Track Talk: Quaker State 400 at Kentucky

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR. Additionally, we attempt to pick the winner of the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, the Quaker State 400 at Daytona International Speedway!

This weekend, our panel consisting of Adam Lucas, Amanda ParmeleeAshley HobbsAshley Hull, Katie Copple, Kathleen CassidyKayla SturmKyle Magda, and Stephen Conley analyze the magnitude of Ricky Stenhouse Jr’s second win of 2017, the build up surrounding Dale Earnhardt Jr’s potential final Cup start at Daytona, Bubba Wallace’s future in NASCAR, and the treacherous race awaiting teams and drivers at Kentucky Speedway!

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Question 1
Seriously, I beat Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest!

Seriously, I beat Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest!

Ricky Stenhouse Jr scored his second career Cup victory at Daytona on Saturday night.  With an additional victory in the books, does this further cement Roush Fenway Racing’s rally from its rebuilding phase following the departures of Matt Kenseth, Carl Edwards, and Greg Biffle?

Hobbs :  Rebuilding complete? Not quite. Sure, their restrictor plate program is great. Then again, Ricky Stenhouse Jr has always been a phenomenal plate racer. In order to say that Roush Fenway Racing’s rally from rebuilding is completed, they must continue to progress on the intermediate tracks. Without solid intermediate track programs, they are sitting ducks come the playoffs.

Lucas :  I do not believe that Roush Fenway is back to its former glory. Ricky Stenhouse Jr is extremely talented, and will continue to win in the years to come. But I still think the organization has some hurdles to jump over.

Their superspeedway package as a team is solid, along with the short track program. If you look at their results from the core race tracks on the schedule (i.e. 1.5 mile ovals), it’s not great by any means.

It will be interesting to see if the team decides to bring the third car back for 2018 with their success so far. That could impede the progress they’ve made so far. They are still rebuilding, but making good progress!

Strum :  I’m not sure. Before I can answer that question with a yes or no, I’d like to see Ricky Stenhouse Jr or Trevor Bayne win at a non-restrictor plate track.

Now, I’m not discrediting restrictor plate wins, because if my driver won a restrictor plate race, I’d be ecstatic. It’s awesome to win at restrictor place tracks.

However, there is no denying that they are pretty unpredictable most of the time and anything can happen, especially if you have the right strategy going and somehow avoid “The Big One.” A lot of it is a matter of luck and strategy and Stenhouse seems to have that down pat this year.

However, he’s also been sneakily running front to mid-pack in a lot of races this year as well. I think it’s too soon to answer this question. We may have a better idea by the end of the season.

Magda :  They’ve been stronger lately after going through some struggles the past few seasons. Stenhouse’s win at Talladega was the first points-paying win for Roush Fenway Racing in three years.

Daytona only added icing onto the cake for the No. 17 team. With the Firecracker 400 victory, Stenhouse is comfortably into the playoffs as Ford has now won the last six restrictor-plate races.

Copple :  Does it solidify it? No. But they are on the right track, no pun intended there!

Stenhouse has won at Talladega and Daytona. While these are two tough tracks to win at, they are still plate races and it’s really a survival of the fittest. I’m not trying to take away from his wins but until he or another RFT car wins on a track other than a plate track, I won’t say that they are back to their winning ways.

Conley :  I’m not sure if it’s all gravy at RFR right now. However, when they show up to the restrictor plate tracks, they certainly are eating well.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr on the Cup side and Ryan Reed on the Xfinity side certainly have a knack for that style of racing. Ultimately, with Bubba Wallace’s departure and the confirmation they are not expanding to the three car team next season on the Cup side, I believe they still have a lot of work to do before they bring Chris Buescher back in to the fold and expand that operation. The concrete is still setting but not solid yet.

Hull :  I think that just because he has had these two wins under his belt, it doesn’t mean that Roush Fenway is necessarily rallying back. I mean, yes, winning is a great morale booster for the team. However, there have still been some issues going on within the organization. For example, they lost Bubba Wallace due to the lack of funding. They still having trouble finding sponsors for a talented driver, so that shows that in reality, they are still struggling.

Parmelee :  I think it’s great to see Ricky Stenhouse Jr finally having tangible successes at the Cup level. One win can be passed off as luck or extenuating circumstances — but with two wins, it’s much harder to argue that Stenhouse isn’t going to offer up some legitimate competition in the coming months.

Cassidy :  Many in the business questioned Roush’s ability to be competitive over the last few years. This 17 team is proving each week how important rebuilds really are.

Question 2
Don't believe Dale Earnhardt Jr, just watch?

Don’t believe Dale Earnhardt Jr, just watch?

Dale Earnhardt Jr scored the pole for the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona but wound up finishing 32nd after being involved in a lap 107 backstretch crash. Considering the buildup for Earnhardt entering the Daytona race weekend, was it justified or were there other stories worth focusing on prior, during, and after the 400?

