(Courtesy: Kentucky Speedway) SPARTA, Ky. – Imagine being Martin Truex Jr. and the next Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race is one that you have dominated the previous two seasons.
“It’s always nice to go to a track you have confidence at and feel good about,” he said.
And then you experience a day like Friday.
The two-time and defending Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart winner was middle-of-the-pack fast in two practices then qualified eighth in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for Saturday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.
“We changed a lot of things throughout practice and got better and better and better and then right there in qualifying it was the best it’s been all day,” Truex said. “I’m optimistic that it’s going to be pretty good (Saturday) night. Hopefully it is.”
Things are not like they were the last time the Cup Series visited the 1.5-mile track and Truex stole the show - again.
NASCAR has gone to a new rules package designed to create closer racing competition and more passing opportunities. Goodyear brought a new right-side tire this weekend. And hundreds of gallons of a sticky resin has been applied to swaths of the racing surface.
“It’s so different,” Truex said. “I think back to the last couple of years and we’ve really been able to kind of come in here with the same strategy, mindset, setup and look for the same things throughout the weekend.”
Success is difficult to sustain in NASCAR because so many variables can and do change. Even so, Truex will be mentioned with teammate Kyle Busch and Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski as favorites to win the Quaker State 400.
Together, they have won seven of the eight Quaker State 400s and 11 of the 18 races run in the Cup Series this season. Keselowski will start third in the No. 2 Ford and Busch will start 10th in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s stable of four drivers served notice Friday that it will be a factor, sweeping the front row and placing each of its four drivers in the top seven.
Daniel Suarez was the last driver to qualify and bumped teammate Aric Almirola off the pole. It is his second career Cup Series pole and the driver of the No. 41 Ford would like to turn it into his first career Cup Series victory.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Suarez said. “Pretty much the whole day has been pretty smooth…. I feel very good about it…. Hopefully we can keep that track position. Track position is going to be huge (Saturday), so hopefully we can keep that track position all night long, not make mistakes, run a good, clean race. We have everything it takes to make it happen. We’ve had a lot of first-time winners lately. Why not have a third one here?”
Fans will notice large sections of Kentucky Speedway’s racing surface look darker than other parts of the track. The darker areas are where crews applied traction compound for the race weekend.
Traction compound is a resin used to improve grip outside of the preferred racing groove, encouraging more side-by-side racing and greater opportunities to pass.
Track officials worked with officials from NASCAR and Goodyear on a strategy for how much of the substance to apply and where to apply it.
The traction compound was applied in every lane except the bottom groove from the entrance to Turn 1 to the exit of Turn 2. In Turns 3 and 4, it was applied to the middle groove. A decision about whether to apply more will be made before Saturday’s race.
Almirola was asked Friday what fans should watch for in Saturday’s race.
“I think the restarts,” the driver of the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet said. “Once it gets strung out it will be challenging for everybody, and track position will be really important. But the restarts are going to be really wild.
“The guys on the outside are definitely going to have the advantage but then how high will the groove get and how high can you go in that (traction compound). Can we run three-wide? Can we run four-wide? I don’t know. We don’t know. We have never done it at Kentucky before.”
Multiple drivers said Friday that among 1.5-mile tracks on the Cup Series schedule, the reconfigured Kentucky Speedway is most like Texas Motor Speedway.
“(Turns) 1 and 2 are fairly similar to (turns) 3 and 4 at Texas just for the fact that you let out of the throttle very little,” Harvick said. “Three and 4 are still its own, unique corner. It’s just very difficult to navigate. With these engines, you just come out of there at a really low RPM. It’s really just a different style corner than we do anywhere else.”
Texas Motor Speedway hosts a race in NASCAR’s playoffs, and Kentucky Speedway is the last 1.5-mile race on the Cup Series schedule before the playoffs start in September at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Including the Quaker State 400, there are eight regular season races remaining before the playoffs.
Seven drivers have secured one of the 16 playoff spots based on their wins. If the regular season ended today, Harvick, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Almirola, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman would be in.
Suarez would be the first driver on the outside looking in, but that could all change Saturday.
“We have had long meetings and long conversations about what we need and where we need to improve,” Suarez said. “I feel very proud to be a part of this team. I know that we are not exactly where we need to be just yet but I know we are heading in the right direction and hopefully we can show that tomorrow night.”
QUAKER STATE TRADITION: When Eddie Cheever Jr. established the record for the fastest lap in an Indianapolis 500 at a blistering 236.103 mph, he was driving a Team Menard-owned car carrying the Quaker State colors.
Quaker State’s ties to the Menard family continue this weekend with Paul Menard. The title sponsor of the Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway is the primary sponsor on Menard’s No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. The paint scheme on Menard’s car this weekend pays tribute to the car driven by Steve Kinser in 2005 at the 20th World of Outlaws championship.
“They have been big supporters of me through the years,” said Menard, who will start 14th Saturday. “It is an honor to have them here. They love Kentucky Speedway and do a good job promoting the race.”
NEXT STEP: Spire Motorsports comes to Kentucky Speedway fresh off Justin Haley’s surprise first career Cup Series victory Sunday in the rain-postponed and rain-shortened Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway.
Quin Houff, not Haley, is behind the wheel of the team’s No. 77 Chevrolet this weekend. He will start 36th. Houff’s experience at Kentucky Speedway is limited to a 27th place finish in an Xfinity Series race in September 2017. He failed to qualify for the July 2017 Xfinity Series race.
Spire Motorsports was formed after Spire Sports + Entertainment bought Furniture Row Racing’s charter from that team’s former owner after last season. In six starts on 1.5 mile tracks, the No. 77 team’s best finish was 28th in the Coca-Cola 600 in May.