Kentucky Speedway

Mark Story: Is Kentucky Speedway cursed?

Matt Kenseth, racing in the No. 20 Toyota, won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday. The race was postponed a day because of rain, and attendance suffered as a result.
Matt Kenseth, racing in the No. 20 Toyota, won the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway on Sunday. The race was postponed a day because of rain, and attendance suffered as a result. NASCAR via Getty Images

SPARTA — Maybe Kentucky Speedway was built on an ancient burial ground.

In the three years since Bruton Smith brought NASCAR Sprint Cup racing to the commonwealth, Murphy's Law — whatever can go wrong, will go wrong — has seemed fully operational in Sparta.

2011 Quaker State 400, traffic debacle.

2012 Quaker State 400, withering heat.

2013 Quaker State 400, torrential rain.

This year's heavy precipitation shortened Friday's Nationwide race and postponed the main Cup event from Saturday to Sunday.

The traffic mess the first year was a failure by the Speedway, but the weather problems at the past two Cup races have just been rotten luck.

"You would think we've got the worst date in the world," Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said of the current late June slot the track fills on the Sprint Cup schedule. "Thing is, we've probably got, historically, as good a date in Kentucky as you could get."

After a daring late-race pit call not to take tires allowed Matt Kenseth to steal victory Sunday in a race Jimmie Johnson dominated (led 182 of 267 laps), it seemed a good time to take stock of where Kentucky Speedway stands as it tries to build a niche both as a Sprint Cup venue and, it hopes, as the host of what becomes one of the commonwealth's signature sports events.

Issue one: Traffic

Good news is that since 2011's Car-maggedon, there have been no significant traffic problems at the Speedway. The millions that track owner Smith invested in additional parking capacity and the millions the Kentucky state government spent to upgrade the roads around the track have combined with a more sophisticated parking plan run by the Kentucky State Police to eliminate traffic as a problem.

Only caveat is there has not yet been a crowd as large as the inaugural race to fully test the improved parking scenario.

Issue two: Attendance

I wasn't comfortable estimating Saturday night's crowd number. Because of the rain, I'm not sure we ever saw all the patrons in the grandstands. On Sunday, the fans were so spread out in a 107,000-seat stadium that it was hard to render a viable guess.

Simendinger declined several requests over the weekend for an attendance figure. He did say the report he got late Saturday afternoon before the Cup race was supposed to run was "that our car count was up about 35 percent or more than last year and still growing."

Of Saturday's attendance, Simendinger said "the crowd was large, it was enthusiastic, I thought we had a really good turnout. I'm more disappointed we weren't able to give the fans who were here (Saturday) a show."

Issue three: The bumps

In 2011, when the Cup Series first came to Sparta, the drivers seemed stunned by how rough and bumpy the racing surface at Kentucky Speedway had become. Many seemed to loathe it. Jeff Gordon called for the track to be repaved before he even raced on it.

Now, in an amazing turnabout, many of the drivers are publicly pleading for Kentucky Speedway not to be repaved. What's changed is that a number of other tracks have repaved, coming up with super-smooth, high-grip raceways. The Cup teams hate those because it's easy to hit on the right setup, all the cars wind up running the same speed, making it hard to pass, and producing boring one-groove racing.

Suddenly, bumpy old Kentucky is in fashion.

"I don't think they need to change anything," said Chad Knaus, crew chief of Johnson's No. 48 team, after Sunday's race. "... The smoother the race track, the easier it is for everybody to get a hold of it, and we don't want that. We saw a lot of passing (at Kentucky) so I don't think we want to change (the racing surface) a bit."

Even Gordon has come around.

"The bumps are definitely one of the things that do challenge the cars and the set-ups," he said. "So, I like the fact that those challenges allow you, as a driver, to have to search around the race track. The car is never going to be perfect and you're going to slide around. And that seems to suit me a little bit better than some of these new super-fast, high-grip race tracks that we go to."

Issue four: A Sparta curse?

All those Cup-less years in which Kentucky Speedway continually sold out (70,000-plus) for races in the Nationwide Series and the massive fan turnout for the first Quaker State 400 have left an impression in NASCAR.

"We've got a lot of fans in this area that enjoy seeing us race here," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. Friday. "I enjoy coming here."

After his team's driver, Kenseth, won Sunday, car owner Joe Gibbs launched an unprompted endorsement of Kentucky Speedway. "We love coming to Kentucky," said the Super Bowl-winning, former Washington Redskins coach. "We love racing here. I think all of our drivers really, really enjoy the race track, ... and I love coming to this part of the country. It's a great part of the sporting world."

So even with all the off-track drama Kentucky Speedway has endured, Simendinger says he does not believe the track is hexed.

"Is it a little bit frustrating?" he says. "Yeah, it is a little bit frustrating because I want to have that big, great evening just like everybody else does. And we're going to have it next year — I know we are going to have it next year."

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