Sixteen playoff positions. Seven positions clinched. Eight races remaining.
Desperation might not be setting in just yet, but Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers are starting to feel the pressure. Race winners are locked in to the playoffs. Seven drivers are safe heading into the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday. Will an eighth driver join them following a visit to victory lane on Kentucky Speedway’s 1.5-mile, tri-oval track?
Here are five things to watch at the Quaker State 400 presented by Walmart:
1. Win and in: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon and defending Quaker State 400 champ Martin Truex Jr. have victories this season. A good bet to join them is Brad Keselowski.
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The driver of the No. 2 Tire Discount Ford for Team Penske is winless, but has traditionally done well at Kentucky. If history repeats Keselowski will celebrate his fourth Quaker State 400 win Saturday. He’s won the race in 2012, 2014 and 2016. He’ll be looking to erase bad memories from last year when he crashed after 89 laps of the scheduled 267 laps, giving him his worst finish (39th) in seven starts.
Toss out his 33rd-place effort in 2013 and Keselowski has finished inside the top 10 in five of seven races at Kentucky. He has three Xfinity Series victories at Kentucky, too.
2. Can Truex repeat?: Last season Martin Truex Jr. had seven victories on 1.5-mile tracks. He has none this season.
Truex, who has three Cup wins and sits third in the points standings, has been consistent at Kentucky. His average starting position is 11.1 and his average finish is 11.4. He started on the front row in 2017 and led 152 of 274 laps, lapping all but eight cars by the finish.
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Truex Jr., who drives the No. 78 Toyota for Furniture Row Racing, enters Kentucky as one of the hottest drivers. He’s finished first, fourth and second in his last three Cup races. Over the past eight races he’s finished fourth or better seven times.
3. Leaders of the pack: Only three drivers have completed every lap of the Quaker State 400. That’s quite the accomplishment considering the old racing surface’s bumps that drivers with pounding headaches and even nose bleeds, and now the treacherous Turn 3 that drivers say is like racing on ice.
Two of those drivers have victories – Truex and Busch. Harvick is searching for his first Quaker State 400 win. He’s tied with Busch for most wins this season (5), so he’s a lock for the postseason. Now it’s all about winning.
Harvick has five top-10 finishes at Kentucky. His best finish is seventh in 2014 and has finished eighth, ninth and ninth the past three seasons. In 2016, Harvick won the pole and led a race-high 128 laps for dropping to ninth.
That trio are also 1-2-3 in the standings. Busch leads the Cup Series with 749 points, 57 ahead of Harvick and 120 in front of Truex.
4. It’s not where you start, or is it?: Want to win at Kentucky? Then you better start inside the top 10. Four of the seven winners have come from the front row. Six winners have started ninth or better. The exception is Matt Kenseth in 2013. Kenseth started 16th before holding off Jamie McMurray, who started 23rd.
Keselowski’s victory in 2014 is the only time the Quaker State 400 has been won from the pole.
While the winner has usually started up front, the runner-up has often driven through the field to challenge for the victory. A list of runner-ups who have started mid-pack or worse include David Reutimann in 2013 (started 17th), Kasey Kahne in 2012 (19th), McMurray in 2013 (23rd), Kyle Busch in 2014 (18th) and Kyle Larson in 2017 (42nd).
5. Chevy chase: Chevrolet is still winless at Kentucky Speedway, the only active track on the schedule where it has not visited victory lane. The manufacturer hasn’t fared much better this season with Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory the only win this season. Chevy does have four runner-up finishes, though.
That doesn’t bode well for Chevy drivers like Kyle Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman among others. Those four are the lone Chevy drivers in the top 15 in drivers points, too.
Toyota leads in Cup wins this season (9) and wins at Kentucky (4). Ford (8) has two wins at Kentucky and Dodge has one.