The Racing Capital
of the World
June 28, 2012 | By Bruce Martin
The road to the “Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard” is close, not just in time but in distance to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In just one month the roar of race cars will return to the Brickyard and this week the NASCAR Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series are just 120 miles from their ultimate destination as this week’s road trip heads to Kentucky Speedway in Sparta, Ky.
It’s just seven miles from the 1.5-mile oval in Kentucky to the Indiana State Line, which is bordered by the mighty Ohio River.
Much has happened in the NASCAR Sprint Cup garage since we last checked in prior to last Sunday’s Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway. Clint Bowyer drove to an impressive victory for the sixth win of his career but his first on a road course, and also his first since joining Michael Waltrip Racing at the beginning of this season.
And just two days later, two-time Daytona 500 winner and 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth announced his split with Roush Fenway Racing – the only team he has raced for since winning the 2000 Rookie of the Year Award in the Cup Series. Kenseth will presumably drive for Joe Gibbs Racing next season.
After a trip to California’s “Wine Country” it’s off to the Bluegrass State for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400. It’s the second Cup race at the oval that is now part of the SMI family of tracks and presents some challenges for the “Legends of the Brickyard” that will compete under the lights. It’s also the beginning of a 10-race stretch of races known as “Race to the Chase” which will culminate with the cutoff race to the “Chase for the Championship” at Richmond International Raceway on September 8.
NASCAR will mandate some rules changes at this weekend’s race with the ground clearance of the side skirts increased in an attempt to improve the aerodynamics of the car. It should decrease the side downforce which is intended to allow more side-by-side racing. Changes will also be made to the rear sway bar.
Kyle Busch is the defending winner at Kentucky after starting on the pole and winning last year’s inaugural race. He knows better than any driver what it takes to be successful at Kentucky Speedway.
“You look at some of the new venues we’ve been to over the years and Jeff Gordon got to win a number of inaugural races, like the Brickyard, Fontana, and Kansas,” Busch said. “He was always the guy who was known to figure out places the fastest, but we were able to be the ones to do that last year at Kentucky. There aren’t many opportunities these days to go to a new venue, so for us being able to win the first race there was extra special and to put that M&M’s car in victory lane. We’d love to be able to come back there with our Red, White, and Blue M&M’s car and still keep us as the only winners there thus far in Sprint Cup.”
The key is finding the right setup at Kentucky and that begins when the teams hit the track for practice and qualifications.
“I think the biggest thing was just all the on-track time we had to get ready last year,” Busch said. “At the same time, we unloaded so close to what we ended up racing, we were able to try a whole lot of things in-between. My experience there, along with Dave’s (Rogers, crew chief) experience there made a huge difference to where we weren’t far off when we unloaded, and it helped us try a bunch of stuff during testing and then practice. The biggest thing that helped us was the open test day on Thursday, with Truck Series activities going on, as well. There was a lot of track time we had that week and, when you come to a new venue, that’s very valuable. Physically, on Thursday of the weekend last year, it was hot. It’s hot in Kentucky in June, so it was no cakewalk. I remember after I won the truck race that night, I was pretty worn out. The cool part about it is, Saturday you can rest a bit and get your body where you need it to be. We ran up front the entire night and didn’t have to fight back in traffic, so the car handled really well.”
The talented 27-year-old has notched victories at Kentucky in all three of NASCAR’s top divisions – Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck. Add his 2003 ARCA series win at Kentucky and Busch has been victorious in four racing divisions and has made quite a Kentucky home of his own in the Bluegrass State’s second-most-famous victory lane. Busch was just 18 when he dominated the 2003 ARCA race at Kentucky while competing for Hendrick Motorsports. He led a race-high 91 laps en route to the victory. He returned to the Bluegrass State the following year and found victory lane again, this time in his NASCAR Nationwide Series debut at the 1.5-mile oval. In all, Busch has one win, three top-fives, and has led 311 laps in five Nationwide Series starts there.
He also won last year’s NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race to give him three top-10 finishes and 117 laps led in three Truck Series starts at Kentucky.
While the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will forever be Tony Stewart’s “Home Track” Kentucky Speedway is just a short drive from Stewart’s Columbus, Ind., home.
“I guess the biggest thing about it is for those of us who haven’t run Nationwide or Truck races there, we still only have one race at that track,” said Stewart, a two-time Brickyard winner and three-time Cup champion. “So, we’re still figuring out. It’s got a lot of bumps, so that makes it very challenging. Trying to figure out exactly where to be, where to try to get around some of the bumps, how to get through them better, how to get the car to go through them better – those are challenges that kind of make it fun, because it’s not just flat and easy to get around.”
Stewart has moved up to fifth in the Cup standings after his second-place finish at Sonoma last Sunday. Three-time Brickyard winner and five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is fourth in the standings and ready for a bumpy ride at Kentucky.
“Really how rough the track is,” Johnson said. “My first laps there from the test session last year when we went, I felt like the bumps were going to make the car lose grip and spin out and be out of control, but there is so much grip there that even with as rough and as bumpy as it is, you stand on the gas and carry a ton of speed and just bounce around. Those are the things I had to overcome when I got on the track last year.
“It’s the roughest and fastest track we go to; well, Atlanta is fast, but there are big swells and I still don’t feel like we’re driving as hard at Atlanta as we are at Kentucky. Kentucky, you’re driving it like a freshly repaved track. You have high frequency bumps and banking doing weird things. It’s a fun track for those reasons and it has a lot of character to it.”
