Quaker State 400

Eighteen NASCAR Cup races are in the books already and there are 18 more to go. It's the halfway point of the season and only eight races remain until the Playoffs start in Las Vegas. And while Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have won 15 of the 18 races so far, there are signs of other teams getting the hang of this new race package. I wouldn't expect championship favorites Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr. to run away with this thing.

There's lots of racing to go and lots of improvements to be made by teams like Stewart-Haas Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing, and Hendrick Motorsports and they're all still in the Playoff mix. If they get up to speed by the 10-race Playoffs they have just as good a shot as anyone.

Hendrick has already made their move with Alex Bowman winning at Chicagoland for his first career race after he finished second at Kansas and seventh at Charlotte. Jimmie Johnson has top-fives in his last two starts on the schedule, and Chase Elliott has a Talladega win as one of his six top-fives in 2019.

It's been a slow process for Hendrick, but they showed back in March at Texas that they were on the path to becoming one of the best on 1.5-mile tracks again. Johnson started from the pole and led 60 laps -- more than he led all of 2018 -- before finishing fifth. William Byron led 15 laps before finishing sixth and Elliott led 35 laps before finishing 13th.

Do well on the 1.5-mile tracks and winning a championship is more likely just because there are more of them on the schedule. It was how Johnson paved the way to winning seven Cup Championships. There have been six races on 1.5-mile tracks so far this season and five more to go starting with Saturday night's Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.

Kyle Busch has four wins so far, but none have come on 1.5-mile tracks. His two wins using this race package with aero ducts and engines producing 550 horsepower came on the 2-mile layout at Michigan and the 2.5-mile tricky triangle at Pocono. However, he's statistically the best ever at Kentucky.

“I love Kentucky," said Busch. "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 four 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. 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. It’s a place we get excited about, for sure.”

In addition to winning the inaugural Cup race from the pole at Kentucky in 2011, he also won there in 2015. His fifth-place average finish is a track record, as is his six top-fives and 549 laps led. He's also got three Kentucky wins in the Xfinity Series and two more in the Truck Series. He's got quite the resume, but the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has posted him the second choice to win at 5/1 odds.

The 7/2 favorite is Martin Truex Jr. even though he's had only two top-fives in eight Kentucky starts. However, both those top-fives were wins and they came in each of the last two races there. He's taken over Johnson's mantle as being the cookie-cutter King on these tracks. It's how he also won a championship. He's tied with Busch with four wins this season, one of which came at Charlotte in May when he led 116 laps for his third career win on the 1.5-mile layout.

I don't think I did Truex justice by just saying he won at Kentucky the last two seasons because they were dominating wins in all phases. In 2017, he started second, won the first two stages, and led 152 laps before winning. Last season he started from the pole, won the first two stages and led 174 laps before winning.

Truex and Busch are going to be tough to beat and you can also throw in the other JGR drivers with Denny Hamlin at chunky 20/1 odds and Erik Jones at 25/1. That's 10 wins between JGR with Jones looking to join the winner's party. Jones has a 6.5 average finish between two Cup starts at Kentucky and he had top-five finishes on the 1.5-mile layouts at Texas and Kansas. Hamlin won at Texas and may have contended for the win at Chicagoland if he didn't have a bogus pit road penalty called by NASCAR officials.

My starting point this week centers around two Penske drivers who are each getting nice 8/1 odds because they've been the best on 1.5-mile tracks this season winning three of the six. In addition to Brad Keselowski's wins at Atlanta and Kansas, he was also runner-up to Joey Logano at Las Vegas. In the last two races on 1.5s, it was Logano third at Chicagoland (Keselowski fifth), and runner-up at Charlotte.

Keselowski is the closest driver to rival Busch with Kentucky trophies winning three of the eight Cup races there and also winning three other times in the Xfinity Series. Logano also won three straight Xfinity Series races at Kentucky (2008-10). Between the odds value, past history and current form with this type of track and race package, Keselowski and Logano are each great plays this week.

I know the SHR Mustangs are going to eventually win, but 5/1 on Kevin Harvick when he's gone winless on the season is something I can't touch. He's led the most laps in two of the last three races on 1.5s but had poor finishes outside the top-10. Five wins last season at this juncture in 2018 and none this season. He's had horrible luck in 2019 and 5/1 odds certainly isn't going to lure me in to take a shot. Maybe 12/1 would, but no lower.

Kyle Larson is another winless driver who is priced out of my range of being attractive. He's 12/1 to win, but it's been 64 races since he last won a Cup race in 2017, a season when he won four times. He was extremely fast at Chicagoland two weeks ago with a second-place finish which is probably why he's so low here, but I can't do anything with 12/1. Maybe 20/1 odds would tempt me.

Johnson didn't win a race last season, either. It's been 77 races since he last won, but the search for the best odds to win this week is on because I do believe he's close and he's being offered at 25/1 odds at the Superbook. It would be a double-whammy for Johnson if he won. Not only would he end a long winless streak, but he'd also win at Kentucky for the first time, one of three tracks he has yet to win on. He's got 83 career Cup wins.

The best value on the board is Alex Bowman at 20/1 odds. They've got things figured out and the set-up requirements for Kentucky shouldn't be too different from his winning set-up two weeks ago at Chicagoland where he led 88 laps. This may be the last time we see Bowman getting 20/1 or higher on these type of tracks, so enjoy the gift odds while they last.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
2) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
3) #88 Alex Bowman (20/1)
4) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (7/2)
5) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)