summer when his older brother Kurt won by a scant .076-second - the closest margin in track history - after jumping to the lead on an overtime restart and setting the stage for a brotherly 1-2 finish.

Kyle Busch, the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota drew the pole position for Sunday afternoon’s race and the race winner has started on the front row in five of the nine races at Kentucky.

Busch has nine top-10 finishes in 16 races this season, but this marks only the second time in the last four seasons that he hasn’t won already by the 17th stop on the NASCAR Cup Series racing calendar. He has three Xfinity Series and one Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series victories at Kentucky as well.

Certainly Busch’s older brother Kurt is looking to answer his 2019 win. The driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet has six top-10 finishes in nine races, including four of the last five years. However, only one driver, JGR’s Martin Truex Jr., has won back-to-back events (2017-18) at Kentucky. And 12 of Truex’s 27 career wins have come on 1.5-mile tracks like Kentucky. His 2018 win there came from the pole position.

This venue could also be a place Brad Keselowski has circled on his calendar. The 2012 NASCAR Cup Series champion has a series-best three wins at Kentucky. The driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford earned the most dominant win in the track’s young history – leading 199 of 267 laps in route to his 2014 victory from the pole position. And his 4.399-second victory in 2012 is still the largest margin of victory in NASCAR Cup Series competition there.

Keselowski has nine top-10 finishes in the last 11 races this season – 11 top-10s on the year - including his two victories (at Charlotte-1 and Bristol-1).

Certainly there are two marquee names still looking for a maiden Kentucky victory. Championship leader – and last week’s Indy winner – Kevin Harvick has six top-10 finishes in nine Kentucky starts, but only one top-five (fifth place in 2018). The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won the pole position in 2016 and led a race best 128 laps only to finish ninth – and those are the only laps he’s ever led. Last year he finished 22nd. Kentucky and the Charlotte ROVAL are the only two tracks left on the schedule Harvick has yet to win at.

Denny Hamlin, who looked poised to celebrate his first Indianapolis win last weekend before surrendering the lead and crashing with five laps remaining, is also winless at Kentucky.  All four of his top-10 finishes on the 1.5-mile Kentucky oval have been top five runs. His best finish is third and he’s done that twice - in 2012 and 2015. He was fifth in 2019.

Hamlin has been particularly strong this season, earning his third Daytona 500 victory to start the year and adding three more wins since. He’s led laps in the last five races earning two (Homestead and Pocono) of those victories and is hopeful that success continues this weekend.

“Kentucky is a place where I haven’t gotten a win yet, but we’ve been close a few times," said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. “We’ve got a few top-five finishes, but just haven’t been able to close it out at the end of the race. Last year we were fast and could run up front, but had to start from the back late in the race and then made a strategy call to try to give us a chance at a win, but we finished fifth.

“With the way this FedEx Camry team has been performing this year, I don’t see any reason why we can’t change that this weekend and get our first win at Kentucky. We’ll put Indy behind us and go to Kentucky and give it all we can to get the win."

 

XFINITY DOUBLEHEADER

The NASCAR Xfinity Series continues its positive competitive momentum with a doubleheader weekend at Kentucky Speedway featuring the Shady Rays 200 tonight (8 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) followed by the Alsco 300 on Friday (8 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Historically-speaking, the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway certainly presents a wide-open opportunity for the 2020 Xfinity Series championship favorites. The last three races have been won by Tyler Reddick (2017), Christopher Bell (2018) and Cole Custer (2019), the three top title contenders in the last two years who now make up three-fourths of the NASCAR Cup Series rookie class.

Stephen Leicht is the only current Xfinity regular that has won at Kentucky previously (2007). But the series' competitors will have two chances this week.

Chase Briscoe’s dramatic victory on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course last weekend – his series-best fifth victory of the season - extended his championship lead to 21 points over Noah Gragson. And Briscoe becomes only the second driver in Xfinity Series history to earn five or more wins in the opening 13 races – matching the legendary Sam Ard who accomplished it back in 1984.

“It’s weird to say, but I feel like I’ve always thrived under pressure," Briscoe said of his hard-earned early season glory. “I set a goal for myself and the team has stuck behind me, but it’s kind of like Babe Ruth calling his shot. I knew if I did that, I had to back it up.

“I’ve always fed on the pressure. You go back to the [Charlotte] ROVAL and I won it (in 2019). A lot of people don’t realize I didn’t have a ride if I didn’t win that race. Sleeping on couches, volunteering in race shops and only having one race to prove myself, I had to do the best I could."

It’s certainly been a competitive showcase for Briscoe, but one he knows includes a host of other drivers ready to seize upon their own opportunity and assets.