Hobbs :  It was 100 percent purely build up (and I will likely get some negative reaction from the crowds). That is all it ever is when Dale Jr heads to Daytona (or Talladega).

In the past, he was a great restrictor plate racer. However, that torch was passed several years ago to the likes of Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, and Austin Dillon. Dale Jr has not been the plate racer everyone came to know and love. I knew that, I think other fans knew that, but most fans hold him so high on the restrictor plate pedestal. It is time to move on folks.

Yes, he is retiring, so yes, it was important to highlight him. But, the buildup pre, during, and post race was not deserving. I am glad NBC covered the true great plate racers during the race like Bowyer, Stenhouse, and even David Ragan.

Lucas :  There are always multiple stories flying through the garage area, but nothing was bigger than Dale Earnhardt Jr’s “final” race at Daytona. I think I heard once this past weekend about Kyle Busch’s crew chief situation, and that was a minute before the green flag dropped.

Maybe it was somewhat quiet this week leading up to the race. Did the media prevent the public from informing them about other hot button issues concerning NASCAR? Probably not, and I can’t cast any judgement upon what is and isn’t.

Personally, I wish Richard Petty would have gotten more publicity about his 80th birthday. The man is a living legend, and literally treated like a king.  But God forbid, you say something ill about Dale Earnhardt Jr.

I have no problems with him. As a matter of fact, he is one of coolest, friendliest, and laid back drivers (I met him in 2003 at The Winston). The problem is his fan base. They are hardcore to the farthest dimensions of NASCAR, and that’s great.

But being a fan of other drivers in the sport, and speaking truthfully about Earnhardt’s struggles a few years ago, you may want to invest in a bullet proof vest, or learn self-defense. I think that the media played a huge factor in making Earnhardt somewhat nervous for the race. He even admitted after crashing out that he didn’t realize that it was such a big deal.

Maybe it’s a bigger letdown for fans than the driver. He seemed ready to move on from Daytona and focus on the next races leading up to the playoffs.

Strum :  I get all of the hype behind this. Dale Earnhardt Jr has been NASCAR’s icon for the last 15 or so years and as of right now, it was his last Daytona race. Of course, the media is going to build it up.

Could the hype have been dispersed elsewhere (at least some of it)? Yes, absolutely. However, this is Dale Jr’s last season. The hype won’t be dispersed elsewhere until next season so it’s just something that we will see for the last half of the year.

Magda :  What might have been Dale Jr.’s last start didn’t get overshadowed by the crash-marred event. There was a new race-record for cautions. Also, there were surprising survivors at the end of the 400-mile race.

Look at David Ragan and Front Row Motorsports, as they nearly had a victory for the small team. Ultimately, Ragan wasn’t able to block Stenhouse’s strong run.

Paul Menard was the closest he’s seen victory in a while and Michael McDowell scored Leavine Family Racing’s best-career finish.

Copple :  It’s Daytona, guys! I don’t know what you were expecting from Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The wrecks were out of his control. If he would have made it through the race without being caught up in others messes, I think he would have had a top-10, if not a top-five finish.

Was the buildup justified? Debatable. But his fans loved it.

Conley :  The 88 team just doesn’t seem to have it now. The hype and stories that will be written and talked about for Earnhardt are certainly justified as he’s had a successful career.  As it winds down, that said, NBC may have overdone it at Daytona. However, had Earnhardt scored that win, imagine the stories heading into Kentucky.

Hull :  I mean, Dale Earnhardt Jr is the most popular driver in NASCAR. So of course, they are going to hype him up. It’s his last year, and he was at Daytona, which was a great track for him. Sadly, what happened to him was out of his control. A lot of the other major drivers all got caught up in all the wrecks as well. It was a bad night for a lot of drivers. So what they did, whether you like it or not, was justified.

Parmelee :  This is a hard topic because for many fans. For families like my boyfriend’s, NASCAR is something that they’ve watched with their families for decades — and there’s been a Dale Earnhardt in the field for as long as they can remember.

I think people believed that Dale Jr had one of the best chances to win at Daytona, hence why it was talked about so much. At the end of the day, this truly is the last season Dale Jr will race full-time in the Cup series. As much as it may seem overwhelming or a bit much at times, the 88 team having Dale Jr. in the driver’s seat for a final season is something fans will cherish for years to come.

Cassidy :  Following the 400, clearly there were other stories to focus on. However, with the size of Junior Nation, you can expect nothing different than what was given. I expect to hear a lot more about the 88 team week in and out. Give the fans what they want.

Question 3
Bubba Wallace faces an uncertain future in NASCAR.

Bubba Wallace faces an uncertain future in NASCAR.

As Aric Almirola prepares for his return to the 43 car, Bubba Wallace posted a solid top-15 finish at Daytona. How can Wallace continue to keep his presence known to land a full-time NASCAR opportunity for the rest of this season and in the future?

