Thursday, January 18, 2018
Sports

New look, rules for Kentucky

SPARTA, Ky. — No discussion of Kentucky Speedway is complete without mentioning Kyle Busch or Brad Kese­lowski, each of whom has won the 400-mile Sprint Cup race twice and loom as the favorites tonight.

Matt Kenseth won here in 2013 and boasts an impressive resume on the 1½-mile tri-oval. The big question is whether somebody else finally breaks into the exclusive club this year.

The opportunity is certainly there after Kentucky resurfaced and reconfigured the track to create two distinctive corners. NASCAR also has implemented a new rules package reducing downforce and side force in hopes of creating more side-by-side racing.

Whether those changes lead to someone in Victory Lane at the Quaker State 400 not named Brad or Kyle remains to be seen. Drivers are eager to find out.

"It's tough," Austin Dillon said of beating them. "Those cars are running really well, and you've got to show that speed early. … To knock those two off it's going to be tough, but it can be done."

Kevin Harvick will start on the pole for the first time at Kentucky after rain cancelled Friday's qualifying and set the field on owner points. The 2014 Cup champion was cautious about his prospects because of the renovations and new rules but sees potential after participating in one of last year's most competitive races.

"When you have racing that is capable of side-by-side, that is a really good sign," said Harvick, who ran eighth here last July. "I'm pretty happy about that."

The hurdle for Harvick, Dillon and others is conquering the dual juggernaut of Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing, whose drivers always seem to be in the mix at Kentucky.

Busch and Kenseth have combined for three JGR wins in Toyotas, while teammates Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards finished 3-4 respectively last summer and led 14 combined laps.

Penske offers a strong tandem in Keselowski — who has won in a Dodge and Ford at Kentucky — and Joey Logano, who has finished second, ninth and fourth at Kentucky since joining the team in 2013. Having led 60 laps combined the past two years, he thinks he's ready to take the next step with everybody trying to figure out the track and downforce package.

BACKUP FOR JJ: Jimmie Johnson will drive a backup Chevy after wrecking his primary No. 48 car during practice. The six-time Sprint Cup champ had posted the second-fastest practice speed (188.121 mph) in 17 laps before his car sustained right-side damage after hitting the wall in Turn 4.

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