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Kentucky Speedway takes on one of NASCAR’s greatest challenges

Kasey Kahne drove through Turn 4 on the newly-repaved Kentucky Speedway during a test session June 13.
Kasey Kahne drove through Turn 4 on the newly-repaved Kentucky Speedway during a test session June 13. Lexington Herald-Leader

When the Sprint Cup Series last left Kentucky Speedway, the star-crossed racetrack was inhabiting an unfamiliar milieu:

A world of positive momentum.

With an apparent boost from NASCAR’s introduction of a low-downforce package, the 2015 Quaker State 400 featured a track-record 22 green-flag passes for the lead.

A late race battle for first place between eventual winner Kyle Busch and Joey Logano was the most exciting racing in Kentucky Speedway’s Sprint Cup history. Overall, the 2015 Quaker State 400 produced 2,665 green-flag passes, more than double the 1,147 in 2014.

In January, USA Today motorsports writer Jeff Gluck proclaimed the Quaker State 400 “perhaps the best race of the 2015 season.”

Yet nothing ever comes easy at Kentucky Speedway. With the Sprint Cup Series returning to the commonwealth Saturday night, the Speedway will not be basking in last year’s glow.

Instead, the Sparta track will seek to surmount one of NASCAR’s more vexing challenges. In the spring, for the first time since Kentucky Speedway opened in 2000, the asphalt over the mile-and-a-half trioval was totally repaved. This week, the Speedway will try to defy modern NASCAR conventional wisdom by showing that a newly repaved track can produce an entertaining race.

“We really studied and think we’ve done some things that will make that happen,” said Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger.

Over the past decade, more than a dozen NASCAR racetracks — think Bristol, Kansas, Daytona — have undergone repaves.

To say that the racing that has resulted on the super-smooth, high-grip tracks has been unpopular is an understatement. In 2012, Jeff Gordon said “we’re hurting this sport by doing all these repaves.” A 2013 Associated Press headline proclaimed “NASCAR drivers raging over recent repaves.”

The repaved tracks have not initially produced much side-by-side racing or many chances to pass. “A lot of times what we see, especially on tracks that have just been repaved, they turn into one-groove situations,” said 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski at a recent Kentucky Speedway media event.

This is why Kentucky Speedway officials fought so long to maintain the track’s famously bumpy, original racing surface. Yet, even while last year’s Cup race in Sparta was producing boffo entertainment, Simendinger says the track surface was communicating it was time for a change.

Rain washed out qualifying for the Camping World Trucks, Xfinity and Sprint Cup races at Kentucky last July. The problem, Simendinger says, was not how much precipitation fell. It was that track officials could not get a racing surface long plagued by “weepers” — breaks in the asphalt that spew water — dried in a timely manner.

“You’ve never lived until you’ve been in race control and it rains, and (NASCAR vice-chairman) Mike Helton turns to you and asks, ‘How long is it going to take to dry the track?’ And you look at him and say, ‘Mike, I don’t really know.’ Until you do that a few times, you can’t imagine how fun that is,” Simendinger said sarcastically.

All the disruptions in last July’s Kentucky Speedway schedule also created scheduling chaos for the NBC Sports Network’s attempts to telecast from Sparta.

“Our partnership with NBC, it wasn’t fair to them last year,” Simendinger said. “They’ve got a lot of money invested, and we should have been on that racetrack. … We weren’t able to deliver the product we needed to deliver.”

‘Aging’ the track

The problem with racing on new asphalt is that the surface tends to be too smooth. Without enough abrasiveness to lay tire rubber down, the cars can’t “stick” in the corners and therefore don’t have much chance to pass.

Making matters more complicated, because modern asphalt mixes are so advanced, repaved tracks have not aged as quickly as in the past. So it has taken longer for the racing “to come in.”

It is not lost on the officials at Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns Kentucky Speedway, that repaving a track can fundamentally change the racing experience in a way that alienates fans.

SMI owns Bristol Motor Speedway, where a 2007 repave led to years of fan complaints. A reconfiguration of the track in 2012 was SMI’s eventual answer.

Now, SMI is trying to draw from its own experience — as well as watching what has happened at other tracks such as Kansas where repaves were not well received — to try to alleviate the effect of the repave on the racing at Kentucky.

Steve Swift, SMI Vice-President of Operations and Development, says four factors just might allow Kentucky Speedway to be the repaving exception.

1. At Kentucky, Swift says SMI has used an asphalt mixture designed to be more abrasive than has been typical of other recent repaves.

2. Once the paving in Sparta was complete, Swift says SMI treated the new track with a product “that basically ages the track.” Swift says the goal is for the new Kentucky Speedway racing surface to seem like a “three, four-year-old track.”

3. The Sparta track has been reconfigured and now has two distinct corners with different banking — 17 degrees in Turns 1 and 2, 14 degrees in Turns 3 and 4. That is designed to put drivers in situations where they will be forced to make decisions (starting with whether to brake or not) as they enter Turn 3. “We hope that will create good racing from the start,” Swift said.

4. NASCAR will again run a low-downforce package at Kentucky. Last year, a low-downforce package — designed to make the cars less stable and put their fate more in the driver’s control — got much of the credit for making the 2015 Quaker State 400 a compelling race.

“We’ve done everything we possibly can to ensure we are going to have a good show,” Swift said. “… It’s always in the drivers’ hands once they get to the track.”

NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway

July 7: Camping World Trucks Series Buckle Up In Your Truck 225, 8:30 p.m.

July 8: Xfinity Series Alsco 300, 8:30 p.m.

July 9: Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts, 7:30 p.m.