Kentucky Speedway

Mark Story: Could less (seating capacity) be more for Kentucky Speedway?

This winter, there has been more "reducing" going on in NASCAR than at Jenny Craig.

Daytona International Speedway is removing its 46,500-seat backstretch grandstand. That will reduce capacity at NASCAR's marquee venue to 101,500.

Bruton Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. — the company that owns Kentucky Speedway — removed 41,000 seats at Charlotte Motor Speedway and 17,000 seats at Atlanta. That drops the total capacity at Charlotte to 89,000 and Atlanta to 75,000.

Conversely, the Kentucky Speedway grandstands still hold 106,000. At this point, the Sparta track has more seats than iconic NASCAR bastions Daytona, Talladega (down to 78,000 from 108,000) and Charlotte.

Since attendance at Kentucky Speedway has been lukewarm since the 2011 "Carmageddon" traffic snarl, I asked track General Manager Mark Simendinger if there were plans to reduce seating capacity in Sparta, too.

"Within our (company), we've downsized in Charlotte and Atlanta," Simendinger said. "There's been no talk about doing that at Kentucky for this year, but you kind of just have to see how the trends go."

When pole-sitter Jeff Gordon takes the green flag in Sunday's Daytona 500, it will mark the beginning of the fifth season in which the Sprint Cup Series has run at Kentucky Speedway.

After three straight years in which the Quaker State 400 has been on the final weekend in June, this year's Cup race will be July 11. That is a throwback to 2011, the first year NASCAR's top circuit ran in Sparta, when the race was July 9.

A prime factor in the Kentucky Speedway Cup date moving back to July this year, Simendinger says, was the acquisition by Fox of television rights to golf's U.S. Open (June 18-21). Simendinger said Fox asked NASCAR not to race that weekend.

"That was part of it," Simendinger said. "The other part of it was just the way the (calendar) fell. There was one weekend less in that time period. It all added up, it moved us back (on the schedule). I think it will be fine."

Brad Keselowski will return to Kentucky Speedway this summer as the first two-time Cup winner at the track. However, the dominant pre-race story line figures to feature "Bad Brad's" Texas Motor Speedway sparring partner, Gordon.

The four-time Cup Series champion has announced that 2015 will be his final full-time season. In his career, Gordon has won at least one Cup race at every track currently on the circuit but one.

Kentucky Speedway.

Gordon's record in Kentucky is mixed. He is one of only four drivers — with Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth — who has finished in the top 10 of all four Cup races in Sparta.

However, Gordon has never led a lap at Kentucky and has cracked the top five only once (fifth in 2012). You figure Gordon is burning to have the No. 24 car take the checkered flag at Kentucky Speedway in 2015.

"(Gordon's) already talking about that," Simendinger said. "That is really gratifying, too, because I haven't even had a chance to tell him to talk about it. He came up with it on his own, so you know that's something he really wants to do."

After last season's Quaker State 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. complained that the famously bumpy Kentucky Speedway racing surface had become too rough in spots for driver comfort.

"We did a couple of patches after the Cup race last year," Simendinger said. "Primarily, that was in response to Dale, but there were others (who spoke up), too. I think things just got a little bit out of hand in those two areas. I've always said, I don't mind a bumpy track but we want to make it a safe one. So, in about a month, we'll evaluate the track again. If we need to do a few more things, we will."

During the TV broadcast of the Daytona 500, you should see a new Kentucky Speedway commercial featuring Cup star Joey Logano. "It's a clever premise," Simendinger said. "I think fans are really going to enjoy the spot."

Whether new approaches to marketing plus the pull of Gordon's last chance to win here can boost attendance in Sparta will be a major 2015 story at the Speedway. If that doesn't happen, NASCAR's race track "reducing binge" could come to Kentucky as well.

"(Downsizing at Kentucky Speedway) is certainly something that could be on the table as time goes on," Simendinger said. "But we're not going to do anything between now and the (2015 Cup) race."

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