Saddle up: Keys to Saturday night’s race in the Bluegrass State

Brad Keselowski looks like a favorite to go to Victory Lane at Kentucky Speedway.

Much of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season has consisted of a pair of heavyweights trading metaphorical punches. And it looks like Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway will be more of the same.

Through 16 races this year, the four-car Hendrick Motorsports armada has won six times, with Team Penske’s two-car fleet winning three events.

Lately, Hendrick has had the hot hand, but for this race at least, it appears the advantage may have swung back to Roger Penske’s outfit.

Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano swept the front row on Friday, with Keselowski claiming the pole with a jaw-dropping track record lap of 188.791 miles per hour. That’s more than 5 miles per hour faster than Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s old track record.

Keselowski sweeps to Sprint Cup pole for Quaker State 400

Considering that Kentucky is both the flattest 1.5-mile oval in NASCAR and has the oldest pavement, that speed is amazing. So is the fact that Keselowski’s pole lap was 0.253 seconds faster than Logano’s lap and a full 0.300 seconds better than third-qualifier Jeff Gordon.

For his part, Keselowski, the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, didn’t seem all that impressed with qualifying on the front row for the ninth time this season.

"Qualifying is great, but at the end of the week or the start of the next week on Monday nobody talks about who qualified on the pole; they talk about who won the race, so we want to be that guy and that’s the most important thing," he said.

Factoids: Both Keselowski and Logano have won on 1.5-mile tracks this season. Also, Keselowski has won a Cup race at Kentucky, while Logano won three NASCAR Nationwide Series races here, all from the pole.

Some keys to Saturday night’s race:

In her groove: Danica looks poised for strong night at Kentucky

Costly mistakes. Keselowski led 138 laps in Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race but threw away a an almost-certain victory when he got caught speeding on pit road. Someone will likely make a similar mistake Saturday night.

Desperate measures. Six of the top 12 starters — Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Danica Patrick, Clint Bowyer and Paul Menard — are winless this season. Do not be surprised if one of them makes a late-race gamble on pit strategy or track position to go for the victory. And, oh yeah, Tony Stewart starts 13th. Never count him out on a hot, slippery track.

Junior struggling. As well as Dale Earnhardt Jr. has run all year, he was awful on Friday, qualifying 29th and running 19th in Happy Hour. "We were slow in practice," said Earnhardt. "We’ve been fighting the car all day and haven’t had any gains. We haven’t been able to figure out what we need to do."

His teammate, Jimmie Johnson, qualified 25th but at least liked his car in race trim.

Ganassi gaining. Again this weekend, the two Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolets have shown excellent speed. Kyle Larson will start sixth and Jamie McMurray eighth. This could be a breakthrough weekend for them.

Same old, same old: Roush Fenway struggles return at Kentucky

One and done. Kentucky Speedway is the only Sprint Cup track where Gordon has yet to win. Given that he was the fastest of the Hendrick Chevys — and the fastest of the non-Penske cars — he is a legitimate threat to win. Gordon has the speed and the motivation to get it done.

Happy time, people. Kevin Harvick won Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race, despite some struggles with his crew. Sooner or later, he’s going to win his third Cup race of the season. Saturday night is as good a time as any.

Roush’s woes. Penske and Roush Fenway Racing both campaign Fords. The two Penske Fords qualified on Row 1. None of the three Roush Fords qualified in the top 20. Brad Keselowski’s pole lap was 0.696 seconds faster than that of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who qualified 21st, best among the Roush cars. Over a 267-lap race distance, that gap is the the equivalent of about seven laps. Oof.

Hamlin’s hopes. The only Toyota driver to qualify in the top 10 was Denny Hamlin, who will start on the outside of Row 2. While the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas don’t seem to have the speed of the Penske or Hendrick cars, Hamlin is someone to keep an eye on.

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