Hobbs :  I don’t think Bubba Wallace needs to do anything “to keep his presence known.” He has proven he can handle the Xfinity Series. Furthermore, he has proven he can handle Cup races.  He has a level head on his shoulders and he is taking ever week to ingest as much information as possible.

There are drivers in this series that should not be occupying seat space that Bubba Wallace could certainly get into and actually post great finishes. I hope owners are taking notice of that and see all the potential he has, not just for their team, but for the sport as a whole.

Lucas :  If I were Bubba, I would make some sort of deal with Ryan Blaney. In this deal, Bubba would drive Blaney’s motorcoach to the races, be able to crash on his couch, and be a constant presence in the garage area, absorbing every detail of each car and team function.

It’d be sort of like a developmental role for him. He can easily do this if he is serious about joining the Cup ranks fulltime. With a limited amount of opportunities at the moment, this is probably the best option for him.

I think 2018 will be big for him. I keep hearing rumors about Penske adding a third car for next season. Could that be a move for Blaney and a spot at Wood Brothers Racing for Bubba? Maybe Mr. Penske could cut a deal to have Bubba race some of the No. 22 Xfinity races for Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. Only time will tell, but Bubba’s best option is to make a presence in the garage for the remainder of the season.

Strum :  Keep performing well until Aric Almiorla comes back. Dude needs to give it all he’s got. Get himself some publicity, which he did plenty of at Daytona.

Bubba Wallace is talented and I believe he has what it takes to be a star in the Cup series. He’s just gotta secure a ride. It will be hard to showcase his talent once Aric Almirola comes back because as far as we know, he’ll be out of a ride completely once that happens. But I think someone will scoop Wallace up. It would be a huge surprise to me if someone didn’t.

Magda :  Wallace’s future is uncertain at this point. No more funding for the No. 6 Xfinity team might leave the 23-year-old in limbo unless a competitive team picks him up so he can contend for wins and not a back-marker. I think he’s done a decent job filling in for Almriola; there have been growing pains such as getting used to the digital dash and a lower-downforce package in the Cup Series.

Copple :  Bubba Wallace had a great run in the 43. While he didn’t post any super great finishes, he still ran great races and the seat time will me extremely valuable for him. I think teams know he’s there and that he is capable of climbing in to nearly any car and giving them a respectable finish. In my opinion, he needs to be patient and just take any and every opportunity that comes his way. His chance at a full time Cup ride will come soon enough.

Conley :  I am honestly worried about Bubba Wallace’s future and career after Aric Almirola returns. Presently, Roush Fenway does not have the sponsorship to put Wallace back in the No. 6 Xfinity Series car. Furthermore, Steve Newmark said this week that two Cup cars and one Xfinity car is the expected NASCAR roster in 2018. That certainly leaves Wallace on the outside looking in with very few options to pursue.

Hull :  There is sadly not much else Wallace can do other than continue to post solid finishes. His fate is really in another team’s hands. I don’t understand why no one has really given him much of a shot. He is a great driver, and has a great personality. I think that any team would be lucky to have him as their driver. Hopefully, some team will actually pick him up.

Parmelee :  I’m still amazed that we’re having this conversation right now. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it 100 times — Bubba Wallace is young, poised, well-spoken, he’s talented in and out of a race car, and most of all, he’s never once spoken out about how unfair the entire situation is for him.

Bubba Wallace has done everything he can do to prove to the world that he’s worthy of a Cup seat. Sponsors and owners need to wise up and realize the impact that this kid could potentially have on the sport in the years to come and sign him before the opportunity slips away.

Cassidy :  Bubba Wallace has proven that he deserves to be in NASCAR. With the 6 car currently not in the field, I hope Wallace is able to find some type of opportunity moving forward, maybe a similar stance that Alex Bowman finds himself in with Hendrick.

Question 4
Will competitors race on a kind or not so kind Kentucky Speedway?

Will competitors race on a kind or not so kind Kentucky Speedway?

This weekend will be at least the second time that Cup drivers and teams compete on the revamped Kentucky Speedway.  As quick and treacherous as this venue was last year, will we see more competitive action on Saturday night?

Hobbs :  One can only hope. Whenever a change has been implemented, it is difficult to say how the racing will be. Not to mention, the stage racing will be here for the first time. We have seen how that can change strategies left and right.

Lucas :  I really hope we do. Last year’s race was a wash from a fan perspective. Hopefully the Tire Dragon and maybe some “ole’ fashioned Kentucky Glue” (PJ1 track grip) will get a second groove moving like at Texas earlier this season. Texas Motor Speedway is on its way to being the best 1.5 mile oval track on the schedule.

