The story lines to watch Saturday night in the sixth running of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway:
Whatever the outcome, Tony Stewart’s Quaker State 400 will be historic.
When the three-time Cup Series champion takes the green flag in Sparta, it will mark his 600th career start in NASCAR’s top series. That is the 24th most starts in the history of Sprint Cup racing.
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Like Jeff Gordon a season ago, Stewart enters the final season of an iconic driving career close to a historic milestone — winning at least one race on every track on the Sprint Cup circuit at the time of his retirement.
Stewart, 45, announced before the season began that this would be his final year as a NASCAR regular. He needs Cup wins on two tracks — Darlington and Kentucky — to have victories at every current track.
“Winning a race at Kentucky and winning the Southern 500 in Darlington, that would absolutely cap off everything,” Stewart said. “If we win at Darlington and Kentucky, (it) would cover every track we currently have on the schedule. No matter what happens in the championship, I could say that was perfect.”
In 2015, Gordon needed to win on one track — Kentucky Speedway. He finished seventh in his last run in Sparta before retiring.
Kentucky Speedway has not been especially hospitable to Stewart. He has never finished in the top 10 in five Cup races here. His best finishes were 11th in 2014 and 12th in 2011, and twice he finished outside the top 30 (32nd in 2012 and 33rd last year).
The new racing surface
This year’s Quaker State 400 will be run on a track substantially different than the first five Sprint Cup races in Sparta. For one, the famous “Kentucky Speedway bumps” are mostly gone after the track was fully repaved.
The track has also been reconfigured. Turns 1 and 2 had their banking increased from 14 degrees to 17, a process that also saw the width of the track narrowed in that corner. Turns 3 and 4 retain the original banking of 14 degrees, giving the Speedway two distinct corners.
So how will the new track drive?
“The best part of it that I can think of so far is that Turns 1 and 2 are much different than (Turns) 3 and 4,” Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards said. “A lot of times with these new surfaces, it’s very difficult to pass and everyone is in one groove.
“(In practice at Kentucky) I slipped up a couple of times in Turn 3 and washed up the racetrack in a spot I didn’t want to be. I saw a lot of people having trouble there, and I think that is going to make the race good (by providing chances to pass).”
Dale Jr. on the new track
No driver was more critical of the bumps in the old Kentucky Speedway track than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After the 2014 Quaker State 400, Earnhardt Jr. tweeted “as far as amusement rides go, I do not recommend the @KySpeedway frontstretch.”
In reply to a tweet from fellow driver David Ragan critical of the rough Sparta track, Junior added, “I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. Did you close your eyes on the frontstretch for fear they might pop out?”
On Thursday, Junior took to Twitter and gave the repaved Kentucky Speedway his blessing. The driver of the No. 88 tweeted to the track, “I hate that water drainage issues forced you into a repave, but you guys did a good job. #NoBumpsOrJumps.”
Earnhardt Jr. said Friday he believes that finding a set-up that will get cars through the tricky entry to Turn 3 would be key to winning on the new surface.
“The entrance to Turn 3 is weird,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Half the corner is flat, and the last half of the corner is banked. It’s a very weird sequence as far as driving into that corner and trying to get your car to handle.”
Down to three
With Jeff Gordon’s retirement, there are now only three drivers who have finished in the top 10 at every Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway.
Two-time Quaker State 400 champion Kyle Busch (2011, 2015) has finishes of 1st, 10th, 5th, 2nd and 1st.
Jimmie Johnson — who dominated the 2013 Quaker State 400 (leading 182 laps) only to let it slip away due to a bad restart — has finishes of 3rd, 6th, 9th, 10th and 9th.
Matt Kenseth, who won the 2013 race that escaped Johnson, has finished 6th, 7th, 1st, 4th and 5th at Kentucky.
Gordon, who retired after 2015, has the distinction of finishing in the top 10 in all five of his Cup races at Kentucky (10th, 5th, 8th, 6th, and 7th) without ever leading a lap.
More low downforce
NASCAR’s adoption of a low-downforce aerodynamic package was credited with helping the Quaker State 400 be one of the best races of last year’s Sprint Cup season.
For this year’s Cup race at Kentucky, NASCAR is back with more low downforce, a package also used at this season’s first race at Michigan International Speedway.
Among the changes to the cars, the rear spoiler will be shortened from 3.5 inches to 2.5, and the splitter reduced to 2 inches.
The reason for the changes is to try to make the cars less stable, putting more responsibility in the hands of the drivers and creating more opportunities to pass.
At Michigan, Penske Racing appeared to have the new aero package mastered, as Joey Logano won the race and his teammate, Brad Keselowski, finished second.
That should bode well for Logano and Keselowski Saturday night, right?
Keselowski hopes so. “With this package being similar to Michigan and the repave kind of maybe aligning this track more with Michigan, a lot of what we are doing is going off those notes and what worked for us there,” he said.
History repeats for Biffle?
Greg Biffle won the first major race on the original Kentucky Speedway racing surface, a 2000 trucks series race.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver figures it would only be appropriate if he also won the first race on the new Kentucky track.
“I raced there when it was brand new and was able to win the very first race,” Biffle said. “So I’ve got my fingers crossed I might be able to pull that off again.”
For a guy who has three second-place finishes in Xfinity Series races at Kentucky in addition to his trucks win, Biffle has never had much luck in Cup competition in Sparta.
In five tries, he’s only finished in the top 15 one time (14th in 2014).
Biffle could have some positive Kentucky karma Saturday night. His No. 16 Ford will sport a KFC paint scheme with a large image of Colonel Sanders displayed on the hood.