Mark Story

For Keselowski, removal of Kentucky Speedway bumps ‘like I lost a friend’

Kyle Larson (42) and Brad Keselowski (2) led the field to the green flag for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015, in Sparta.
Kyle Larson (42) and Brad Keselowski (2) led the field to the green flag for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway on July 11, 2015, in Sparta. Getty Images

Once word got out that Kentucky Speedway would be repaving its notoriously bumpy racing surface, track general manager Mark Simendinger was certain he would hear from two people.

Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski did not disappoint.

“I was totally expecting those two would be the two I heard from — and I did,” Simendinger said. “I mean, why wouldn’t they be the two with the most invested in our (old) track (surface)?”

Of the five Sprint Cup races previously run at Kentucky Speedway, Busch and Keselowski have each won two. Of the 1,335 Sprint Cup laps run so far in Sparta, Busch (437) and Keselowski (408) have combined to lead 63.5 percent.

Yet when the green flag drops July 9 on the 2016 Quaker State 400, it is possible the newly repaved Kentucky Speedway track will negate the hold those two have had.

At a Kentucky Speedway promotional event Tuesday at the Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati, Keselowski said when he heard about the repave in Sparta, “I was pretty sad.

“But, you know, life’s about change,” he said. “A racetrack is somewhat like a human in that, it doesn’t get younger. It’s doesn’t last forever. … But, it’s like I lost a friend.”

Since Sprint Cup racing came to the commonwealth in 2011, Keselowski, 32, has won a major race at the track every year.

In 2011, ’13 and ’15, he won Xfinity Series races at the track. The Rochester Hills, Mich., native won the Cup Series Quaker State 400 in 2012 and 2014 for car owner Roger Penske.

Last year, Keselowski led 62 laps in the Cup event, but finished sixth.

This being an even year, Keselowski would seem due to reclaim the Quaker State 400 back from his archrival Busch, the 2011 and 2015 winner.

However, the repave adds a substantial variable. Keselowski notes that he and Busch had combined to win four races in a row (two each) at Bristol Motor Speedway before that track underwent a repave in 2012.

“And neither of us has been able to win since,” Keselowski said. “Hopefully, it won’t end up being like that (at Kentucky).”

So far in 2016, Keselowski — the 2012 Sprint Cup champion — has enjoyed a strong season. Coming off a fifth-place finish in Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, he stands sixth in the season points standings. Of far more importance, he has two race wins, at Las Vegas and Talladega. Those lock him into the Chase Grid, NASCAR’s “playoffs.”

If Michigan International Speedway counts as Keselowski’s home track, Kentucky Speedway is sort of his “home away from home.”

His mother, Kay, is an alumnus of Bethel High School in Tipp City, Ohio, near Dayton. Keselowski still has family in the area. Yet the driver attributes his comfort level at Kentucky Speedway more to the venue having come onto the Sprint Cup circuit at roughly the same time he did.

On the long-established Cup tracks, Keselowski thinks veteran NASCAR drivers had an advantage over him they did not enjoy in Sparta. “I felt like Kentucky was more of a level playing field for me,” Keselowski said.

Now, going into the sixth Quaker State 400, other drivers are hoping the changes to the Kentucky Speedway track will bring Keselowski — and Kyle Busch — back to the pack.

Gone will be the “bumps” that had become the identity of Kentucky Speedway.

In their place will be a new track configuration in which the banking in Turns 1 and 2 will have gone from 14 degrees to 17. The banking in Turns 3 and 4, however, will remain unchanged at 14 degrees.

“Certainly, when you got a hold of a track, you have a lot of confidence, and you feel good about it, you don’t want it to change,” Keselowski said. “But that’s part of the challenge of being a racecar driver.”

So if he’s lost an old friend in the Kentucky Speedway bumps, Brad Keselowski knows a solution.

“I’ve got a new friend to make,” he says.

Schedule

Sprint Cup: qualifying, 6:45 p.m. Friday, July 8; race, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 9

Xfinity: qualifying, 4:45 p.m. Friday, July 8; race, 8:30 p.m. July 8

Trucks: qualifying, 5 p.m. Thursday, July 7; race, 8:30 p.m. July 7

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