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Quaker State 400 Preview

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I can't believe we're already at the halfway point of the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season. Or at least it will be at the conclusion of Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

It certainly has been an unusual season as we slowly get used to not seeing names like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards on the final results sheet, but we're seeing new drivers step up and handle themselves well against the old guard. So far we've had 11 different winners in the first 17 races, including three drivers who captured the first Cup wins of their careers.

Last week at Daytona, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won for the second time in his four year career. His first win came eight weeks ago at Talladega. That Daytona win paid out at 20/1 odds, a low price showing just how respected he is in Las Vegas. He's turned the corner of his career and is no longer just Danica Patrick's boyfriend. It's also nice to see Roush Fenway Racing matter again.

Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is still showing the kids how it's done as he leads the series with three wins. Right under him is four drivers each with two wins, including Brad Keselowski who has won three of the six races held on Kentucky's 1.5-mile layout. He won in 2012, 2014 and also last season which was the first race after Kentucky repaved the track and slightly reconfigured turns one and two.

This will be the sixth race on a 1.5-mile track this season. Although this oval is unique to itself with not a lot of banking like the others, what we've seen in the first fives races on 1.5-mile layouts is still very telling to what we should expect Saturday night. So here's a quick recap of what happened on them:

Atlanta (March 5): Brad Keselowski scooped up a win when Kevin Harvick got a speeding penalty after he had dominated the race leading 292 laps. Kyle Larson would finish second.

Las Vegas (March 12): Martin Truex Jr. led 150 laps in the win and was in control for most the race. Keselowski led 89 laps and finished fifth. Larson finished second.

Texas (April 9): Jimmie Johnson came on strong late to win, but it was Ryan Blaney who led the most laps (148). He'd finish 12th. Harvick led 77 laps and finished fourth. Larson finished second, again.

Kansas (May 13): Truex led the most laps (104) and Blaney led the second-most (83) before finishing fourth. Keselowski would finish second, Harvick third and Larson finished sixth. Joe Gibbs racing finally showed some speed on these type of tracks with Kyle Busch leading 59 laps and finishing fifth.

Charlotte (May 28): Austin Dillon would win the first race of his Cup career. He gambled correctly on fuel mileage and crossed the finish line on fumes. Truex would dominate the race leading 233 laps finishing third. Kyle Busch led 63 laps and finished second showing signs of JGR eventually capturing a win -- Matt Kenseth was fourth and Denny Hamlin was fifth. Harvick led 45 laps and finished eighth.

As you can see from the rundown, it's a lot of the same names and the odds will reflect it. Larson's two wins on the year came on two 2-mile tracks (Fontana, Michigan) and JGR still hasn't won a race this season. But as you can see with Kyle Busch, they're close and this is a track that Busch is quite fond of in all series. He's captured six wins at Kentucky between the three major series, including Kentucky's Cup Series debut in 2011. He also won in the Cup series there in 2015.

“I love Kentucky," Busch said. "It was special there in 2011, when we were able to win the first Cup race there, and it stayed that way during our win there two years ago. I look forward to going back every year. It’s a pretty challenging racetrack. It used to be a place that lends itself to different kinds of setups because it was so rough.

"Fast lap times at Kentucky come from momentum," he continued. "The place is so round that there’s not a ton of banking compared to some other 1.5-milers. It’s all about how round the corners are and just being able to maintain corner speed and stay on the gas. We certainly think we have as good a shot as any to get back to victory lane there with our Snickers Rowdy Camry. It’s a place we get excited about, for sure.”

Both Busch and teammate Matt Kenseth are tied at 5.2 with the best average finish at Kentucky between the first six races. Kenseth won at Kentucky in 2013. Is this the week one of the Gibbs drivers finally breaks through?

Truex may have something to say about that matter, but I do think it's a good spot for Kyle Busch to finally break through.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
2) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (5/1)
3) #20 Matt Kenseth (18/1)
4) #4 Kevin Harvick (8/1)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (6/1)

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