In other sports outside of racing, the word “new” generally means excitement. New stadiums are explored by fans, many of whom were tired of smaller seats and bad traffic to get to the old one. New players acquired through free agency or promoted from the minor leagues keep the team fresh. Even new concessions or new promotions can bring more people the day of the game.
Only in NASCAR, it seems, has the word “new” turned negative.
New pavement, again greets drivers this weekend at Kentucky Speedway. Just five months after the first project, fresh asphalt was laid down again last fall after track officials claimed parts of the 1.5-mile oval were not up to par. The focus was on improving their lower groove.
But new pavement, as we’ve seen in recent years tends to lead to single-file competition. While Texas Motor Speedway was a notable exception this year, fresh asphalt has limited passing, making more races snoozers rather than slugfests.
This weekend has been no exception. Drivers have been critical so far at the track that the upper groove hasn’t been treated enough, leading to a limited ability to pass beyond the first few laps of a restart. The Truck Series race on Thursday night, after a rain-delayed start saw the same complaints.
The track hopes that over time, a combination of rubber and age will recreate the multiple grooves that made Kentucky one of the sport’s best racetracks. But until then, “new” means “uncertain” for fans, many of whom pay hard-earned money to watch these three-hour events from the stands.
Despite the relative success of Texas, fixing this repaving conundrum has proved elusive. Kentucky, in this case, feels like the steps they’ve taken will make the track right.
But that’s going to take time; “new” in this sense means “bad” and for many people that doesn’t make any sense. It’s a problem one would hope NASCAR works hard on to correct the next time a track dumps down new asphalt.
Quaker State 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Kentucky Speedway (Sparta, Ky.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Who would have guessed Stenhouse would have two wins at this point in the year while four-car Joe Gibbs Racing has none? One might call him the new man to beat in plate racing, too, replacing a retiring Dale Earnhardt Jr. after his success in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400. Roush Fenway Racing has now gone 2-for-2 in the last two events at Daytona and Talladega.
It’s a credit to Stenhouse. He deftly maneuvered the draft Saturday night when most of his top competition fell victim to wrecks, then held off a handful of underdogs. Could Roush Fenway Racing have a potential title contender on its hands?
Who’s at the Back: Austin Dillon
A Daytona wreck left Dillon’s chances for a win in shambles Saturday night. Since his Charlotte victory in May, his No. 3 team doesn’t have a top-10 finish and he sits 21st in Cup Series points. That’s a lowest of any driver with a victory this season, making him vulnerable if somehow we get to 17 playoff-eligible winners during 26 regular-season races. Richard Childress Racing lacks some horsepower right now compared to the top teams so I’m not sure improvement will come anytime soon.
Matt Kenseth kept Silly Season rolling Friday morning when he said, “I do not think I have the option to race for JGR next year.” The driver of the No. 20 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing has been with the team since 2013 but is winless in what’s been a difficult year. Kenseth, who is 45 years old, said he doesn’t have any prospects as of yet but his name has been thrown in the mix at both Furniture Row Racing and for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports ride vacated by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Erik Jones is expected to replace Kenseth next year in the No. 20 car. The rookie, under contract with JGR, was allowed to sign a one-year deal with Furniture Row for this season.
Roush Fenway Racing claimed on SIRIUS XM Radio this week they’re likely to stay at two Cup Series teams for the 2018 season. That leaves Chris Buescher’s status a question mark for next year; he’s currently on loan to JTG-Daugherty Racing. Buescher has struggled along with the JTGD team as they expanded from one to two cars to accommodate him.
Gray Gaulding is back in the Cup Series this week, this time running for Premium Motorsports. The rookie was supposed to run a full-time schedule with BK Racing this year but that deal now appears to be dead. XFINITY Series regulars Joey Gase and Ryan Sieg fill out the BK roster for Kentucky.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Total Cup Series races in Kentucky, the fewest of any track currently on the Cup Series schedule.
Cars who failed to finish at Daytona Saturday night. That’s the most of any Cup race this season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Two drivers, above all others stand out for your Kentucky roster: Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Between them, they own five of the six Cup victories at the track along with 920 laps led. Busch has never finished lower than 12th at the 1.5-mile oval while Keselowski has five top-10 performances in six starts. It’s hard to find anyone better; save even intermediate king Martin Truex Jr. for another race.
Jamie McMurray has quietly emerged as one of the better Kentucky competitors. He has a 14th and a seventh his last two times out at the track and was runner-up in this race back in 2013. Chip Ganassi Racing has been a force on intermediates this year and McMurray was seventh at a newly repaved Texas track back in the spring.
Clint Bowyer is certainly not a name you think of out in Kentucky. But that’s because he’s been stuck with underperforming or underfunded teams the past few years. He was third with Michael Waltrip Racing out here in 2013 and Bowyer has been red hot in the series as of late. You can only be the bridesmaid so many times, as he was in Daytona last weekend before luck turns your way and you wind up the bride in Victory Lane.
I know I picked him last week in this space but Saturday night is the last chance for rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. to make an impression. Aric Almirola likely returns to the No. 43 Ford next weekend, which makes Kentucky the final audition for Wallace. He had a great track record in the XFINITY Series at Kentucky, pulling off four top-10 finishes and the Cup car he’s driving ran top 20 at the track last year.
For Wallace to really turn some heads, he’ll need a top-10 finish in that same car. It’ll be tough, but I do think he’ll have the aggression and the wherewithal to get there.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. is the favorite of the oddsmakers, currently 11/2 for Kentucky with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch right behind at 6/1.
What I Think
Kyle Busch. He’s been knocking on the door so often this season and you can’t keep four-car Joe Gibbs Racing shut out of Victory Lane for an entire year. They finally break through.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)