Sitting third in the championship, behind the two-race winner Gragson is Ross Chastain. He trails Briscoe by 55 points with Austin Cindric on Chastain’s heels, 61 points back.

Briscoe was fifth last year in his only Kentucky Xfinity Series start. Gragson was sixth.

Popular driver Ross Chastain is still looking for his first victory of 2020, but has been consistently challenging for that trophy. He is currently on a streak of seven top-10 runs answering a third place at Homestead, Fla. last month with back-to-back runner-up showings at Talladega, Ala. and Pocono. He finished sixth at Indianapolis. Chastain has eight Xfinity Series starts at Kentucky but his lone top 10 – 10th place – came in his first try back in 2014.

The 21-year old Austin Cindric led 21 laps last weekend at Indianapolis (second only to race winner Briscoe’s 30 laps out front) and finished fifth after a spirited last lap run to the checkered with veteran A.J. Allmendinger. This will be his third Kentucky start. He won the pole position there last year but his best finish (10th) was in his first start in 2017. He has celebrated in the Bluegrass state’s Victory Lane scoring the 2016 ARCA Menards Series race win in 2014.

The veteran Justin Allgaier, who is ranked sixth in the championship, has the most Kentucky starts among the driver standings top 10. In 13 races the driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has nine top-10 finishes including the last five races. His career-best finish there is third (in 2017) and he led 32 laps in 2018, finishing fourth. He is coming off a pair of top-10 finishes at Pocono (sixth) and Indianapolis (seventh).

This will mark the Xfinity Series Kentucky debut for 19-year old Harrison Burton. The son of NASCAR star Jeff Burton opened the season with an incredible run of 10 straight top-10 finishes including his first career series win at California before the COVID-19 pandemic and then Homestead after the sport’s re-start. However, the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is eager to snap an unfortunate streak of three finishes of 25th or worse, including DNFs at Talladega, Ala. and Pocono, Pa. He led the driver standings following his Fontana win, but is now seventh in points – 135 behind leader Briscoe. In his only previous Kentucky start – last year in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series – Burton started sixth and finished third.

 

SATURDAY NIGHT GANDER TRUCKS

The start of the 2020 season has certainly featured a “new guard” trend in success.

Three 2019 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series championship contenders are still racing in the series but none are currently ranked among the top 10 this season. It’s been a decided trend toward new names.

The defending winner of Saturday night’s Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 at Kentucky Speedway (6 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) - Tyler Ankrum - is a shining example of the young new guard poised to make a run at the 2020 title.

There are three fulltime series drivers with previous wins at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway, including Ankrum whose impressive seven-second win over Stewart Friesen last year is the 19-year old’s only series victory - coming in his first Kentucky start. This week, Ankrum arrives ranked eighth in the driver standings with a pair of top 10s to his credit – both coming in the last two races. His season-best work is a runner-up at Homestead-Miami Speedway in June.

Championship leader Austin Hill, 26, has never won at Kentucky and has only a single top-10 finish (10th in 2017) in four starts, but he certainly brings an impressive 2020 season resume into this weekend’s event. He holds a hefty 51-point edge over Ben Rhodes atop the championship standings. Although Hill’s No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota team is still looking for that first win on the season, the organization has done everything but celebrate in Victory Lane. Hill has top-10 finishes in all six races and has earned runner-up finishes in two of the last three stops.

Rhodes, driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Ford, would love to become only the third driver with multiple wins at Kentucky (joining NASCAR Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. and Kyle Busch). This is the Louisville-native’s “home race” and he’s eager to kickstart his season with a win. He has four top-10s in the opening six races and is coming off a fifth-place finish at the last race in Pocono.

A competitive exception to the younger generation’s dominance, is 2019 regular season champion Grant Enfinger. The 35-year old Alabama native has two wins already – at Daytona and Atlanta – the first time in his four-year truck series career the driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford has scored multiple wins. Enfinger is ranked third, 61 points behind Hill with only a three-point edge on Sheldon Creed and a five-point advantage on Todd Gilliland in the tightly-stacked standings.

Defending series champion Matt Crafton is the only other former Kentucky winner in the field among fulltime NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series drivers. The 44-year old has started all 21 series races at Kentucky and has 15 top-10 and six top-five finishes including that 2015 victory. He led 11 laps last year and finished 13th. He could use a boost in his title defense. He has only a pair of top 10s through the first six races and one top five – a fourth place at Las Vegas. He crashed out of the series last race at Pocono and finished a season-worst 40th.

Speedway Digest Staff

Follow us on Twitter @SpeedwayDigest