SPARTA, Ky. – NASCAR drivers won’t be shocked if Kentucky Speedway’s fourth Sprint Cup Series race yields a repeat winner or new face spraying champagne in victory lane.
Either scenario could happen with past winners Kyle Bush and Brad Keselowski trying to strengthen their bids for more success in Saturday night’s 400-miler by running companion series races this weekend. Keselowski earned the pole with a track-record speed of 188.791 mph; Busch will start 18th.
Defending race champion Matt Kenseth, meanwhile, seeks to repeat the magic and earn his first win this season.
Kenseth said Friday he isn’t sure if past success carries over at a track like Kentucky, but “it certainly gives you more confidence when you come back and you’ve won somewhere.”
Then there is reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, points leader Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr., who have posted multiple top 10s on the 1.5-mile-track and aim to finally close the deal. All are hungry to find the right setup, timing and luck to solve the tough, bumpy track.
“I like (Kentucky) because it’s a challenging race track and I like a good challenge,” said Gordon.
Johnson dominated last June’s race, leading 182 laps, and was poised to overtake Kenseth on a late restart before a spin racing four-wide run dropped him from second to ninth. Kenseth went on to his fourth win of the season despite taking fuel only on his last stop.
Johnson said he has changed his restart procedure to deal with the guessing games. And with a sparkling Kentucky record highlighted by three top-five starts – including the 2012 pole – and three top-10 finishes, the six-time Cup champion believes he’s due to break through.
“We’ve been close,” he said. “It’s just on that last run; varying mistakes have kept us from going to victory lane. We’ve had a car capable of winning; I think two of them, at least. I’m not sure about the third. So, it’s just executing in that final run.”
Here are five things to watch Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway:
Kentucky Speedway has hyped its rough surface in TV ads and some drivers believe it might be the circuit’s roughest. “It’s definitely a jolt, because you’re hitting concrete every time you through holes on the front stretch,” said rookie Austin Dillon, who has two Nationwide Series wins at the track. “I just try to get the car to turn through ‘em.”
Few spectators may notice or care that “just” 42 cars will start, one less than the standard grid. That hasn’t happened since 2001 at New Hampshire, but Clint Bowyer doesn’t believe it reflects the sport’s standing. “It’s more important to have quality cars on the race track week in and week out than a number,” he said.
Kentucky begins a 10-race stretch before the Chase and marks the circuit’s last 1.5-mile track until Atlanta on Labor Day weekend. Kurt Busch believes that recent intermediate-length performance will be important. “If you’ve been good on the mile-and-a-halfs here recently, you’re going to be good here,” said the 2004 champion, who has two top 10s in three starts at the track, but is struggling at that distance this season.
Jeff Gordon can fulfill his quest to win at every Cup track by conquering Kentucky. The four-time champion has won at 23 sites.
Carl Edwards can join Kyle Busch as the only drivers to win in all three national series at Kentucky with a victory Saturday night. Edwards won in the Camping World Truck Series in 2003 and added a Nationwide Series victory two years later.