While the same drivers tend to find their way to the front on a 1.5-mile track, each of what many call the "cookie-cutter" courses have distinct personalities.
Does qualification matter at Kentucky Speedway? Based on the last couple of seasons it certainly would seem so.
Martin Truex Jr. posted back-to-back wins on this track after starting on the front row both times. His outside pole in 2017 and pole position last year was the vanguard of dominant performances by top qualifiers. In 2017, Kyle Busch finished fifth after winning the pole.
In 2017 six of the top eight qualifiers finished in the top 10. The only ones who missed that mark was Matt Kenseth, who started third and finished 17th and eighth-place qualifier Jimmie Johnson who crashed immediately and finished last.
Last year, the top seven finishers all started among the top 10.
Even though this is an impound race, pay close attention to starting position when setting your roster.
Stewart-Haas Racing has been generally lackluster this season. As is often the case, when a negative reversal like this happens, it is the new member who seems to struggle most.
Daniel Suarez has had some solid runs, but he has also been inconsistent – and the ripple effect has hindered him in qualification and race trim both. With a sixth-place qualification effort at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it appeared he might be getting back into his rhythm, but he finished a lap off the pace in 18th. He rattled off three more good qualification runs and had two top-10s, but those stalled out at Sonoma Raceway and he has not been strong since.
However, there is good news. The only other time in his career Suarez won the pole was last July at Pocono Raceway. He had his best chance of winning a Cup race that week and finished second. Suarez was also solid in practice with the quickest 10-lap average in Happy Hour.
Aric Almirola was on his way to do pole-winning interviews when Suarez took the track. He was sitting on the provisional pole through a fourth of the field and no one seemed ready to take him down. Even though he got nudged to the outside of the front row, he should still be incredibly happy because this is the first time in his career that he qualified in the top 10. Despite a relatively modest effort of 12th last year, Almirola scored his first (and so far only) top-10 at Kentucky in eighth. Almirola has one pole earlier this year at Atlanta; he finished eighth in that race as well.
Truex was our favorite entering the weekend. We still believe he can score a top-five, but his ability to dominate might be in question. In the past two years, his stellar qualification efforts on this track allowed him to use clean air to scoot away from the field. The last time he qualified further back than the first two rows, he finished only 10th from seventh in 2016 and was 17th after starting fifth in 2015. This week, he qualified eighth.
At the beginning of the week we were ready to go all in on Hendrick Motorsports. Qualification shook that confidence somewhat – at least for Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman. Elliott posted the 20th-fastest lap; Bowman was 22nd on the grid. It is possible they worked primarily on race trim, but see below for how they also struggled in regard to 10-lap averages.
Erik Jones is another big name who will have to come from the back. He qualified 21st and like the Hendrick mates, he was less than impressive in practice.
Denny Hamlin was not happy with his car throughout the day, but he did manage to post the quickest 10-lap average in the morning session. His speed of 181.131 mph edged Kyle Larson’s 181.009, but was substantially better than the rest of the field. It would appear that he gave up on short term speed, however and qualified 18th. For the record, Larson is back there with him in 19th, so they will need for the Quaker State 400 to develop some long green flag runs.
While Suarez topped the 10-lap average chart in Happy Hour, he had a trio of veterans on his heels. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Brad Keselowski clocked in second through fourth respectively and they have the experience and crews to manage a better race than the Young Gun. Each of them is among the most expensive in salary cap games, but they will probably all net top-five points.
On the other end of the spectrum, Elliott was not particularly quick in Happy Hour. His speed of 178.502 mph landed only 14th out of 26 drivers who went that far. Teammate Bowman was even worse in 21st. It is possible that those two drivers can lean on William Byron and Johnson who posted the seventh- and ninth-quickest speeds in final practice, but there is a risk in assuming that to be true.