Through the Gears: Four things we learned in Kentucky
Kentucky Speedway has now held four NASCAR Sprint Cup races since getting added to the sport’s top-tier schedule in 2011. In theory, the potential is there for incredible racing in the Bluegrass State, a place that begged for a stock car arena to be built inside their borders. Aging pavement, the type that’s resulted in side-by-side endings at Fontana and Atlanta, should give drivers tires that fall off. Multiple grooves and varied setups should be the result, causing better racing all the way around.
But the type of excitement that caused hours of traffic backup for the track’s inaugural event has fizzled after a handful of snoozers. This year’s event had only 12 lead changes, the fewest on any oval in Cup this season. (By comparison, Fontana, touted as the most exciting “cookie-cutter” the last two years, had 35.) Winner Brad Keselowski led 199 of 267 laps. In the 2013 Kentucky race, Jimmie Johnson led 182 laps and was seemingly on track for a cakewalk victory until a late-race spin took him out of contention. The track’s record for lead changes in any Cup race is 20 and in none of the events did first place switch off over the final 10 laps of an event.
In the meantime, Kentucky’s pavement — closing in on a repave — has caused more potential problems than perfect competition. Bumps in the surface frustrate drivers, while rough pavement tore too many Goodyears to shreds, resulting in a handful of tire failures and hard accidents. Off track, fans wary of the monumental traffic delays experienced in 2011, when thousands didn’t even make it to the track, have chosen to stay home. Vast portions of the grandstand were empty Saturday night, even though the place hosts but one date a year.
From excitement to excrement, it’s a scary trend for a place highly touted for years as a “must add” to the Cup Series schedule. But it’s also a nightmare other tracks know well. Fontana, the punching bag of the NASCAR circuit for well over a decade, took the right amount of aging pavement combined with a blossoming, last-lap rivalry to turn things around. That means in a sea of despair, there’s always hope for perception to change. Kentucky badly needs that random boost of luck, like its two best drivers to date, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch, settling their on-again, off-again feud by heading to the finish line slamming into the side of each other, fighting for the win in a shower of sparks.
Until then, the schedule’s newest facility is nothing more than a blip on the radar. Bad timing (June race date), worse racing and nonexistent TV ratings. To some degree, the new kid on the block will deal with that type of stuff; it’s always rough to see a rookie take their lumps. But after four years, this slump is digging a serious hole that’s bordering on disastrous and increasingly difficult to dig out of going forward.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Penske, Penske, Penske
Brad Keselowski became the first two-time Kentucky winner on Saturday, dominating from the pole on a night when Team Penske could have led all 267 laps. Only a late-race, green-flag pit sequence, where an Aric Almirola wreck caused a caution that jumbled up the field, gave Kyle Busch an opening to briefly take control. In total, just three drivers spent time up front: Busch, Keselowski and Penske’s Joey Logano. That’s a performance dominant enough to leave the Ford organization, which has appeared a step behind Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports in recent months, bullish about its chances going forward.
“There are a lot of mile-and-a-halfs in the Chase,” Keselowski said. “(Kentucky) kind of fits all between them. It doesn’t have the banking of Charlotte, but it’s a little bit rough and Charlotte is a little bit rough. It doesn’t have the smooth surface of Kansas, but it has a similar layout. The things it takes to go fast here aren’t too far off from those other tracks, and I think when you hit this mark in the season, some cars might show a little bit more development but not a lot.”
So has Penske suddenly acquitted themselves after a late spring of slipping a small step behind? Um, not really. Hendrick captured the last three intermediate races, when Penske could do no better than third in any of them. All four Hendrick cars were plastered across the top 10 Saturday night. And while both Keselowski and Logano did well, this track has always been one of their favorites. Logano won three straight times here in the Nationwide Series, so to a degree this track is like Roush Fenway Racing and Michigan: anything less than first place is a disappointment.
No doubt, NASCAR hopes this duo builds momentum and challenges for a spot inside the Homestead Final Four because an all-Chevy lineup (or all-Hendrick) won’t conjure up the same type of ratings and drama for the sport. Keselowski, who at 30 still carries that rebellious nature — he cut his hand drinking champagne in Victory Lane, needing four stitches — combines with 20-something Logano to be a potentially powerful 1-2 personality punch for the next generation. But while Saturday night was a step in the right direction you still have to label Hendrick a step ahead.
SECOND GEAR: Can one Busch moment make all the difference?
As mentioned, Kentucky’s been good to Kyle Busch, the track’s inaugural Cup winner, who used a little luck to climb up to second Saturday night. Almirola’s wreck gave Busch the edge, one he stretched on the final restart before Keselowski’s handling was just too good to fend off, even in clean air.
