By Gary B. Graves
AP Sports Writer
SPARTA, Ky. — Kentucky Speedway President Mark Simendinger hopes the track’s new pavement smooths the transition to another race with a new NASCAR downforce package.
Resurfacing the 1.5 mile tri-oval was nearly done when the sanctioning body announced new rules in May to reduce downforce and side force and create more side-by-side racing. It follows last year’s changes here that helped produce one of the season’s most competitive races, won by Kyle Busch on his way to his first Sprint Cup championship.
That was pretty impressive considering drivers had to sort things out during the race, after rain washed out practice. The weather for last month’s two-day test was more cooperative, and the challenge in Saturday night’s 400-mile headliner is finding the right formula on a reconfigured track with fewer bumps in the road.
“You won’t leave with a headache, and that’s the best part about it,” points leader and 2014 Cup champion Kevin Harvick quipped during last month’s test.
Banking in turns 1 and 2 was increased from 14 degrees to 17 degrees with track width on that end reduced by 18 feet. Turns 3 and 4 remain at 14 degrees, which Simendinger hopes will create a unique look during the tripleheader weekend that includes a 225-mile Camping World Truck Series race and Friday night’s Xfinity Series 300-miler.
Simendinger also notes that Kentucky’s famous bumps aren’t totally gone, just smoother with new asphalt and drainage improvements. Figure in NASCAR rule changes to the rear spoiler, rear deck fin and front splitter, and the track president wouldn’t be shocked by anything on Saturday night.
“It’s going to be interesting,” Simendinger said. “We’ve really been on this track, putting rubber down as much as we can to widen out the race groove. If we don’t do that, they’re going to be more inclined just to follow a single groove until they can get it widened out. If we’re able to get it to where they’ll be racing side by side, then we go to the Xfinity race and all those laps will be very, very helpful so that by the time we get to the Sprint Cup race, (drivers) should have a high degree of confidence.”
Few drivers enter more confident than Busch and Brad Keselowski. Each has won twice in five starts here and combined to lead 362 laps while winning the past two races.
Keselowski is buoyed by last weekend’s victory at Daytona that has him 14 points behind Harvick in second place. Busch is 73 points back in sixth after running second at Daytona and is tied with Keselowski with a series-best three wins.
Keselowski lamented Kentucky’s reduction of the teeth-rattling bumps in the frontstretch, but welcomed the differences between ends. The start of Thursday’s first Cup practice suggested there will be growing pains, as the right rear of his No. 2 Ford got sideways and kissed the outside wall entering Turn 3 but escaped major damage.
“Whenever there are those discrepancies, I think that’s when you see mistakes and when you see strengths and weaknesses that vary from car to car and driver to driver,” the 2012 champion said before practice. “I think that’s a really good thing for our sport, so I’m interested to see how that’s going to play out this weekend.”
Busch was planning another three-race weekend at Kentucky that figures to provide plenty of time to get used to the changes. The track’s most successful driver speaks volumes about his adaptability on the old surface, and he’s eager to see if he can be as good with the improvements.
“Hopefully I hope I can figure it out again and be a little bit better than some of these other guys,” Busch said last month. “Overall, it still has some character to it with some bumps down the front straightway. … They did a decent job.”