I was skeptical of how the first race would be on that surface, but holy moly, it was insane! Having a somewhat similar layout to Texas (minus the dog legs), Kentucky can become the next best 1.5 mile oval on the schedule!

Strum :  Well, I sure hope so! It’s getting closer to playoff time and there’s still plenty of notable names that aren’t already secured a spot such as the JGR drivers and Joey Logano. So to answer the question, yes. I do think we’ll see some competitive driving on Saturday night. It’s not just because it’s Kentucky. Ultimately, it’s because the heat is ramping up with each passing week as we get closer to playoffs.

Magda :  It’s a tough question because there wasn’t much passing in last year’s event . The Truck and Xfinity races showed track position played a major factor. When the cream rose to the top, it did for all three winners (William Byron, Kyle Busch, and Brad Keselowski).

By far, Byron and Busch had the best vehicles in their races while Keselowski held off Twitterless-Carl Edwards in the final laps for his third victory at the 1.5-mile track. History shows in the even-numbered years, Keselowski is king. In the odd-numbered years, it’s been all JGR with Kyle Busch (two) and Matt Kenseth accounting for their three victories. This track will start to age and the passing will return to a premium.

Copple :  I think we are going to have a great race this weekend at Kentucky. Teams have an idea of what to expect this go around. However, I think we are still going to be in for some surprises. Weather is going to play a big role in this race as well. We are definitely in for an exciting weekend!

Conley :  It could be a very treacherous weekend for the Cup Series.  The first year a newly repaved track forces drivers to tip-toe around.  Next, in the following year, they make adjustments. Sure, the track tends to change a lot and we’ve seen the second race on a new surface be just as “wild” as the first. I, for one, will certainly have my eyes locked on turn three and see how they negotiate what has been labeled as the toughest turn in the series.

Hull :  I think so. The track is designed for great racing. Last year, the last few laps saw a battle between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski. That was a great show. I don’t expect anything less this year since racing has been just as contentious this year.

Parmelee :  Driving at an updated venue always provides a bit of an unknown. Now that teams have had the opportunity to get a feel for the track, I think we’ll see a bit more confidence in the way that drivers approach the race. Whether they take more chances because of that confidence — or simply the fact that the playoffs are coming up — who knows? But I definitely think fans are in for some great racing this weekend.

Cassidy :  I hope Kentucky can offer more competitive racing to match the excitement fans bring to a Saturday night race. I think we should expect some good improvements this weekend.

That’s four laps around this track whose surface is as smooth as an android’s bottom!  Before revealing our race winning picks, let’s review our race and points report from last Saturday night at Daytona!
Yours truly and Hobbs survived the mess at Daytona...

Yours truly and Hobbs survived the mess at Daytona…

...while the points standings shuffled like moves in the lead drafting pack!

…while the points standings shuffled like moves in the lead drafting pack!

Whether our race picks are extra crispy good, let’s head into Kentucky by revealing our race picks for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400!
Will one of these six have a fantastic voyage to Kentucky's Victory Lane?

Will one of these six have a fantastic voyage to Kentucky’s Victory Lane?

Tiongson :  He’s the king of racking up bonus points and intermediate tracks. Aside from Kyle Larson, the No. 78 team has been dominant at these tracks. Look for Martin Truex Jr and company to score their third win of 2017 on Saturday night at Kentucky!

Hobbs :  My race pick will be Kyle Busch.

TPF Stats :  This driver has not won this season, but he was the first winner at Kentucky Speedway. Kyle Busch will finally snap his winless streak and head to Victory Lane!

Strum :  My head is telling me to go with Brad Keselowski. But I’m going to have to pick Kyle Busch. Him and Brad dominate that track but the difference is, Kyle doesn’t have a win yet this season so I think we’re going to see him being extremely competitive.

Lucas :  Kentucky takes a massive amount of grit and grace. You have to have grit to make it through 400 miles and be a little insane expecting to push your car and team to the limits. However, you also have to be graceful on this pavement. It’s newer than most tracks and hasn’t shown much wear meaning it’ll be slick.

You will have to hit every corner carefully, but hard. Here’s the catch, Kentucky has four unique corners! Whichever driver can conquer these two elements will be victorious Saturday night. There’s only one driver who can perform this task and that drivers name is “Big Bad” Brad Keselowski!

Copple : Brad Keselowski will win on Saturday night at Kentucky!

Hull :  I am going to go with the king of this race track, and that’s none other than Brad Keselowski!

Parmelee :  My pick is Brad Keselowski.

Magda : Going with Daniel Suarez!

Conley :  This driver will get the playoff field one step closer to that magical number of 16. He will once again start outside the top 10 after Richmond but finish inside it.  Look for Matt Kenseth to race into Victory Lane.

Cassidy :  The 24 car of Chase Elliott scores that much anticipated first Cup win!

That wraps it up, race fans!  Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk! We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into Saturday night’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts each week! The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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