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NASCAR gettin' bumpy in Kentucky


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. With Geoffrey presently enjoying a well-earned vacation, Matt Taliaferro leads us through the five storylines to watch at Kentucky Speedway for the Quaker State 400.

Big weekend on tap for Joe Gibbs Racing?  

There are plenty of things currently on Joe Gibbs Racing’s plate. A rumored fourth team, its interest in landing free agent Carl Edwards, the loss of longtime sponsor Home Depot at season’s end, negotiations with current sponsor Mars/M&M’s, getting driver Matt Kenseth a Chase-locking win and the continued development of Truck and Nationwide series talent Darrell Wallace Jr.

So when the company sent a release early this week with news that it would hold a press conference at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday … well, take your pick as to which slot on the Roulette wheel the ball will land.

Don’t count on a bombshell, though. Speculation continues to swirl that Edwards will land at JGR’s long-rumored fourth team, however talk of a clause in his current contract prohibiting an announcement until September likely takes this option off the board.

A more reasonable hypothesis is that JGR has sponsorship news on tap. On Monday, The Sports Business Journal reported that Home Depot would leave the sport at the conclusion of the season. While the home improvement giant has taken a less notable position on JGR’s No. 20 Toyota over the last few seasons, it served as one of the more prominent primary sponsors in the Cup Series since 1999, winning titles with Tony Stewart in 2002 and ’05.

Meanwhile, Dollar General has ramped up its role with the team, serving as primary sponsor on Matt Kenseth’s ride for 17 races in 2013 and 27 this year. Might the burgeoning company intend to extend and/or expand its successful role with JGR? Probably so.

That said, across the shop the spotlight has landed on the Mars/M&M’s sponsorship on Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota. That association began in 2008 and has had its share of rocky moments with the mercurial driver, though generally it’s considered a successful and stable partnership. 

However, an odd transmission on the team’s radio was picked up following the Sonoma race in which Busch asked if the M&M’s contract had been signed, to which he was told it had not. In the face of reports that M&M’s would serve as the primary sponsor on JGR’s fourth team with Edwards, the organization stated that M&M’s would return to the 18.

And then there is Monster Energy, which has diligently backed Busch’s efforts with his Kyle Busch Motorsports program, as well as Gibbs’ Nationwide entries after KBM became its de facto minor-league squad. Might Monster be ready to take the next sponsorship leap?

Tune in at 4:00 pm EDT on Saturday to find out. The money here is on Dollar General.

Meanwhile, on-track, JGR looks to get … well, on track

JGR knows its way around Kentucky Speedway. The organization has won in two of the Cup Series’ three trips to the Sparta, Ky., facility (Busch, 2011; Kenseth, 2013) and boasts three triumphs in the Nationwide Series with former driver Joey Logano (2008, ‘09, ’10).

However, the organization has been a clear step behind series powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports on the intermediate tracks in 2014, of which Kentucky is one. Since the start of May, HMS entries have swept the races on the so-called “cookie cutter” tracks, with Jeff Gordon winning in Kansas and Jimmie Johnson taking checkers at Charlotte, Dover and Michigan (HMS also scored the win at the flat Pocono track with Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

It seems the larger the track where horsepower and engineering come into play, the more advantages Hendrick and its affiliated teams enjoy.

“We all have got a little bit of work to do because it's pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else,” Ford’s Brad Keselowski said after Johnson’s Michigan win. “Usually that's not something you catch up with in one season. As far ahead as they are right now, they're probably a full season ahead of everyone.”

Not everyone is as forthright when discussing Hendrick’s supposed advantage. Kenseth, in his typically understated manner, deflected the horsepower issue while trumpeting Toyota Racing Development’s engine durability.

“TRD has done a really great job of making good power, and then last year once we got to about the middle of the year they really worked hard on durability because we had a few durability issues early in the year,” the defending Kentucky winner says. “I think they've done a good job of trying to balance that. Obviously, if you're not running on the last lap you can't win, so I think they've done a good job of getting the durability better, on average, from where we were and still trying to develop more power at the same time.”

It’s said the championship is won and lost on the intermediates, as six banked tracks one mile in length or larger make up the 10 Chase races. Through the Kentucky race in the 2013 season, JGR had notched six intermediate wins (four by Kenseth alone) to its one this year (Busch, Auto Club). The Quaker State 400 should prove a handy barometer to measure if JGR — as well as Team Penske and Roush Fenway Racing — have cut into the HMS stranglehold.

Gettin’ bumpy in Kentucky

Every racetrack likes to carve out its little niche in the NASCAR world — particularly those 1.5-milers that, to the casual television viewer, all look basically the same. A little identity is a good thing, right?

