Mark Story: Highs and lows from Kentucky Speedway's second Sprint Cup race

Winners and losers from the second Sprint Cup at Sparta

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 2, 2012 

SPARTA — Winners and losers from the second Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway:

Winner: Kentucky Speedway. After 2011's Car-mageddon, the standard of success for the racetrack during the 2012 Quaker State 400 was to provide a normal "big-event" traffic/parking experience. From everything I could tell on Saturday — and, yes, there were fewer cars to park in 2012 — the Speedway did just that.

As word of mouth from those who attended this year spreads about the improved parking scenario, that should help Kentucky Speedway woo back some of the patrons who did not return after 2011's traffic debacle.

Loser: Kentucky Speedway attendance estimate. Most media members covering Saturday's race were guessing the attendance between 70,000 and 80,000. By 2012 standards, that is a respectable turnout for a Sprint Cup Series race, though it was well off the complete sellout (in excess of 106,000) for the inaugural Quaker State 400 in 2011.

So it was a bit of a howler when the official NASCAR box score for Saturday's race estimated the attendance Saturday at 105,000. A NASCAR spokesman said that crowd figure was submitted by the Speedway.

That 105,000 figure for a crowd that was clearly much smaller is a warning to take future crowd estimates provided by Kentucky Speedway ownership with a box (not a grain) of salt. Still, if Bruton Smith hadn't bought Kentucky Speedway, there would have never been a Cup race in Sparta. In that context, outlandish attendance claims are a fairly miniscule thing.

Winner: Kentucky State Police. Unlike 2011, the KSP was basically running the traffic plan for the 2012 Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. Almost everyone I spoke to Saturday mentioned how much more organized the entire parking enterprise seemed this year.

Loser: Passing for the lead at Kentucky Speedway. In two Cup races in Sparta, there hasn't been much of that, and almost none that did not immediately follow a restart.

The solution?

Driver Denny Hamlin suggested a softer tire.

"I think right now Goodyear needs to re-evaluate the tire that they have here and get us something softer so it falls off so there is more passing," Hamlin said after Saturday's race. "Right now, during green-flag runs, it's just you catch someone, and it's very, very hard (to pass)."

Winner: Hendrick Motorsports. Based on issues (meaning, he kept wrecking) he had as a young driver testing at Kentucky Speedway, Jimmie Johnson says he has never liked the track. Jeff Gordon calls Kentucky Speedway "one of my worst tracks."

Yet the Hendrick Motorsports stars and their teammates turned in a stellar team performance in Sparta in 2012, finishing second (Kasey Kahne), fourth (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), fifth (Gordon) and sixth (Johnson).

Loser: Stewart-Haas Racing. Defending Cup Series champion Tony Stewart faced early mechanical issues, and finished 32nd, 36 laps off the lead. His teammate Ryan Newman blew an engine and finished 34th. The two drivers, both Indiana products, did not find Kentucky real hospitable in 2012.

Winner: Michael Waltrip. Sure, the Owensboro native finished 30th and five laps down Saturday. But he nevertheless became the first native Kentuckian to drive in a Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.

Loser: Kentucky-born drivers. The fact that a 49-year-old, semi-retired driver is all our state has now in Sprint Cup begs the question: Why hasn't the commonwealth of Kentucky produced a Cup-level young driver in the 21st Century?

Winner: Michael Waltrip's paint scheme. The Wildcats-blue car honoring the University of Kentucky's 2012 NCAA men's basketball championship that Waltrip and his sponsor Aaron's ran at Kentucky definitely passed the look test. It was snazzy.

Loser: The pre-race regimen of Michael Waltrip's pit crew. The shirts the crew was wearing matched Waltrip's UK-themed car paint scheme. Those shirts were so popular Saturday that a couple of the crew members I spoke to pre-race said they were having a hard time getting their work done because so many people were stopping them to ask to take pictures of the shirts.

Winner: Doing "the triple" at Kentucky: Last year, Kyle Busch ran in all three NASCAR races — trucks, Nationwide, Cup — at Kentucky and wound up winning the Sprint Cup race. This year, Brad Keselowski ran in all three NASCAR races at Kentucky and wound up winning the Sprint Cup race.

In 2013, will 43 Cup-Series drivers want to sign up to do "triple duty" in Kentucky?

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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