Team Penske has been dominant in qualifying at 1.5-mile tracks throughout the 2014 season, and the trend continued Friday at Kentucky Speedway. Brad Keselowski won the pole for Saturday night's Quaker State 400, and his teammate Joey Logano will join him on the front row. For the year, Keselowski and Logano rank first and second in the series in average starting position at 1.5-mile tracks. Perhaps more importantly for fantasy owners, both drivers also rank in the top five in points scored at 1.5-mile tracks.
While the Team Penske drivers have been fast, there have been plenty of big names searching for speed. The 1.5-mile oval has one of the roughest, bumpiest surfaces of any track on the schedule, and with speeds at Kentucky at an all-time high this weekend, drivers have been struggling to keep their cars from bouncing off the track and scraping off speed. Not surprisingly, the final rankings featured a lot of changes as the drivers that seem to have figured out the bumpy surface should have a big advantage when the race goes green.
The top 3
1) Jimmie Johnson
While he didn't post a fast lap in practice, Johnson and his team admitted that they were focusing solely on race trim during the sessions. In fact, he logged the best 10-lap average speed in Happy Hour, and he didn't seem too worried during interviews after he qualified 25th. Plus, his numbers at Kentucky speak for themselves. Johnson has a 6.0 average finish in three starts at the track and owns the best driver rating and average running position of any racer.
2) Jeff Gordon
He has been one of the most reliable drivers at Kentucky since the track was added to the schedule, and he has lived up to his reputation so far this weekend. Gordon cracked the top 15 in both practices, ranking fourth on the charts in Happy Hour. He also qualified third. Gordon has a 7.7 average finish in three starts at Kentucky and a 4.8 average finish in four starts at 1.5-mile tracks this year. He is one of the safest options to build a roster around this weekend.
3) Brad Keselowski
Keselowski was the most impressive driver in practice Friday, turning the second-fastest lap in the first session and topping the charts in Happy Hour. Keselowski then backed up his practice times by grabbing the pole for Saturday night's race. In three previous starts at Kentucky, he has two top-10s, including a win in the 2012 race. Keselowski should be a strong play in all formats.
11) Kyle Larson
The rookie was tearing up the charts in practice, pacing the field in the early session and ranking third in Happy Hour. He was also pretty good in qualifying, logging the sixth-fastest lap. Larson has been solid at 1.5-mile tracks all year, compiling a 13.5 average finish in four starts and ranking 12th among drivers in points scored. Meanwhile, his lack of experience at the Cup level should be somewhat offset because of how recently the track was added to the schedule. Larson has top-five upside this weekend.
15) Tony Stewart
"Smoke" hasn't made much noise in his three previous starts at Kentucky, but he was surprisingly stout in both practice sessions at the track Friday, ranking fifth and 11th. He also had a solid qualifying run by his standards, and he will start 13th. Stewart certainly hasn't had a great year so far, but if not for a couple of speeding penalties in recent weeks, he may have won at Pocono and Sonoma. The speed has been there for Stewart recently, and he seems to have a strong car to work with this weekend. He is a little bit of a risk given all the mistakes he has been making, but he offers a lot of upside.
18) Jamie McMurray
McMurray finished second at Kentucky last season, and he has finished in the top 15 in two of his three starts at the track. Based on the speed he has shown, another solid finish could be on tap Saturday night. McMurray cracked the top 12 in both sessions, turning the fourth-fastest lap in early practice. An eighth-place effort in qualifying should help his chances, as well. A top-15 finish is definitely possible, and McMurray could be a solid sleeper in most formats.
23) Danica Patrick
She was one of the most consistent drivers between the two practice sessions Friday, ranking eight in the early session and sixth in final practice. Patrick also delivered in qualifying and will start inside the top 10. She finished 23rd at Kentucky last season in her first Cup start at the track, and she appears to have a car capable of improving on that result this weekend. Patrick could be a sneaky top-20 pick Saturday.
Big names outside the top 10
17) Carl Edwards
He has been average in his last two starts at Kentucky, and was off the pace in practice Friday, ranking 28th in both sessions. Edwards wasn't exactly optimistic about his chances after final practice, and he basically said that his team has flat out missed the setup so far. He will start 23rd Saturday, and you may want to look for another option if you were planning on using Edwards.
22) Greg Biffle
His numbers at Kentucky aren't pretty, and based on the lack of speed Biffle showed Friday, he could be in for rough outing in the Bluegrass State. In three previous starts at the track, he has compiled an ugly 25.3 average finish, and he failed to crack the top 25 in either practice session. Biffle qualified 24th, and he will be lucky to crack the top 20 unless he suddenly finds some speed.
About Brian Polking
Racing has been part of Brian's life ever since he can remember, and he spent his childhood at dirt tracks throughout Ohio and Kentucky watching his father race. NASCAR naturally became his favorite sport, and he has been following the Cup, Nationwide and Truck Series for most of his life. Brian majored in journalism and economics at Ohio State University and becoming a sports writer has always been his dream. Although he has covered everything from minor league baseball to the NCAA tournament, his passion has always been NASCAR. Brian has served as a NASCAR writer for a variety of sites, eventually becoming head editor of the NASCAR section for Fanball.com. His knowledge of NASCAR comes from his life-long love of racing, and he tries to add a personal touch to every article he writes. Brian is always up for talking NASCAR with anyone that wants to. Brian joined KFFL's team in 2011.
Don't miss these great reports....