SPARTA — To a man, the elite drivers in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series were pretty much in agreement as to who the most formidable opponent was going to be once the green flag drops in Saturday's inaugural Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway.
It wasn't one of their own, but it was definitely a character with a decidedly abrasive personality.
The rough and tumble surface that is Kentucky Speedway's tri-oval has been spoken of with equal parts reverence and annoyance whenever it have been brought up in recent days.
Aside from the challenge the drivers face in racing over the Sparta track in a Cup car for the first time, Thursday's initial practice sessions gave those who weren't previously familiar with Kentucky's infamous bumps a lesson in how challenging it can make navigating the 1.5 mile oval.
Thus, the man who ends up in victory lane Saturday will likely be the one whose team masters the art of getting the car set to handle the jarring nature of the track without sacrificing speed.
"If you can find a way around the bumps, great," said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon, currently eighth in the points standings. "This is a pretty unique line that you run here. You really are wide into Turn 1 which helps you get around some of the bumps but when we get into the race, you're going to have to run those other lines if you're going to pass.
"Most of it's in the setup of the car. The more aggressive you get with the setup for downforce, the more the bumps will affect you. Just trying to find the package that compliments the bumps the best."
The early returns from practice and Thursday's Truck Series race was Kentucky was currently a track with dual personalities. The high side definitely emerged as the preferred one if one wanted to make any kind of significant pass, a fact that could result in some interesting race strategy for Saturday.
"Last night (in the Truck race) anyone who restarted on the bottom was done," said Denny Hamlin, who has just one win so far this year after winning a series-high eight in 2010. "Passing was near impossible unless you made it really on the high side. It's honestly like two different tracks from one groove to the next. They'll take the outside all day tomorrow (Saturday) and whoever is on the inside is going to have a huge disadvantage."
While drivers like Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards all have regularly raced — and won — at Kentucky in Nationwide and Truck races, prior experience is only going to go so far Saturday.
How the Cup cars play over the track is far different than the way the Nationwide cars run over the surface. Following Thursday's practice, even those who thought they had an edge conceded that extra jump may be gone.
"I felt like I had an advantage the first two or three runs out there and then it seemed like everybody figured it out," said Carl Edwards, winner of the 2003 Truck race and 2005 Nationwide race at Kentucky. "The Nationwide cars drive so much differently, the bumps feel different. I thought there would be a bigger advantage but the test day kind of negates that I think."
In addition to its bumps, Kentucky can also be tricky to get around due to its configuration. The entry into Turn 3 is exceptionally flat and can catch even the best off guard — as five-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson will attest.
"This track has beat me up quite a few times, I've torn up a lot of cars here," said Johnson, who ran in the 2001 Nationwide race, finishing 30th. "All of my issues have been in the entry of Turn 3. It's such a flat entry and there is not much banking until you get really far around three and four and it kind of catches the car. I'll lose it early in the corner and end up against the fence somewhere over in three and four."
Though some like Kyle Busch have already started vocalizing their desire to see Kentucky Speedway repaved, others don't want the track's character messed with just yet — even if makes for a potentially messy day on the track.
"I'm a little concerned because my car doesn't drive that well over the bumps but there are some that do drive okay," said David Ragan, who is coming off his first career Cup win at Daytona last weekend. "It would be boring if we came here and the track were perfectly smooth. That wouldn't be any fun. The track here is perfect. I hope they don't change it."