Friday, June 28, 2013

2013 Kentucky Quaker State 400 Practice Notes: Johnson makes himself clear favorite to win

Is Kyle Busch back to full speed? He looked pretty good in practices
Based on Friday’s final practice sessions at Kentucky Speedway, Jimmie Johnson appears to have had enough of this little winless streak he’s had on 1.5-mile tracks this season, as well as two previous Kentucky races. He was second-fastest in the early session and bettered it during happy hour by going to the top of the charts. Johnson even showed off during long runs by having the fastest 10-consecutive lap average.

Because of his impressive run Friday, coupled with a few other factors, Johnson’s odds will plummet near the 4-to-1 range when odds to win Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 are reopened following qualifying.

The Saturday night races are usually the toughest to gauge because of an irregular schedule that has only two practices run with qualifying to follow. Under normal circumstances, it’s easier to separate what each team is doing in practice. Usually Friday is all about being fast in qualifying trim while Saturday is reserved for final race day set-ups.

Friday’s practices at Kentucky had just about every team doing something different. Some went heavy with race runs early, and qualifying set-ups later, while others where the opposite. So when looking at the practice times, it looks jumbled, with the lone exceptions of Johnson and 2011 Kentucky winner Kyle Busch.

Busch had a lot of question marks from an odds standpoint this week just because of not fully knowing what kind of horsepower would be produced out of Toyota. It was apparent that teammates Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin looked a little slower during practice than might be expected if comparing performances at other 1.5-mile tracks, but Busch excelled. When looking at pure speed consistently from practice in all set-ups, along with his success in every racing series he’s driven in at Kentucky, he’s a real contender to be Johnson’s stiffest competition.

Because of there still being a hint of doubt with Toyota, Kasey Kahne got rated higher based on his four 1.5-mile track performances this season that has seem him finish second three times. He’s been going through a rut lately, which factors against him as well, but it wasn’t because his car was slow. Kahne also finished second at Kentucky last season.

Another driver that gets high marks despite not being overly impressive in both practice sessions is Kevin Harvick. He did claim the fastest lap in the first session on the final of his 14 laps run, which may suggest qualifying trim, but the reason to like him is more about the car itself. He’s using the same chassis that won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte in May, and most of his race set-ups for this week are geared towards the climate change at night, when the race is won. He used one of his four test sessions on the year to run laps under those same changing conditions a few weeks ago.

Johnson is going to be tough to beat, but he’s got a lot of competitors out there -- mostly Chevrolet -- on his tail to keep this as being one of only five tracks on tour that Johnson has never won at. One of those Chevy's is driven by teammate Jeff Gordon, who was very strong in practice. Kentucky is the only track currently on the schedule that Gordon has never won at.