We’ve had a nice mix of races the last four weeks with a superspeedway that runs like a road course, a wide two-mile track, a road course and a superspeedway with restrictor-plate racing, but this week we get back to racing on a type of track that will ultimately decide who wins the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship. Whoever can prove that they are the best consistently on the type of track we'll see Saturday night will put them in a prime position to win the title.
Kentucky Speedway gets it’s first Cup race ever this week and it should be a fired up crowd filled mostly from folks from Ohio as the track is located near the Ohio River. The 1.5-mile track could best comparable to the old Las Vegas configuration and also comparable to the current Kansas Speedway layout.
Just before we got into the stretch of races at vastly different tracks, Kansas had a race run on June 5 that was won by Brad Keselowski. The race came down to fuel mileage, but was thoroughly dominated by Kurt Busch who sat on the pole and led four times for 152 of the 267 laps. Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin all ran very well too from Kansas.
We should expect a similar cast of characters to be contending for the win this week, but to dig deeper we can reference Michigan, Fontana and sprinkle in data from the higher banked 1.5 mile tracks like Las Vegas, Charlotte and Texas.
Kurt Busch is the driver to key on here, but right behind him are the Fenway-Roush drivers who thrive on these types of tracks. It’s no coincidence that Edwards lead in points has been taken over by Kevin Harvick over this stretch because he’s now had back-to-back races on tracks that aren’t his best, or rather, where he’s not considered the favorite.
If we look at all the tracks we consider to be relevant to Kentucky, no one has been better on all of them this year than Carl Edwards. He won at Vegas, finished sixth at Fontana, third at Texas, won the All-Star race, and was fifth at both Kansas and Michigan. Although none of that means that he will win this week, it does provide a pretty good resume to make him the favorite. Making the resume look even better is that Edwards has raced nine times at Kentucky between the Nationwide and Truck series and has taken home two trophies.
Matt Kenseth also has numbers similar to Edwards including wins at Texas and Dover this year and if we use some old school data, we can also fit his two Vegas wins under the old layout as a reference. This week, Kenseth also has the benefit of using a proven winner as he'll be using his winning Texas chassis.
The scary driver of all, though, may be Kurt Busch. After screaming at his crew and engine builders over the radio -- for all to hear -- during the Richmond race, there has been a noticeable change in their performance, most notably the horsepower and it was never more evident than at that Kansas race that they were becoming an elite team.
Denny Hamlin also used Kansas as a stepping stone to getting back to close to his 2010 form with his third-place run. He followed that race up with leading the most laps at Pocono and then finally winning a race at Michigan the ensuing week. He should be expected to be able to continue his upward swing this week.
Kevin Harvick is bringing an impressive car this week to Kentucky. It's the same car that he won with at Michigan last season and finished fifth at Pocono this year. He has swooped in and won three races already this season and has an inaugural Cup win under his belt already at Chicagoland. Harvick also won the first Nationwide race at Kentucky in 2001.
The inaugural King has been Jeff Gordon as he'll look to take the checkers for the first time on a track for the fourth time this Saturday night. Gordon has inaugural wins at Indianapolis, Fontana and Kansas. If we use Kansas as a barometer, Gordon should be considered even more to contend since he hasn't finished outside of the top-five there since 2006. In the June Kansas race Gordon finished fourth.
Even though Keselowski won Kansas as a 100/1 long shot, thanks to the race becoming a fuel mileage race, it’s more likely that this week’s race will come down to the heavyweights. However, Keselowski will be using the same car that he won with at Kansas.
Joey Logano is an interesting choice at 30/1 or higher this week just because he has won the last three Nationwide races at Kentucky from the pole. Granted, the cars are completely different, as is the competition, but that type of success and knowledge of the track should carry some kind of weight for the Cup race. Logano will be using his 11th-place Pocono car this week making its second start of the season.
Top-5 Finish prediction:
1) #99 Carl Edwards (6/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (12/1)
3) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
4) #22 Kurt Busch (8/1)
5) #24 Jeff Gordon (12/1)