Story lines to watch during today’s third running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway:
Drivers who really need a win
1.) Brad Keselowski. The defending Quaker State 400 and Sprint Cup season champion is in a precarious points position with the Chase for the Sprint Cup looming. He is sitting ninth (only the top 10 are assured “playoff” berths) with no race wins (the drivers ranked No. 11-20 in points with the most victories earn “wild-card” berths). A second straight victory by “Bad Brad” at one of his best tracks would be a huge boost to his Chase hopes.
2.) Jeff Gordon. Sitting 13th in points without a race victory, the four-time Cup champion would be outside the Chase if it started now.
3.) Dale Earnhardt Jr. Started the season finishing in the top seven in the first five races; since then, has only two top 10s.
Drivers coming to Sparta hot
1.) Tony Stewart. Once the weather turns hot, they always say “Smoke” takes off. Well, it’s happening again in 2013. After a dreadful start that saw Stewart outside the top 20 in the season points standings after 10 of the first 11 races, the Columbus, Ind., product has four finishes in the top seven in his past five runs.
2.) Joey Logano. After all the drama with Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart to start his season, the guy they used to call Sliced Bread (as in the greatest thing since) has quietly finished in the top 11 in the last five races. Don’t forget, Logano once won three straight Nationwide races (2008-10) at Kentucky.
3.) Kevin Harvick. In his lame-duck season with Richard Childress Racing before he moves to Stewart-Haas, Harvick is sizzling, having finished in the top 10 in seven of the last eight races — including victories at Richmond and Charlotte.
Horse(power) for a course
Only five drivers have finished in the top 10 in both Sprint Cup races at Kentucky Speedway.
Kyle Busch (first in 2011, 10th in 2012); Jeff Gordon (10th, fifth); Jimmie Johnson (third, sixth); Matt Kenseth (sixth, seventh); and Brad Keselowski (seventh, first).
Two days after TNT analyst and former Cup Series regular Kyle Petty proclaimed that Danica Patrick is “not a race car driver,” she will make Kentucky Speedway history by becoming the first female driver to run in a Sprint Cup race in Sparta. Patrick is familiar with the (bumpy) Kentucky racetrack. In seven IndyCar starts on the track, Patrick recorded four top-10 finishes. Last year, she drove in two Nationwide Series races here, finishing 12th in the June race and 14th in September.
The big three
Amazingly, three drivers have combined to lead more than half of the laps (54.39) in the Sprint Cup Series so far in 2013. Kyle Busch has led 19.82 percent of the laps (955), his new Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth has led 19.13 percent (922 laps) and Jimmie Johnson has led 15.44 percent (744) of the laps.
Where have the upsets gone?
When it was a stand-alone Nationwide Series track, Kentucky Speedway had a history of producing major upsets. In 2006, a star-packed field filled with 15 Sprint Cup regulars was stunned by a car driven by a little-known racer, David Gilliland, driving for an underfunded, part-time team. The following year, Stephen Leitch got his first career victory in the Nationwide Series in Sparta.
You don’t tend to see drivers come out of nowhere to win against the well-heeled Sprint Cup teams (other than on restrictor-plate tracks), but one still can’t help but wonder if there is any of that Cinderella dust still floating around Kentucky Speedway?
Going for a clean sweep
Three of NASCAR’s biggest names are in their own race to see who can be the first to claim victory at every track on the Sprint Cup Series — and all three need a victory at Kentucky. There are five tracks where Jimmie Johnson has yet to win — Chicago, Miami-Homestead, Michigan, Kentucky and Watkins-Glen. Tony Stewart needs only Darlington and Kentucky.
Jeff Gordon is closest of all, he is only a victory in Sparta short of having wins on all current Cup tracks.
There are no Kentucky-born drivers in the Quaker State 400, but there are some commonwealth connections in the race.
Michael Waltrip Racing, the team partially owned by the Owensboro native, will have three Toyota Camrys in the field: The No. 15 of Clint Bowyer, the No. 55 driven by Brian Vickers and the No. 56 of Martin Truex Jr. — last week’s winner at Sonoma.
Vickers’ car, sponsored by Aaron’s, will be running a special paint scheme to honor the University of Louisville’s 2013 NCAA men’s basketball championship team.
Meanwhile, University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari is scheduled to be the honorary pace car driver.