“That caution came out right at the perfect moment for us,” said Busch. “We were able to beat the 2 (Keselowski) to the (pit road) exit line and keep our spot on the lead lap, come back around, and essentially inherit the lead. But once I got to traffic, man, I just got too loose. I was kind of loose the whole run, but I kept getting looser and looser throughout.”
It’s that type of issue for Busch that has me thinking the result was more outlier than standard. His team, along with Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole, seems a bit in disarray while preparing for a rumored expansion to four cars next season. Their situation reminds me a lot of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2013, when a ton of off-track distractions altered the landscape internally, leading to just one car (Ryan Newman) making the Chase and essentially a lost season.
Denny Hamlin is struggling again, down to 17th in points after a tire problem wrecked his No. 11 Toyota early. And Matt Kenseth, who celebrated the announcement of a contract extension along with additional support from sponsor Dollar General, had to deal with the news Home Depot, who’s been with JGR for decades, will finally leave the No. 20 car at the end of 2014.
For some reason, it’s been difficult to get all three of these guys on the same page. An announcement mid-summer, potentially involving Busch sponsor M&M’s (the rumors continue to be all over the place on that front) will stir the pot even more. So this second-place finish, as Busch said, is just “one week. We certainly need to be able to do it weekly on the intermediates.” Considering Toyota’s place behind Ford and Chevy right now, many observers are going to need a few more seconds to be convinced.
THIRD GEAR: Hello, Newman
Ryan Newman’s season has been difficult to figure. New to Richard Childress Racing, he’s been a model of consistency, posting five top-10 finishes entering Kentucky along with zero DNFs. That was enough to get sponsor Caterpillar to stay on board, signing an extension that should keep Newman in position to drive the car through at least the end of 2015 (then Ty Dillon’s promotion could cause a logjam).
But Newman, once known for his raw speed, has only led 10 laps this season. With 51 career poles, he has yet to win one with RCR, posting a ho-hum average start of 14.1 and seems to run “in place” throughout the race. That leaves the organization hopeful his third-place finish Saturday could finally send a spark that injects this team with a bit more acceleration towards the front.
“Strategy wise, (crew chief) Luke (Lambert) did a great job calling two tires when we needed to and not losing track position with four when other guys were taking two,” Newman said. “All that adds up. Having that clean air and that track position is probably more powerful than anything we do with the race car at times, so that's probably the biggest difference.”
The good news for Newman, who clearly downplayed the run, is with the way the winners are shaking out. His points position (eighth) will likely get him in the Chase regardless. And once you’re in that 16-driver field you never know.
KENTUCKY | Thinkin' Out Loud: The Quaker State 400
FOURTH GEAR: Familiar faces finding their way forward
Speaking of the Chase, two familiar faces are sneaking up on postseason spots after early slumps. Kasey Kahne, despite being involved in a mid-race wreck, posted another top-10 finish (eighth), his third straight that moves him within eight points of Clint Bowyer, clinging to the last “winless Chase position” on points. Right behind him in the standings? Tony Stewart, whose 11th-place run was impressive considering a transmission change left him starting at the back of the field. The No. 14 team, which typically heats up in the summer months, seems to be benefiting from the solid performances of teammates Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick (pit road excluded) and yes, even Danica Patrick in recent weeks.
Their gains should leave guys like Paul Menard, who’s never made the Chase, the “still in limbo” Greg Biffle and even Bowyer, who’s winless with Michael Waltrip Racing this season, a little nervous. If those two are going to break into the playoffs, someone’s got to be kicked out, and, well, it’s not going to be a guy like Matt Kenseth at fifth in the standings and capable of winning at any time. If Kahne and Stewart keep climbing — by the way that would give Stewart-Haas and Hendrick Motorsports seven of the 16 spots in this year’s Chase — is it parity or “paired up to dominate”?
NASCAR claims there’s no cause for concern that Saturday night produced a short field, with only 42 cars starting the race. It’s the lowest car count since November 2001, when a New Hampshire event postponed by 9/11 got off the grid with only 42 (one team had folded in the interim). I respectfully disagree; after all, no sport can survive without the woeful Houston Astros to complement the New York Yankees. All the new, underdog entries are fizzling out, leaving a bunch of Hendrick, Gibbs, Penske, etc. cars battling for “elite” status with no real middle or lower class. Xxxtreme Motorsports, along with Randy Humphrey Racing are two of the smaller teams retooling, claiming they’ll withdraw from competition for the “next several weeks” so expect the smaller car count to continue. … Joey Logano lost a cylinder down the stretch, fading to ninth as another reminder of why Penske’s not “quite there yet.” Two of his three DNFs this season have been for mechanical failure in a format where one blown motor could be a killer come September. … Saturday night was the third this season in which a driver won a race from the pole. The lowest anyone has started all season and still won on an intermediate? Kyle Busch, who qualified 14th in Fontana. Food for thought heading towards the Chase.
Follow Tom Bowles on Titter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.