Mark Story

At Kentucky Speedway, drivers trade old headaches for new challenge

Testing new track at Kentucky Speedway

NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers had the chance to test Kentucky Speedway's newly paved surface for the first time since it was completed a few weeks ago.
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NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers had the chance to test Kentucky Speedway's newly paved surface for the first time since it was completed a few weeks ago.

Before one race is even run over the newly repaved Kentucky Speedway, there has already been a loser.

The makers of headache remedies are flat out of luck.

By noon Monday, after a morning spent testing, Kevin Harvick said the primary difference between the new Kentucky Speedway racing surface and the old, famously bumpy one was already apparent:

“You won’t leave with a headache,” the 2014 Sprint Cup champion said. “That’s the best part about it.”

Harvick and 13 other Sprint Cup drivers — one representing each team that competes at NASCAR’s highest level — were in Sparta on Monday for the first of two days of “organizational testing.”

It marked the first time Sprint Cup cars have run over the Kentucky Speedway tri-oval since it was newly paved and reconfigured this year. The initial Cup race over the new track will be the Quaker State 400 on July 9.

“I was excited, I was definitely excited,” Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said of his mood Monday morning. “We’ve been waiting to get feedback on this racetrack since we conceived of it.”

Besides the complete installation of a new asphalt racing surface, the “reconceived” Kentucky Speedway now has two distinct corners. The banking in Turns 1 and 2 have been raised from 14 degrees to 17. In that corner, the width of the track has been narrowed some 20 feet.

I was excited, I was definitely excited. We’ve been waiting to get feedback on this racetrack since we conceived of it.

Mark Simendinger, Kentucky Speedway general manager

Conversely, Turns 3 and 4 remained at 14 degrees of banking. The hope is that the two dissimilar corners will replace the bumpiness in giving the track a unique flavor.

Three Cup Series drivers spoke with the media Monday — Harvick; two-time Quaker State 400 champion Kyle Busch; and Ryan Blaney, a two time Xfinity Series winner at Kentucky.

They all emphasized one morning of testing does not provide enough information to render any lasting opinions. It was enough to form some first impressions, however.

“(Turns) 1 and 2 being more banked, we definitely carry more speed and that is going to make your entrance into 3 a lot more difficult,” Blaney said. “And it was already difficult the way it was.”

Busch says the racing lines that have served him so well in the past at Kentucky are no longer viable.

“You used to remember going way out to the outside wall, then coming back down to the bottom,” Busch said. “Well, now that groove is narrow, I’d guess about 12 feet or so. It’s just a different feeling, something you are not accustomed to, and I’ve been racing here since 2003.”

If you are among those who just can’t imagine Sprint Cup racing at Kentucky Speedway without some bumps, the good news is the drivers reported there are still a few even on the repaved surface.

Blaney says Turns 3 and 4 are now “really smooth, but there are a couple of bumps in Turns 1 and 2. That makes (the car set up) really difficult. You have one corner really smooth, you have one that has a couple of bumps, and you have to set your car up to get over those.”

It’s still got some character to it with some bumps down the front straightaway. It’s definitely not as bad as it used to be.

Kyle Busch

Says Busch: “It’s still got some character to it with some bumps down the front straightaway. It’s definitely not as bad as it used to be.”

With the new track surface, the value of a team’s old notes about how to set up cars at Kentucky is now “none,” Harvick said. Replacing that information was the purpose of Monday’s and Tuesday’s testing.

Yet the teams were not the only ones getting data. As Monday’s testing was going on, Simendinger said Kentucky Speedway was getting live feedback from NASCAR on how the new track surface was “coming in.”

“They do some deal where they can measure friction and grip,” Simendinger said. “Once the rubber started coming into the racetrack, they were talking about how quickly the grip came into the track. They were very encouraged with that.”

For NASCAR fans, the most pertinent question is what affect the new racetrack will have on the entertainment value of Sprint Cup racing at Kentucky Speedway. In the past, newly paved tracks at other venues have not always produced the most compelling shows.

“I think it is definitely going to be a typical ‘new asphalt’ type of race,” Harvick said. “You are going to want to stay in the (racing) groove. Restarts are going to be challenging because that’s where guys are going to need to make passes.”

Yet, if nothing else, Kentucky Speedway has the great unknown to market in 2016.

“Kentucky is going to be a whole new unknown for everyone coming here,” Busch said. “With the repave and everything, it is essentially going to be about (a) completely new venue.”

NASCAR weekend at Kentucky Speedway

July 7: Camping World Truck 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 (7:30 p.m.)

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