Jacksonville Sports Day

NASCAR: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Features Prized Thoroughbreds

If you’re looking to pick a favorite for this weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway, you would be well served to go with Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr., or with Brad Keselowski from the Team Penske stable.

The reason? These three drivers have combined to win seven of the eight Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races that have been run at Kentucky Speedway. (Matt Kenseth won the 2013 edition.)

Keselowski leads the pack with three wins (2012, 2014, 2016). Busch won the inaugural race in 2011 and then again in 2015. And Truex won the two most recent races at the 1.5-mile circuit.

And each of the three drivers won at Kentucky during their Monster Energy Series championship campaign (Keselowski – 2012, Busch – 2015, Truex – 2017).

Busch is the leader in top-five finishes with six and in top-10 finishes with seven, while Keselowski has four top fives and six top 10s. Interestingly, the only top fives Truex has put together at Kentucky are his two wins, although he has five top 10s.

Also of note, Keselowski is the only driver to have won in a make other than Toyota at Kentucky. His first win (2012) came behind the wheel of a Dodge while his next two came after Team Penske switched to Ford. Chevrolet has yet to visit Victory Lane in the Monster Energy Series at Kentucky Speedway.

Playoff bubble bouncing around

With eight races remaining in the regular season, the seven drivers (Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman) have secured a Playoff position on wins.

Which leaves nine spots open for new winners or for drivers to earn their way in on points.

If the Playoffs were to start today, those drivers would be Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman. Daniel Suarez (17th) and Erik Jones (18th) are the first two drivers on the outside looking in.

Only 14 points separate 15th (Bowyer with 444 points) and 18th (Jones with 430 points) after Daytona. To show how much of an impact one race can have on the Playoff bubble, following Chicagoland, the rankings were Suarez, Bowyer, Jones and Newman in slots 15 through 18, in that order.

And to go back one more week to Sonoma, 15 through 18 consisted of Larson, Newman, Johnson and Jones – in that order.

Looking ahead to the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway this Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), each of the former active winners at the track have already won in 2019. And the drivers on the bubble have their work cut out for them.

Newman leads the bubble drivers with three top-five (and top-10) finishes at the 1.5-mile venue. Bowyer has only one top-five finish (and it’s also his only top 10) at the 1.5-mile venue. Jones has two top 10s (sixth and seventh) while Suarez has yet to crack the top 10 at Kentucky, posting finishes of 15th (last year) and 18th in his two starts.

A driver of note outside the top 16 who pretty much needs to win to get in to the Playoffs is Austin Dillon. He has the most Playoff appearances (three) of any driver outside the top 16 right now, and is looking to extend his Playoff appearance streak to four years, after making it to the postseason in 2016-2018. He sits 77 points back of the 16th-place cutoff spot. But he’s going to have to improve his Kentucky performance tremendously if he’s going to get in on a win in the Bluegrass State. In six starts there, he has twice posted a best finish of 16th – and has tallied an average finish of 20.3.

Jones (2018), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (made the Playoffs in 2017, currently 19th in points, 45 points out of 16th), Paul Menard (made the Playoffs in 2015, currently 20th in points, 53 points back) and Chris Buescher (made the Playoffs in 2016, currently 21st in points, 74 points out of Playoff contention) are the only other drivers with postseason experience who are currently out of the Playoff picture.

Summertime Sizzle: Hendrick heating up at opportune time

Talks of Hendrick Motorsports’ decline came a little too soon. The storied organization is beginning to hit its stride as the NASCAR season heads into the depths of summer.

Right now, Hendrick is led by Chase Elliott, who’s seventh in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings. The 23-year-old Dawsonville, Georgia, native claims one win this season, along with six top fives, seven top 10s and 409 laps led. He’s struggled over the last four races, failing to notch a top 10 after tallying six consecutive top fives, but heads to Kentucky where he has a high finish of third (three career starts).

Alex Bowman sits ninth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings and has performed well at 1.5-mile tracks recently, including his win at Chicagoland less than two weeks ago. Prior to Chicagoland, he placed seventh at Charlotte and runner-up at Kansas. Bowman has never placed higher than 31st at Kentucky (three starts).

William Byron sits 12th in the points standings following his runner-up finish at Daytona. The 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion is showing he belongs at the Monster Energy Cup level with four top 10s in his last six starts. Byron placed 20th in his lone Cup start at Kentucky last season and boasts a NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series win at the 1.5-mile track.

Following talks of his decline, seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson has posted finishes of third (Daytona) and fourth (Chicagoland) in his last two starts. He currently sits 13th in the points standings, 34 points above the Playoffs cutoff. In eight career starts at Kentucky, Johnson claims one top five and five top 10s with a high finish of third (2011). He’s finished eighth or better in his last four starts at 1.5-mile tracks: Chicagoland (fourth), Charlotte (eighth), Kansas (sixth), Texas (fifth).

Team Penske ready to assert itself in the Bluegrass State

The Team Penske trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney looks to finish in the top 10 at Kentucky together for the second consecutive season. Last year, Blaney led the charge in second, followed by Keselowski in third and Logano in 10th.

All three drivers have been successful in the Bluegrass State over the course of their careers.

Keselowski headlines the group with three wins (tops in the series), four top fives, six top 10s and 109.6 driver rating (second).

Blaney claims finishes of second (2018), 10th (2017) and 35th (2016) in three Kentucky starts. Additionally, he’s won twice there in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

In eight starts at Kentucky, Logano owns two top fives and five tops 10s. His high finish at the 1.5-mile track is a runner-up showing in 2015.

Penske drivers have finished in the top 10 together three times this season (Auto Club, Michigan and Chicagoland).

Measuring up at the 1.5-mile tracks

As Kentucky Speedway’s Quaker State 400 (Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the final 1.5-mile race in the regular season, we stop to look at the top performers at this distance both overall and in 2019 as we size up the opportunity for a new driver to break into the win column this season.

It should come as no surprise that the career leader in wins at this distance is seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson. His 28 wins betters Jeff Gordon (16) by 12 visits to Victory Lane. Kevin Harvick is third on the all-time list, second among active drivers, with 15 wins, while Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch trail with 13 victories. Martin Truex Jr. is fifth among active drivers with 11 wins at 1.5-milers.

Two drivers looking for their first win of the season top the runner-up category. Johnson has 18 second-place finishes while Harvick has posted 17. They are also the top two active drivers in top fives (Johnson with 75, Harvick with 61) and top 10s (Johnson with 115, Harvick with 108).

Kyle Busch joins the party when it comes to laps led. Johnson’s 5,837 are the best, while Busch has recorded 4,858 laps out front and Harvick has 4,733.

In 2019, Keselowski has been the best in most categories at 1.5-mile tracks…and keep in mind, he’s the all-time leader in wins at Kentucky with three. He leads this season with two wins at this distance, as well as four top-five and four top-10 finishes.

Harvick has notched the most laps led this year with 383 at 1.5-mile tracks. Alex Bowman (the Chicagoland winner) is tied with Kyle Busch (who has yet to win at a 1.5-mile track this season) at 159 laps led. Kyle Larson, looking for his first win of the year, is fourth in laps led with 149.

And speaking of Harvick, he also has the second-best average finishing position at 1.5-milers this season. His 8.83 after finish is just behind Truex’ 8.5 mark.

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