Four-time Brickyard winner and four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon believes traffic will be an issue – and that’s just getting to the race track. Last year’s race was marred by heavy traffic from the fans trying to make it to the race. Many of them didn’t get to their seats until the race was past halfway finished and some didn’t even make it to the track at all.
"[Traffic] certainly dominated the conversation on Twitter,” Gordon said. “I think (Speedway Motorsports, Inc., chairman) Bruton (Smith) and that group have a lot of pressure on them this year to make sure that doesn't happen again. I don't know if you can fix it all at once, but I feel confident that they are going to make some huge strides. I think it is going to be a much better experience for all of the fans.
“Last year, if you could have picked [the No. 24 car] up (from 20th-place in the running order) and placed it in the top seven or eight, we could have stayed there and maybe battled with the leaders. We just needed track position. The track is very challenging. It's the same thing that makes it difficult to pass any race weekend - usually because it's a one-groove race track. There are pretty severe bumps getting into turn three, so it's hard to run side-by-side because you get really loose underneath somebody. And the pace is pretty fast - you carry good speed through the corners here. It's just hard to get an edge on the competition.”
This is an important time for Gordon because he is back in 18th in the standings and has yet to win a race in 2012. The next 10 races – including the July 29 400-mile contest at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – will determine whether he is able to make this year’s “Chase.”
Kevin Harvick, the 2003 Brickyard winner, is sixth in the standings and should be in good shape, not only for this year’s race at IMS, but also the Chase. But first, he must deal with the challenges of Kentucky.
"As a company we struggled there (Kentucky Speedway) last year,” Harvick said. “It was just a long weekend for us. We've obviously looked at this particular race for a while trying to figure out exactly what we needed to do differently from last year, so we've got a lot of different things to try and hopefully we'll run better this year."
Paul Menard is one of Harvick’s teammates at Richard Childress Racing and is the defending winner at the Brickyard. He arrives at Kentucky 14th in points and needs to either win a race or two or get into the top 10 in the final 10 races to make the “Chase” for the first time in his career.
“The bottom groove was the preferred line, but [the track] opened up quite a bit,” Menard said of Kentucky Speedway. “The Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series have been running there for a long time so the track was well-seasoned. It’s got some bumps and some character. It’s a lot of fun to race there. It’s a little like Kansas (Speedway), just a little bigger and wider. Kentucky (Speedway) is unique though, because it’s not a new track. It’s an old track, just new to the Sprint Cup Series. We’ve all run thousands of miles there testing and in the Nationwide Series and Camping World Truck Series, so it’s fun to actually get to race there now.”
Jamie McMurray made history in 2010 when he won both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard and that made his team owner Chip Ganassi the only owner to sweep all three of the major races in the United States in the same year. Ganassi’s IndyCar driver, Dario Franchitti, won the Indianapolis 500 for the second time in his career that year. Franchitti became a three-time Indy 500 winner this past May 27.
McMurray needs to pick up the pace over the next 10 races because he is 20th in points. The Ganassi driver believes Kentucky could help vault him back into contention.
“I’m looking forward to heading back to Kentucky so we can get better results than last year,” McMurray said. “I raced at Kentucky a few times early in my career in the Truck Series and Nationwide, and really liked the track. Our first time there in the Sprint Cup Series last year was good until we lost an engine after halfway. We will look to have a strong weekend with our McDonald’s Chevrolet this time around. I know that the track took a lot of heat last year for traffic concerns; however I think that overshadowed the great turn out of fans from the area that are excited to have and support NASCAR racing at the track.”
Another Ganassi driver won the ultimate race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Juan Pablo Montoya won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He would finish second in his first Brickyard in 2007.
While his return to the Brickyard is four weeks away, Montoya has his sights set on Kentucky.
“Kentucky is still a new track for us and we haven’t gotten it completely figured out, but we were fast there last year,” Montoya said. “If I hadn’t gotten that pit road penalty in the closing laps we would have easily left there with a top-10 finish. I’m hoping for some better luck this time around. The Target team is really coming together. We haven’t had the results we want to have, but there have been a lot of really good changes and we’ve been putting people in the right place. Now we just need the results to show it.”
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. may not count as a “Brickyard Legend” but he is certainly the most popular driver in NASCAR and will have a huge legion of fans cheering him on in both the Brickyard next month and at Kentucky on Saturday night.
After scoring his first win in 143 races at Michigan International Speedway on June 17, Earnhardt is third in the standings heading to Kentucky.
“Kentucky is kind of wide, but it’s difficult to pass,” Earnhardt said. “The second groove has some good grip, so it will be real hard to get underneath guys and get around them. It’s got a lot of bumps, too. I don’t mind the bumps that bad; they definitely add a new dimension in the corners.”
Ryan Newman of South Bend, Ind., is another driver that hasn’t won at the Brickyard but will use his engineering background to help him negotiate the bumpy challenges of Kentucky.
“It’s got a lot of character because it’s pretty bumpy and I enjoy it,” Newman said. “I enjoy the race there. It was interesting. That was kind of our first experience with going into a race track and getting more practice sessions and more time on the race track before we actually started our weekend. We learned a lot there about Kentucky, having not tested there for a while. I look forward to going back there; not just because we ran well there last year, but because it’s a fun race track.”
So there are plenty of storylines in Saturday night’s race as NASCAR’s “Road to the Brickyard” is zeroing in on its primary destination, but first comes a little “Night Driving” at Kentucky Speedway.