Mark Story

NASCAR stars embrace challenge of Kentucky Speedway ‘double-header’

Kyle Busch crossed the finish line to win the NASCAR Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday. He was one of seven drivers pulling a two-race, 700-mile “double-header.”
Kyle Busch crossed the finish line to win the NASCAR Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday. He was one of seven drivers pulling a two-race, 700-mile “double-header.” AP

Back in the day, Ernie Banks supposedly entered the downtrodden clubhouse of a last-place Chicago Cubs team on an unusually steamy summer day and felt obligated to lift his gloomy teammates.

The words he chose — “It’s a beautiful day, let’s play two” — became the calling card for the venerated Mr. Cub.

Banks, however, never had to drive a stock car over heat-emitting asphalt during a Kentucky summer in a 700-mile “double-header.”

On Saturday, seven drivers — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Ty Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Erik Jones, Joey Logano and Paul Menard — faced just that challenge at Kentucky Speedway.

When rain postponed Friday night’s Xfinity Series Alsco 300 to Saturday at noon, it created a day-night, NASCAR double-header for the seven drivers also scheduled to run in Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts.

After Busch held off a hard-charging Blaney to win the Alsco 300, he noted that Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series star Jimmie Johnson — a fitness fiend — is known to do an endurance bike ride the day of a car race.

“Maybe (the Xfinity race) was just like going for a bike ride,” Busch said. “I’m sure Jimmie did that today.”

Over the course of a normal NASCAR race in summer conditions, drivers — most of whom are smallish in stature — can lose between five and 10 pounds even while consuming fluids during the event.

Brad Keselowski lost eight pounds during the 2016 Coca-Cola 600 (a May 29 event) at Charlotte Motor Speedway, as he demonstrated with before and after pictures of his scales he posted on Twitter.

During the 2015 Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 26), in-car temperatures reached 131 degrees. That day, Landon Cassill also used Twitter to prove he had dropped eight pounds of water weight during the race.

For Saturday’s double-header in Sparta, the seven drivers doing dual-duty got a huge break from Mother Nature. According to the National Weather Service website, it was only 79 degrees when the Xfinity Series race ended.

The afternoon high was supposed to be a moderate 82. Once the sun went down, the temperature was forecast to drop as low as 59 degrees.

“It wasn’t terrible out there today,” Busch said after completing 300 miles of the 700-mile marathon. “I expected it to be a little worse than it was, you know?”

The 700 miles of racing at Kentucky Speedway Saturday was 100 miles longer for the seven doing both races than NASCAR’s longest stand-alone event, the Coca-Cola 600.

It’s not unprecedented, though, for drivers to run multiple events in a day. Over the years, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch are among the drivers who have run the Indianapolis 500, then flown to Charlotte and run 600 miles more in the Coca-Cola 600.

Compared with that, 700 miles in two different races on the same track in stock cars doesn’t seem impossibly daunting.

Still, “It’s certainly a challenge to make sure you get enough fluids in you,” Busch said after winning the Alsco 300, his eighth major race victory at Kentucky Speedway. “Being able to get the fluids back in (is huge) because, obviously, I’m still sweating and still leaking, so you’ve got to be able to put that back.”

Blaney — who is fit enough that he competed on reality TV’s American Ninja Warrior — said he expected the “Kentucky double-header” to be a challenge he could meet.

“This race track is tough, but I don’t think it is going to be that big an issue,” Blaney said. “I’ll probably take a nap, eat something and be good for tonight.”

To get ready for the night “game” of the Kentucky Speedway double-header, Busch said he had a secret weapon. He planned to see what his 2-year-old son Brexton’s schedule was for late Saturday afternoon.

“Maybe I’ll take a nap with him,” the NASCAR star said.