By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
Treacherous, perilous, dangerous, precarious, and tricky: these were some of the adjectives used to describe the new-look Kentucky Speedway following Saturday night’s Quaker State 400. The Speedway, located in Sparta, midway between the large population centers of Louisville and Cincinnati, recently completed a total replacement of the 16-year old asphalt.
In addition to the repave, turns one and two were reconfigured adding 3° of banking, while turn four was narrowed to allow for a wider pit lane entrance. To say that the facility has raised the bar in ‘degree of difficulty’ is a bit of an understatement, as we saw several drivers struggle to get it right.
Because a racetrack tends to improve with age, a repave generally produces a narrow racing line. The learning curve with the new configuration was exacerbated with a reduced downforce package that was employed as a potential preview of 2017’s aero rules.
The final factor contributing to the race was the very conservative tire supplied by Goodyear. The ultra-hard compound was decided upon following a test in June where the softer tires produced blisters on Kentucky’s 1.5 mile oval.
“I mean, Goodyear’s trying to do what they can to protect themselves and make sure they don’t have tire problems, ” said owner/driver Tony Stewart, describing the tire compound. “They didn’t have to worry about that; it was the hardest thing on the planet.”
“They had some blistering in the test that scared them, so they went really conservative on the tire,” added Hendrick driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Personally, I believe they can make that right-side tire as hard as they want, go as safe as you want there so we don’t have the blistering, but soften the left up some. The racing will be better. We have issues with all the recent repaves with the left-side tires being a little bit too hard. It hurts the racing because you just can’t get any grip and turn and go underneath nobody.”
With qualifying rained out, the Sprint Cup drivers were given an additional practice session as teams worked on setup. The entry into turn three coming off of the backstretch proved to be especially difficult.
With a competition caution scheduled for lap 25 to check tire wear, the first yellow flag flew just ten laps into the event as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. tagged the wall with a deflating right-front tire.
The evening of racing produced eleven periods of caution as a number of drivers, including Jimmy Johnson, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliot, A.J. Allmendinger, Matt DiBenedetto, Regan Smith, Brian Scott, and Chris Buescher all ran into trouble.
The narrow groove made side-by-side racing especially dicey as evidenced by the lap 88 restart where Wood Brothers driver, Ryan Blaney, lost control after becoming the meat in a three-wide sandwich. In the process, he took out fellow rookie driver, Chase Elliott, in the Hendrick car.
“It wound up with us being in the middle of three-wide into three,” said Blaney. “It’s so hard to get into that corner all night with a car close to behind you and outside of you, and no one lifting either, and it’s just an unfortunate spot we got put in and I hate to see two really good cars tore up.”
“Just got three-wide, had a bad corner there in 2 and got us bottled up,” added Elliott. “Once that happened guys obviously tried to pounce and make things happen. For me, I was kind of the guy on the outside lane. I tried to get out as far as I felt like I could without getting up in the grey. I know every time somebody has got in the grey this weekend it has been bad news.”
The biggest incident of the night was a seven-car wreck triggered when Brian Scott spun in front of Chris Buescher, resulting in major damage to both cars. A.J. Allmendinger, Regan Smith, Kyle Larson and Danica Patrick were also involved, but able to continue. Allmendinger’s day went from bad to worse when he hit the wall hard on lap 172 ending his day.
“I wasn’t having a lot of fun before, and I’m definitely not having a lot of fun right now, “said the driver of the #47 Kroger/Clorox Chevrolet. ” I was just fighting tight for the most part. It could be a little loose in, but was definitely fighting tight off the corners. But, yeah, you could see when everybody would come barreling in there and had to get on the brakes. My brakes weren’t as good as I thought they would be. But, it’s a product of the beast. I have to give Kentucky credit they did a good job trying to widen the track out more than I ever expected after the test.”
Brakes were certainly an issue on Saturday night as one could clearly see the bright red glowing of the discs during the night race. Clouds of black brake dust were visible as the crews changed the front tires.
Staying ahead of the melee, Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski was able to parlay great restarts and fuel strategy to his third win in Kentucky. Keselowski, however, admitted that it was certainly a challenge .
“I know it’s been a good track for us in the past, but this isn’t the same Kentucky, I can tell you that,” said the driver of the Miller Lite Ford. “These cars were tough to drive today, but a good tough. This was a hard-fought battle and I’m really proud of everybody on the crew to get win number four (on the season) and take that first place.”
“It took a lot discipline to run this track tonight,” Keselowski continued, “If you got into Turn 3 and 4 the least bit wrong, you wrecked. That’s just the way the race was, and I think that’s what we saw. There’s arguments to be made good or bad for that. I think it’s a good challenge. We’re professional race car drivers. It shouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t tonight. It was very, very difficult. You had to certainly be very smart.”