Saturday night races have always been a fan-favorite; ever since they were first introduced back at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the mid-1990s for the annual All-Star event. It brought fans to the sport, and is still a welcome addition to what is normally known as a Sunday afternoon sport. Racing "under the lights" always brings an exciting atmosphere, no matter what track it's on. This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers visit Kentucky Speedway for just the second time in it's history. It will be another summer night race under the lights; grip will be at a premium, while fuel strategy could rule. Kyle Busch won last year's inaugural visit to the oval, but who will get the job done this week?
Located just in between the cities of Louisville and Cincinnati, this 1.5 mile tri-oval arrived on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule last year. It is no secret that Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith had pressured, and sued, the sport for years about getting this venue onto the schedule. It had previously been a part of the Nationwide and Truck circuits, both for over a decade, where popularity grew and set the stage for the Cup date. This was the first new track added since the two-track expansion of Kansas and Chicagoland Speedways in 2001. In fact, this speedway is similarly modeled after those tracks in terms of dimensions. Banking in turns 1-4 is a relatively flat 14 degrees, while the tri-oval is 10 degrees steep. The back straightway is 5 degrees. As I said before, at 55 feet wide this track is perfect for two-and-three wide racing, especially on restarts. As with most intermediate tracks on the circuit, the pit road speed limit is 45mph.
One of the major things to watch out for this weekend is how the track will age in terms of rubber and grip. “It’s a lot different, that’s for sure," said Denny Hamlin when asked how the speedway will be different from last season. "It’s going to be the first time we’re not at a newly-paved track for a while. We’re going to have some tire wear here; it’s going to be fun. I think I finished right outside the top-10 last year. It’s a fun track, but it’s also a very hard track to pass on. It looked like during the race last year, as more and more rubber got put down, the groove widened out on the track tremendously. I’m interested to see how they’ve done — they changed the track around since the traffic, but that’s a good thing when you have people fighting to get in the race track. That means there’s a lot of people in the stands. It’s just such a fun race track to race on and be at."
This weekend is going to be a tough one for Fantasy owners, because there has only been 1 race here ever. Borrowing from Nationwide Series statistics is a possibility, but impractical in that it is a totally different series against different drivers. That is why I am looking to other similar intermediate tracks - like Kansas, Chicago, and others - to choose my team this week. On top of that, since this is a Saturday night race, your lineups will be due early Friday morning. This just adds to the complexity of picking drivers. As usual, momentum is also a huge factor as well. Here are my suggestions for your team on Yahoo! Fantasy Racing:
For my A team, I am going with two intermediate experts in Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. Stewart has a streak of three top-three finishes going, and after struggling for a month, he's becoming the dominant driver he was in the Chase last year and the start of the season this year. In his only start at Kentucky, Stewart performed well. He qualified in the top 10, ran 75 percent of the race in the top 15 and led a lap. On top of that, he's won 4 of the last 10 intermediate track races - more than anyone else. Tony is my pick to win, and it wouldn't surprise me if he led a large amount of laps. Jimmie Johnson will most likely be my bench driver for the race, but that could change if he impresses me in practice. He finished third last year in this race, and his average running position was 5.5. Kentucky Speedway is similar to Charlotte Motor Speedway - the track Johnson has had the most success at. At 1.5 mile tracks this season he has a 4.5 average finish, and 5.3 average running position; so I expect JJ to finish around that position, get a top 5, and give Stewart a run for his money. Other good picks include Kyle Busch (high risk because of his recent engine troubles), Jeff Gordon (medium risk because of his bad luck), and Matt Kenseth (low risk).
My B group consists of mostly drivers who have been hot so far this season. Greg Biffle, Martin Truex Jr., Dale Jr., and Joey Logano have had outstanding runs this season, and are running consistently. Biffle is the best pick in group B this week, although he struggled last year. With 7 laps remaining he was running in 10th position, but he ran down onto the apron and got loose, which caused him to fade back to 15th. He then pitted with two laps remaining and finished 21st. That all goes out the window this week, however; as The Biff has been one of the best all year long, ecspecially on intermediate tracks. Look for him to compete for a top 5. Truex has been the pleasant surprise of the season, and that won't change this week. He finished 8th at Fontana, 6th at Texas, 12th at Charlotte and Michigan, and dominated the race at Kansas. This is Michael Waltrip Racing's home state, so they will likely have some of their best cars for this week. Truex has been among the best at these intermediate tracks, and will finish in the top 10 Saturday. Another good driver I have on my team is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who started in 29th and had a 20th place average running position last year. He was running in the top eight late in the race but had a flat tire immediately following his pit stop, finishing 30th. That's not impressive by any means, but that was the old Junior, and he has been much more reliable this year. He’s finished in the top ten every intermediate track race and has an 8.8 average running position. He will contend for a top 5. Joey Logano has been good in the Nationwide Series here, including his 3-race streak of poles and wins at the track (which I was attending to see), but I don't feel that is very relevant when it comes to Cup competition. However, he is on a hot streak, having won at Pocono less than 3 weeks ago, and is currently holding a wild-card spot. That momentum should push him to a top 10. Other good picks for the B group include Kasey Kahne (low risk) and Clint Bowyer (medium risk for his inconsistency).
I am taking a newbie and a veteran in Group C. Although I hate to use precious starts for Aric Almirola this much, the fact is that he has the best equipment of any driver in this group, and his relationship with crew chief Mike Ford has made the No. 43 team competitive. He has raced at Kentucky two times in the Nationwide Series, finishing 6th and 20th in the two races. Largely because of his equipment, Aric should be able to pilot his car to a finish inside the top 20. Bobby Labonte has always performed well on the cookie-cutter tracks, including finishing 26th in this race last year. I'm hoping his experience at these intermediate tracks will pay off. He is coming off a No. 16 finish in the last race at a track of this type at Michigan, and while I don't think he'll finish that high this week, I wouldn't be surprised to see him contend for a top 25 finish.
The schedule for this weekend is a typical one, with two practices and a qualifying session. The practices will take place on Friday, the first at 11:30am on Speed Channel, the second following shortly at 1:30pm on the same channel. Qualifying, in which 46 drivers will go for 43 spots, begins at 5:00pm on Speed, right before the Nationwide race. TNT's pre-race broadcast of the Quaker State 400 (400 miles/267 laps) starts at 6:30pm Saturday evening, before the green flag is scheduled to drop at approximately 7:46pm. All times ET.