SPARTA — In addition to adjusting to a change in the Chase format this year, NASCAR's Sprint Cup drivers are having to get used to another different experience in 2011 — parity.
Saturday's inaugural Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway represents the 18th race on the Cup schedule. Usually when the series has reached this juncture, there has been a clear standout driver or two in the standings.
One of those drivers has been five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, who racked up 35 wins from 2005-2010 during his record-setting run.
Last year, Johnson and Denny Hamlin combined to win 11 of the first 26 races leading into the Chase. In 2009 it was Johnson and Mark Martin dueling for supremacy as they combined for a total of 12 triumphs.
Contrast that with what is a wide-open state of affairs in 2011. Points leader Kevin Harvick is the only driver with more than two wins thus far, and three drivers — Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Darlington) and David Ragan (Coke Zero 400) — have become first-time winners on the circuit.
"I think it's because everyone's so equal, competition is so tight," said Kyle Busch, currently third in points with two victories. "Everybody has a really good sense of this car now. There's not much leeway in the rule book for us to get creative and get our cars faster than anybody's else's. The cars are all so equal, that anytime you can get out front and not have to race the guys behind you, it just seems like a better opportunity to put yourself in victory lane."
Though no driver has a stranglehold on the series right now, four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon believes once the Chase starts, the teams that fans are accustomed to seeing up front won't disappoint.
"Right now there is no dominant driver, but that's not to say it won't still happen or come," Gordon said. "Certainly when it relates to the No. 48 (Johnson) and probably through the No. 11 (Hamlin), you can never count them out."
Smith expecting traffic woes after race
Bruton Smith is nothing if not candid.
So when the founder of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns Kentucky Speedway, was asked how bad the potential traffic would be for fans leaving the Sparta track following Saturday's race, Smith didn't mince words.
"We've had many classrooms on this traffic and we expect everyone to be home by Tuesday," Smith joked. "It's going to be a problem.
"This Interstate 71, it is the worst section of interstate in America. If you can avoid being on it, it will be to your advantage. Pick a number from a hat and get on that road, but don't get on I-71, you're not going to win."
Ragan relishing new kind of pressure
One would think after earning his first Cup series win at Daytona last week, David Ragan would take the opportunity to enjoy having that monkey off his back.
Instead, Ragan isn't daring to let himself or his team spend too much time savoring their achievements — not when there is still the new goal of making the Chase.
"We have a lot of fight left," he said. "It would be one thing if we were 25th in points and hadn't been running well and we could just say, 'Hey we won a race and there is no pressure.' Now we have to do something with that win. We've been close and had some Top 10 runs consistently this year and now we have to make the best of it."
Miss Sprint Cup fired
A South Carolina woman serving as a NASCAR Miss Sprint Cup has been let go after nude pictures of her appeared online. Paige Duke told The Charlotte Observer on Friday that the pictures were taken when she was a freshman at Clemson University and were only meant for her boyfriend at the time.
The 24-year-old veterinary technician said there was a morals clause in the contract she signed to be Miss Sprint Cup, so she is not surprised she was fired from what she said was the perfect job.
Duke said her attorneys worked to remove the images from a Web site and are trying to figure out how they were released.