Day trippers: Familiarity key for drivers at Kentucky oval

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Kevin Harvick, on far side of wall, celebrates with his crew after winning the NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Sunday, July 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

SPARTA, Ky. – The Kentucky Speedway winners' club is exclusive — just five drivers have combined to win the first nine NASCAR Cup races.

All have championships, with the 400-mile race providing a springboard to the title for Kyle Busch (2015), Brad Keselowski (2012) and Martin Truex Jr. (2017). That trio also has multiple Kentucky wins, which speaks volumes of their mastery of the 1.5-mile oval.

Sunday’s event provides different hurdles, running in daylight for just the second time with drivers having to adjust on the fly without practice and qualifying because of concerns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. How well they adapt could determine whether club membership expands or remains the same.

For sure, plenty of drivers have been on the cusp of getting in.

“We’ve got a few top-five finishes, but just haven’t been able to close it out at the end of the race,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished fifth there last July. “With the way this team has been performing this year, I don’t see any reason why we can’t change that this weekend and get our first win at Kentucky.”

Hamlin is fifth in the standings but holds a one-point playoff edge over first-place Kevin Harvick, who's coming off Sunday’s Brickyard 400 triumph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway that matched Hamlin’s series-best four wins this season. Harvick now carries momentum to a venue where he has six top-10s in his past seven starts.

Jimmie Johnson, meanwhile, simply seeks better luck at Kentucky following several subpar runs. Right now, the seven-time Cup champion is giddy just to race the No. 48 Chevy again after missing his first career race last week in Indianapolis following a positive COVID-19 test. Johnson was cleared this week after two negative tests ; NASCAR has reminded teams to follow coronavirus protocols.

“Yeah, I’m super excited and in my head of optimism," said Johnson, who is scheduled to retire from full-time NASCAR racing after this season. “I’m like, what a comeback story. It could really be a special moment. I’ve always been highly motivated, but it would be really cool to have great success on Sunday.”