To sum up the feeling at Kentucky Speedway in the aftermath of Kyle Busch's exciting Quaker State 400 victory July 11, track General Manager Mark Simendinger goes with a golf analogy.
"For the first time since we've had the (Sprint) Cup race, it's like we are standing on the tee with the wind at our back," Simendinger said.
The fifth Quaker State 400 was an artistic success. Boosted by NASCAR's implementation of a low-downforce package, Kyle Busch's victory came at the end of a race that featured a track-record 22 green-flag passes for the lead. This at a venue where the first four Cup Series races had featured way too much single-file racing.
"I thought it was a really entertaining race," Simendinger said. "I thought all three of our races, the truck race, the Xfinity race and the Cup race, were really good. A lot of people said it was the best Cup race this season on any track. I'm not going to argue with that."
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Though Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns Kentucky Speedway, does not release attendance figures, Simendinger said the news at the turnstiles for this year's Cup race was also positive. The massive 106,000-seat grandstands were nowhere close to filled, but to my naked eye, there appeared to be substantially more people at the race in 2015 than the year before.
"It was the biggest crowd we've had since the first year," Simendinger said, alluding to the complete sellout for 2011's inaugural Cup race that was marred by the infamous "Carmageddon" traffic jam. "I don't know whether it was Jeff Gordon's final race (at Kentucky) or just people wanting to see what it was all about, but it was the biggest walk-up (people buying tickets the day of the race) we've ever had."
Amid the positivity, there are some substantial decisions ahead for Kentucky Speedway.
One is whether to follow the path of iconic NASCAR venues such as Daytona and Talladega (and many other tracks) and reduce overall seating capacity to reflect the "new reality" in an era when the Cup Series does not draw as it did during the boom times of the late 1990s and the early years of the 21st century.
Simendinger says this year's growth in crowd size at Kentucky Speedway was not so large that it would affect any coming discussions about downsizing. "I think whatever arguments (for reducing seating) there were before, still would be valid," Simendinger said.
Also still to be determined is whether the point has arrived when Kentucky Speedway will finally have to repave its famously bumpy racing surface.
The track has branded itself — "The roughest track on the circuit" — around the "Sparta bumps." However, this summer's torrential rain, which continued deep into race week, created big problems at the Speedway.
To the frustration of drivers such as Kevin Harvick, "weepers" (water seeping up from beneath the asphalt) were a recurring difficulty during race week.
"The conditions this year were hard on an older racetrack," Simendinger said. "There was a lot of water already in the ground, you had all that rain (during race week), then we were having to run jet dryers all over to dry the track. When you have that continuous stream of hot air, you risk undoing some of the repairs you've made on the track in terms of the sealant around the patches. It was a tough scenario."
Long term, Simendinger says there is no point in talking about bringing the IndyCar Series, which ran at Kentucky Speedway from 2001-2011, back to Sparta until the inevitable track repave takes place.
"For right now, what we have is too rough for them," he said. "Once (the repave happens), then it just becomes a question of cutting a business deal that makes sense for IndyCar and makes sense for us."
In the short term, Kentucky Speedway still has its second race weekend of 2015 ahead on Sept. 25 (ARCA) and 26 (Xfinity Series).
If all goes according to schedule, Louisville teenager Ben Rhodes, 18, will drive the No. 88 car for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300.
"I think a lot of people want to see Ben Rhodes racing in his home state," Simendinger said, "and not only race, but race in a good car for a good team. So we're going to promote Ben leading up to that race."
Should Rhodes become the first native Kentuckian to win a major NASCAR race at Kentucky Speedway, that unfamiliar wind behind backs in Sparta might start to feel like a gale.