Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – SPARTA, KY – Martin Truex Jr. already has matched last year’s total of four Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories, but the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is nevertheless concerned about his performance on qualifying days.
The statistics say he should be.
Last year, as one of the series’ so-called Big Three, Truex won four poles and posted an average qualifying position of 9.9. This season, his top efforts in time trials have produced fifth-place starts at Richmond and Daytona (July), and his average position on the starting grid is 15.6 through the first 18 races.
Truex has won the last two Kentucky races in dominating fashion, but there are new variables this season that could make the challenge of three in a row more difficult. Not only are the Cup drivers dealing with new higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition rules, but they’ll also have to deal with the addition of traction compound to the racing surface at in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
“As we figure this package out, and as we’ve run it at all these tracks this year, I feel like things have changed so much,” Truex said on Friday at Kentucky. “Early in the year, I feel like all the guys that ran good, qualified bad. Now, guys are figuring out ways to have enough speed in qualifying to start up front and to be able to have good enough handling throughout the race to stay up there.
“That’s been a big challenge for us is, how do we get both? We’ve had good handling cars at a lot of race tracks, but not a lot of speed. We’ve been able to take advantage of good handling. I don’t know. I think that, in a perfect world, you’d want to start up front because you get a good pit stall and you don’t have to worry about traffic and getting stuck trying to fight track position throughout that first stage.
“I think guys are figuring it out for sure. That’s something that we’re consistently working on and constantly working on that we haven’t, as the 19 car, we haven’t been able to figure it out quite yet.”
Historically, qualifying has been critical at Kentucky. The last three races—and five of the eight total at the 1.5-mile track—have been won from the front row.
PAUL MENARD SWATS DOWN SPECULATON ABOUT EARLY RETIREMENT
Silly season in the NASCAR garages may be in full swing, but driver Paul Menard was totally serious when discussing his status for next year.
Recent speculation on Twitter indicated Menard, whose father, John Menard, founded the eponymous home improvement chain, might be ready to step away from the sport in the near future. But Menard made clear at Kentucky Speedway on Friday that the future isn’t now.
“I have a good job, for sure,” said Menard, who is in his second full season in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. “I love the Wood Brothers. I love my race team. They are good people.
“I have a contract for next year. I guess it’s getting to be that time of year when people start talking about things. I have a contract and I love my team. We just have to perform better, that’s all.”
The Wood Brothers share a close association with Team Penske. Menard is currently 20th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, 53 points behind Ryan Newman in 16th (the last Playoff-eligible position).
“It’s certainly not where we want to be,” Menard said. “I feel like we have definitely shown some speed in the races. It’s just a matter of putting together the entire race, something we have struggled to do. It starts on Friday, or qualifying day.
“The package that we are dealt this year, it’s really hard to pass, and track position is as important as it has ever been. And when you qualify 15th, it’s hard to make up passes and get stage points and do the things you need to do to make the playoffs. The times we have qualified in the top 10 we’ve been able to get stage points and finish in the top 10 a few times. Track position is key. That’s something we’ve been working on, for sure, but it isn’t playing out to our satisfaction—but we keep working on it.”
Three-time Kentucky winner Brad Keselowski topped the speed chart in final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series practice with a lap at 182.303 mph. Kurt Busch was fastest in opening Cup practice at 183.742 mph. Denny Hamlin topped the opening session in 10 consecutive lap average (181.131 mph). Daniel Suarez led that category in Happy Hour (180.697 mph). Those speeds are indicative that there is not much fall-off with the durable tires Goodyear provided for Saturday’s race…
The No. 00 Ford of four-time NASCAR Xfinity Series winner Cole Custer took four attempts to pass pre-qualifying inspection on Friday at Kentucky Speedway. After the third failure, car chief Eddie D’Hondt Jr. was ejected from the track. Austin Cindric overcame an L1 penalty for illegal body modifications (assessed Thursday), which included the loss of crew chief Brian Wilson for the weekend, and won the pole for Friday night’s Alsco 300.