NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Quaker State 400 Preview

The drivers of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series are in Kentucky on Saturday night for the Quaker State 400, but the minds of the racing community are on the big news that came out of Matt Kenseth’s camp this week. The standings leader and winner of the Daytona 500 announced he will be leaving the Roush Fenway Racing team at the end of this year, making him the biggest free agent to hit the open market since LeBron James and The Decision in the summer of 2010.

Kenseth’s future may be up in the air, but in the meantime he has a race to win—or at least compete well in and build on his 11-point lead over Greg Biffle. Kenseth’s lead per se is not necessarily getting smaller, but the number of drivers moving to striking distance is increasing, as Jimmie Johnson keeps tip-toeing his way toward the top, now just (-25) and in fourth place after a terrible start marred by poor performance and controversy. Dale Earnhardt Jr. remains nestled in between Biffle and Johnson, at (-14) back.

Last year’s champion, Tony Stewart, is still well in Kenseth’s rearview mirror at (-63), but he’s moved up to fifth place, as high as he’s been all year. When the final playoffs—The Race For The Cup—begin in September, the standings are re-calibrated to make for a more exciting finish (for baseball fans, think if on September 1, every third place team was automatically put within five games of the lead), so Stewart’s quiet positioning himself can’t be overlooked.

The one driver who needs to start making a serious move is Carl Edwards, who tied with Stewart in points for 2011 before losing the title on a tiebreaker. Edwards lost that tiebreaker because he couldn’t match Stewart in outright wins and the same problem stands to keep him out of this year’s playoffs entirely. He’s currently in 11th place and 11 points behind of Brad Keselowski for an automatic berth. There are two wild-cards given, but here again, you need to win races outright to be in the best position to get in that route, and right now Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman have the wins and would be the wild-cards. Furthermore, you have Joey Logano and Kasey Kahne behind them, who’ve also won a race. Its possible Edwards can make up the 11-point shortfall and climb into the Top 10 without winning outright, but if he expects to go in via the wild-card path a win is going to have to come.

Busch won this race a year ago, the first time Kentucky Speedway hosted a Sprint Cup event since its founding in 2000. We don’t have history to go on and I’m not able to reach my NASCAR expert, my brother Bill, for insights on the track due to conflict in our schedules and bad planning by me. But the driver I have my eye on right now is Edwards. If he’s not going to win one, he’s going to have increase his current pace of finishing in the Top 10 every other week.