Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Throwback Thursday Theater: A Different Kind of Horsepower Comes to Kentucky

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

Kentucky is known for horsepower of a four-legged kind with the state hosting the prestigious Kentucky Derby each year, but back in 2011, the state gained a new kind of horsepower when the NASCAR Cup Series rolled into Kentucky Speedway for the inaugural running of the Quaker State 400.

After years of lobbying for a Cup Series date to go along with the Xfinity Series and Truck Series races the track had been hosting since opening its gates in 2000, the Speedway Motorsports Inc. owned track finally got their chance to host NASCAR’s top division.

Rain would wash out qualifying, putting Kyle Busch on the pole due to being the fastest in final practice, with Juan Pablo Montoya starting alongside on the front row.

Though Kyle started on pole, it was the elder Busch brother, Kurt, who got the early jump when the green flag fell, leading the first 31 laps of the race.

As the race played out Kyle made it clear that he would be the car to beat leading seven different times for 125 laps, but late in the race, it was still anyone’s guess on who would be the first to win a Cup race at Kentucky.

With David Reutimann leading at lap 255 when Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s blown tire brought out the caution, pit strategy came into play for the final run to the finish, with Reutimann and many of the leaders electing to take tires, while Busch stayed out on track, inheriting the lead in the process.

Kyle kept the advantage on the restart with eight laps to go, with Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, and Reutimann following suit in quick procession.

It looked as if Kyle would be able to walk away with the win, as none of his fellow competitors appeared to be able to catch him as the laps continued to wind down, but another caution, this time for a spin by Clint Bowyer with six laps to go, bunched the field back up for one more shot at him.

The race would get the green flag again with two laps remaining, with Johnson putting up a fight as the field stormed into Turn 1. Holding even with Busch through the turn, Busch was able to get the advantage as they made their way onto the backstretch for the penultimate time, securing the lead for himself.

Over the final lap and a half, no one would be able to catch Busch as he walked away with the win while Johnson and Reutimann battled it out for second-place. Reutimann would win out in that battle, crossing the line 0.179 seconds in arears of Busch.

Johnson finished third, followed by Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, David Ragan, Kurt Busch, and Jeff Gordon rounding out the top-10.

“It feels awesome to be able to come out here and run the way we did, to unload the way we did off the hauler,” said Busch. “Dave and all the guys, all the engineers back in the shop did a phenomenal job with our racecar and be fast right out of the gates. Feels good about that.

“Didn’t have many adjustments to make, just fine-tuned on it through the weekend. It was definitely a special event here this weekend. We felt the energy. We saw the people. It was awesome to be able to bring it home in front of all the Toyota folks that we have here as well, too. The Camrys are built right here in Kentucky. It’s a special night for us to put Camrys in Victory Lane, and David Reutimann finishing second.

“It was a fun race. There were some exchanges on restarts with Keselowski and Stewart and Johnson. We were all racing back and forth a little bit. My brother led early. It was certainly a fun night for us. Couldn’t be happier to be here in Victory Lane.

“This one ranks right up there with the best of them. I haven’t won any of the big races, unfortunately, yet. But, you know, it ranks right up there with Las Vegas being another of my prestigious wins that I feel like I’ve accomplished so far.”

While the drivers and teams were prepared to tackle Kentucky’s rough 1.5-mile layout, it was the exact opposite outside the track as the traffic nightmare facing the sellout crowd of 107,000 quickly overshadowed the on-track action.

For hours leading up to the race and even as the race itself played out that Saturday night, traffic was backed up for miles on the overwhelmed infrastructure surrounding the track. A significant number of fans either never made it to the track to be able to see the race or were turned away upon their arrival due to the parking lots being pushed beyond capacity.

The debacle became national news, with the track and NASCAR vowing to remedy the situation before the Cup Series returned to the track the following year.

“We were very pleased and excited about the overall support that fans showed the inaugural Sprint Cup race in Kentucky last week. It was impressive. Don’t want that to get overshadowed,” said NASCAR President Mike Helton in the days following the Kentucky race.

“We take what happened last weekend very seriously. Immediately conversations opened up between NASCAR, the track, Speedway Motorsports, from the highest of levels on the NASCAR side and the highest of levels on Speedway Motorsports side, Jim France, Brian France, Lesa Kennedy, Bruton Smith, Marcus, everybody is engaged in this topic. The intent is to find out exactly what happened so that a cure or fix can be determined. We will not rest until we have figured that out.

“It was very unfortunate that it happened. We’re sorry for the fans that were touched by that unfortunate episode. We will not let this fall to the wayside until we get resolution to it.”

Eventually, a joint effort by state and local officials, as well as officials from Speedway Motorsports, would see the roads surrounding the track widened, along with improved interstate exits to help with traffic flow both into and out of the track on race day.

The track also added an additional 143 acres of parking, an increase of nearly 35 percent over the available parking for the inaugural event. Since those improvements, Kentucky Speedway hasn’t had any issues with traffic from that infamous day forward.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.