As you settle in to watch Sunday's NASCAR race -- rain-delayed from Saturday -- at Kentucky Speedway on TNT, here are some storylines to be mindful of throughout the afternoon.
Kentucky is tough on man and machine
Kentucky may be a relatively new addition to the Sprint Cup Series Schedule, but it's a track that has been in existence since the late 90s. And the wear and tear on the surface is quite noticeable as there are pronounced bumps and dips strewn across the 1.5-mile oval.
The rough surface is a favorite for some drivers and annoyance to many others. Carl Edwards on Friday raved about the track and the challenge it creates. Conversely, Martin Truex Jr. was open to the idea that speedway officials consider repaving.
No matter, the track surface being what it is, today's affair will put a strain on equipment, an issue not lost on Jeff Gordon.
"I don't even see how we make it through a race here from a mechanical standpoint," Gordon said. "This place is so hard on the driveline and the suspension components, shocks and springs. The loads are just unbelievable.
"But if you just look at the pure grip level of the race track, that part of it I really like. The transitions make this a very tricky track. It's pretty flat from the back straightaway to Turn 3; plus there's a huge bump going in there."
The rain changes everything
Besides its rough surface, another challenge Kentucky presents is how difficult it is to pass. By most descriptions, the oval has just one groove -- the middle lane -- which makes passing difficult. That said, Friday's Nationwide Series event featured drivers running side-by-side providing optimism that the Cup race will be more than drivers jockeying for position on pit road.
However, heavy rain showers Friday and Saturday have washed away the rubber from the surface reducing the grip level. Compounding the problem is that instead of this race being conducted at night as originally scheduled it will be run under the afternoon sun making the track even slicker. Add everything together and figuring out how to get to the front is the daunting task facing drivers and crew chiefs.
The race to the Chase begins today
With only 10 races left before the Chase, many big names find themselves in a precarious position on whether they will qualify for the playoffs.
One such name is Brad Keselowski who is winless on the year, sits ninth in points and is teetering on the verge of falling out of the top 10. The defending Cup champ enters Kentucky looking for a repeat of his performance a year ago when he used a victory in the Bluegrass State as a catalyst for his eventual title run.
"We have had solid runs where we have been close to winning and have a lot of coulda, shoulda, woulda's," Keselowski said. "But those don't count for anything. Now is our time to really shine and I think thankfully if you look at the tradition of my team, if you can say there is one over the last two seasons, it is that we really seem to hit our mark about this time of season."
Another driver who is in desperate need of a win is Gordon, who is coming off a spirited runner-up finish last week at Sonoma. His biggest handcuffs this season have been inconsistency and his inability to string together good finishes, having yet to post top 10s consecutively. If he wants to be in the Chase, this is a trend he must modify -- preferably beginning today at Kentucky.
- Out of the 23 tracks that make up the current Cup schedule, Kentucky is the only track where Gordon is winless.
- Although it's a small sample size, both of the Cup races run at Kentucky have been won by drivers starting in the top 10. But it's a trend that's noticeable in other series here as well: In 12 of 14 Nationwide races the eventual winner has started 10th or better.
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. may be starting on the pole, but it may not bode well for his chances this afternoon. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Earnhardt has been the No. 1 qualifier four times and his best finish in those races was 12th.
- Without a ride this weekend, Kentucky is the first race Bobby Labonte has missed since the beginning of the 1993 season -- a span of 704 races.
1. Kyle Busch
In both Cup events at Kentucky, Busch has been the driver to beat. He won the inaugural race here in 2011 and last year led 118 laps before a broken shock ended his bid. Assuming there are no mechanical failures on the No. 18 car, Busch should be in contention once again as he showed speed in every practice.
2. Jimmie Johnson
With the exception of Michigan, the intermediate sized tracks have been problematic for the 48 team this season. But Johnson has had one of the quickest cars on the track this weekend, has a pair of top 10s at Kentucky and is hungry to atone for a couple of missteps the last few weeks. Don't bet against him getting his first Kentucky win.
3. Kevin Harvick
Harvick and Richard Childress Racing tested at Kentucky a week ago and that knowledge base will come in handy on a track surface that should be ever-changing this afternoon. It also might explain why Harvick was among the fastest on long runs in practice.