Familiarity not a key to figuring out Kentucky’s new place on schedule
Greg Biffle won the first NASCAR-sanctioned race at the Kentucky Speedway in 2000. It was a truck series race that also had future Sprint Cup Series drivers Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray in the field.
A lot has happened to Kentucky since.
The 1.5-mile track located in a triangle that includes Cincinnati, Louisville, Ky., and Lexington, Ky., has worked its way through racing’s minor leagues to finally get a shot at its first Cup race this Saturday night.
Familiarity, however, probably won’t be an advantage.
A lot has changed at Kentucky in the last 12 years. The pavement is older and bumpy. Grandstand seating has been nearly doubled to 106,000. Construction has been on-going since parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. won approval from NASCAR to move one of the two races away from Atlanta a year ago.
“It looks way different,” Biffle said following a recent tire test. “They keep making it better and adding on. They added a bunch of grandstand seats. They’re changing the infield and trying to make nice motor home lots and space for the garages. They’re doing a lot. It was pretty torn up when we were there and they had a long ways to go, but I’m sure they’ll be ready.”
While Saturday’s Quaker State 400 will be the first Cup race at Kentucky, most of the drivers have raced on it – some in the truck series; some in the Nationwide Series; the rest during years of testing.
With the exception of a few drivers in the tire test, none have been at Kentucky with the newest version of the Car of Tomorrow.
“I guess it’s just the unknowns,” Jeff Gordon said of this week’s challenges. “Trying to know where you can push the limits, where your car is going to handle the best, what the characteristics of the track have as the race goes on. Does the track get looser in, tighter off or tighter in certain parts of the corner or looser in certain parts of the corner? Those are things that maybe some of the Nationwide guys will have more experience with and might do a better job when we first get there.”
To help all 48 teams get up to speed as quickly as possible, the track will open its doors a day early for practice. Instead of the standard two practice sessions before qualifying, there are a total of four planned on Thursday and Friday.
The main event is Saturday night at 7:30.
Kentucky is roughly shaped like so many other 1.5-mile “cookie-cutter” tracks on the schedule. But it still has its own characteristics.
Kyle Busch has won a Nationwide Series at Kentucky.
“Obviously, I’ve been there before so I’ve got laps,” he said. “And laps is experience. It won’t take long.
“Kentucky’s its own. They’re all their own identity. Charlotte is its own versus Texas versus Atlanta. Everybody says they all look the same, they all drive the same. They’re not even close.”
The one driver who’s mastered Kentucky is Carl Edwards. He’s won there in a truck and in a Nationwide car, and he comes into this week’s race ranked second in the point standings.
The track also will be a homecoming for several drivers. Michael Waltrip grew up in nearby Owensboro, Ky. He will make one of his selected starts to commemorate the race, also honoring his older brother Darrell Waltrip, who was just voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
It’s also close to Tony Stewart’s Southern Indiana home.
“Definitely long overdue for sure,” he said. “Ever since the speedway opened, we all wondered when we were going to have a Cup date there and definitely think it took a lot longer than all of us anticipated. Just the tri-state area there has such deep racing roots with dirt track racing and pavement racing. It’s a perfect market, it’s a perfect area and the race fans that go there are true diehard race fans.
“The first thing you do is try to figure the line out around the track and when we’ve tested there in the past, we didn’t have a lot of rubber down because there weren’t a lot of cars running a lot of laps. It was a lot harder to really get a gauge on what the line was around there.”
Biffle is convinced the first race at Kentucky will be memorable.
“They’re definitely going to see side-by-side racing,” he said. “I think it’s going to be real similar to what you see at Kansas. It drives really flat and you can see the Nationwide races there have all been really exciting. I’ve had a couple of exciting finishes there with Todd Bodine and a few others, so I think it’s going to be a good race. ”