Kentucky Speedway’s hook? It’s NASCAR’s “roughest track.”

Not an endurance Coke 600-type rough or a physically-demanding 500 miles at Darlington rough. The track itself is rough. In fact, it’s so rough along the start-finish line that Ryan Blaney got a bloody nose while hop-scotching through the wavy pavement in the tri-oval during Truck Series practice on Wednesday.

“I actually had a nosebleed during practice,” Blaney said. “It's definitely one of the roughest places we go, but that's what gives the race track such great character.”

The bumps, though unique, don’t necessarily make for more competitive racing.

“The pavement is losing grip, so you can slide around more and tires drop off more — and new tires are a big reward — that's the kind of stuff I think we all like as drivers,” Matt Kenseth says. “I think a lot of us are under the opinion that makes better racing, more passing, that type of thing.

“Just being bumpy doesn't necessarily do that. It's definitely the roughest track in NASCAR — it's really, really bumpy — but I think there's a couple lanes there you can pass. It is a unique mile-and-a-half. The Turn 4 exit is different than any other mile-and-a-half we go to.”

Kenseth, though, was quick to dispel any notion that the track needs a fresh coat of smooth pavement:

“I definitely never said it needed paving. I don't know where the line is for what's too rough and what's too bumpy. But I do know, unless somebody changes the asphalt and makes an aggregate they use and all that stuff, that paving a track does not make for instant good racing. It typically takes years and years before it gets back to being what I would consider real good.”

Bottom line: the bumps will not adversely affect the Truck, Nationwide or Cup races. Each track presents its own set of challenges and the bumps are simply part of what a driver must deal with at Kentucky Speedway. You’ll hear plenty more complaints, though. And when you do, think of the alternative: a silky-smooth surface that plays host to an aero-dependent parade. 

PHOTOS | Frontstretch Photo Funnies: It's all sticky ...

43: It’s the magic number

Or is it? For NASCAR fans that came along since the turn of the century, the 43-car field has been standard. Only once since 2000 has there been a starting field with less than 43 drivers, and that came under unusual circumstances at New Hampshire, which had been rescheduled for the end of the season due to the events of 9/11. 

This weekend, though, only 42 Cup cars are on the entry list.

So what’s the deal with the number 43? How did NASCAR land on such a seemingly arbitrary number? 

The standard 43-car field was not mandated until 1998, after races in the early- and mid-90’s were run with fields ranging from 36-43 competitors, based mainly on the size and location of a racetrack. In 1997, NASCAR decided to standardize the number of cars and came up with the number 42, due to factors such as the weekly number of entries at the time, garage and pit space, event purses and number of teams running a full schedule. The 43rd entrant was awarded to a past champion. 

The qualifying and provisional formats have changed on a number of occasions since, but the cap of 43 has remained. So, like many things in NASCAR, the 43-car field is simply a number that seemed right to the sanctioning body and has no true “cannon law" significance.

Unless, of course, you believe that NASCAR is bound by television contracts to supply a “full field” of 43 cars. The sanctioning body has adamantly denied this for years, but if a small team not currently scheduled to run this weekend just happens to show up … well, let’s just assume it probably received an all-expense-paid trip to the entertainment mecca of Sparta, Ky.

By the way, The Sporting News’ Bob Pockrass had some great insight as to the significance of this weekend’s 42-car field. I’d encourage you to give it a read.

Checking Johnson’s to-do list  

The last time Jimmie Johnson checked off a bucket list win, another followed in short order. 

The year was 2010 and the track was Bristol. Though Johnson had won four consecutive championships and collected the career grand slam, he’d not visited victory lane at NASCAR’s most beloved half-mile. That changed in the March race, when he finally cashed in, leading the final seven laps en route to his first and thus far only Bristol win.

Eleven weeks later, Johnson crossed another nemesis off the list by surprising everyone with a win on the road course in Sonoma, Calif. Like Bristol, it’s a track where he has yet to win since.

That brings us to 2014. Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus finally exorcised their Michigan demons two weeks ago, after 24 trips full of ever-so-close moments. Next up on the dwindling roster of racetracks where he’s yet to win in the Cup Series? Kentucky Speedway.

Will Johnson and his 48 team, like in that six-win 2010 season, scale two previously untamed mountains in one year?

If not at Kentucky — where Johnson owns a solid 6.0-place average finish in the small sample size of three races — the opportunities to do so begin to thin. After Kentucky, the only other venues where Johnson could nab a first-time triumph include Watkins Glen, Chicagoland and Homestead.

Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.