|Keselowski was fast in every facet Friday|
Three drivers from Hendrick Motorspsorts have won five of the past six races, including the past two races on 1.5-mile tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, who uses a Hendrick engine, finished second behind them at both Kansas and Charlotte.
Of the four races run on 1.5-mile tracks so far this season, Kansas would probably be considered the most similar layout to Kentucky, but it’s unique to itself as SHR driver Kurt Busch explains.
"The track has a unique set of bumps that makes it different from a lot of the typical 1.5-mile tracks that we see," Busch said earlier this week. "It’s kind of a one-off race with its own setup issues. You can overthink Kentucky a little bit because there’s nothing similar to it.”
While there has been little doubt about horsepower edge the Hendrick engines have over all the teams, a unique track like Kentucky can be somewhat of an equalizer because of the set-up and balance of the car, something that helped Keselowski maintain an edge at Las Vegas when he won in March, followed by teammate Joey Logano at Texas in April -- the first two 1.5-mile tracks run on this season.
Can the Penske cars compare with Hendrick horsepower? Probably not, but they appear to have a few tricks up their sleeve in the set-up for the 14 degrees of banking that may allow them to roll in and out of the turns the quickest.
Keselowski was not only fastest while in qualifying trim, he was also outstanding in race trim during the first two practice sessions. In the morning session, he had the second fastest lap behind Kyle Larson (another Hendrick engine), but also had the fastest 10-consecutive lap average. The “Blue Deuce’ looks like the car to beat Saturday night, which would be his second win (2012) in four races at Kentucky.
For whatever reason, a Kentucky win has eluded Chevy in the three previous races and it’s also the lone track on the schedule that Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon has never won on. Gordon was solid in practices, finishing fourth quickest in the final session, but what really makes him stand out this week is how well he’s done on 1.5-mile tracks this season. He’s finished ninth or better on all four, which includes a win at Kansas. He’s using that same chassis this week.
Jimmie Johnson was sluggish in both practices, and Kentucky is one of four tracks he’s never won on, but you can never discount the six-time Champ. He still owns a sixth-place average which is third best at Kentucky behind Kyle Busch (5.3) and Matt Kenseth (4.7).
The driver that really stands out is rookie Kyle Larson who had the fastest lap in the first practice session and was third during ‘happy hour‘. He’s had three top-5 finishes this season and is knocking on the door loudly for his first career win. If it weren’t because of his inexperience, Larson would be rated much higher, possibly right behind Keselowski and Harvick as the drivers to beat. He’s the best of the long shot odds, along with teammate Jamie McMurray who won the All-Star and finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 on the last 1.5-mile race at Charlotte.
Joe Gibbs Racing driver have won two of the three Kentucky races, and while they haven't been as good as last season on 1.5-mile tracks (they won seven of 11 in 2013), all three of them were among the top-10 fastest during 'happy hour'. Kenseth, last years winner, had the second fastest lap in the final 80-minute session giving an indication that the JGR cars may have found something and are on the upswing. Kenseth had his only top-5 finish on 1.5-mile tracks in the last one at Charlotte.
Look for the Penske duo of Keselowski and Logano to give the Hendrick engines all they can handle Sunday night. In the first 90-minute practice session, 13 of the top-18 speeds all came from Chevy, including SHR driver Danica Patrick who was eighth fastest. If Kansas correlates just a little with Kentucky, that’s good news for Patrick because she had her best career finish (seventh-place) there in May and is using the same chassis this week.
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