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Off-track traffic overshadows Busch victory

11 July 2011

You know that a race hasn't been the most exciting of affairs when all the next-day headlines are about the traffic getting to Kentucky Speedway rather than the cars going 175 mph on it in the Quaker State 400 race itself.

It was the inaugural Cup race at the venue, and in order to win the contract to add a Cup race to its existing Truck and Nationwide Series line-up the facility had needed to expand from its previous 66,000 capacity to something more in the region of 107,000 - and it achieved this rather magnificently, it has to be said.

Unfortunately what no one seemed to have thought through was the impact on the surrounding infrastructure in the city of Sparta where the Speedway is located, and the traffic backlogs started hours before the Saturday night race was scheduled to start. Not only was a normal 30-60 minute drive taking the better part of five hours, some fans never made it at all - and many who did arrived too late for the start, only to be told there was no parking left anywhere in the area after the track organised some 33,000 parking spots that proved to be woefully inadequate. One of the fans who was caught out was the president of the state senate, who said afterwards that he would convene an official enquiry into what had happened; the fact that he's rumoured to be lined up to run for state governor is surely purely coincidental.

The whole debacle was a serious embarrassment for all concerned, with both the track management and NASCAR itself moved to apologise to fans. "While NASCAR was thrilled by the incredible response to our inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in Kentucky, we also are extremely disappointed by the traffic problems and inconveniences endured by fans who wanted to be part of our races," said NASCAR chairman Brian France on Monday. "This situation cannot happen again."

The controversy even caught up the Cup drivers themselves, with Ryan Newman hoping that fans would give them a chance to put things right next year and Denny Hamlin finding himself gridlocked on the way in with everyone else: "Bad news is I'm prolly not going to make the drivers meeting in 3 hours because I'm in this traffic with everyone else," he tweeted from his stationary car. "Good news, I'm starting in the back anyway [because of an engine change.]"

The fact that the traffic situation hogged all the headlines after the race does rather confirm that the race itself was the closest thing you'll see to a "routine dull day at the office" as you'll get in motorsport. The drivers all worked hard, but there was little to show for it at the end of the night.

Going into the race all the talk had been about the track condition. The track management's focus up till then had been on expanding capacity, but now raceday loomed it was clear that the Speedway surface itself was in a less than optimal situation with the drivers worried about all the bumps in the surface: Jeff Gordon spoke of tracks that "just absolutely have to be repaved - this one would be one of them. It is very rough here." And sure enough, the track management have said that they will look into a complete repaving of the circuit in the next year or so.

Drivers didn't think that the bumps would have a great effect for the Cup race itself, but were worried about the impact on qualifying - so it was rather ironic that the qualifying session was aborted midway through because of rain showers and we never got to see that play out, or else we might have got a more interesting mixed up grid for the Quaker State 400 than we did.

Kyle Busch inherited pole position as a result based on earlier practice session times. Busch had Nationwide and Truck experience at Kentucky and so wasn't phased at all by the prospect of the first new Cup venue on the calendar in ten years, and indeed most of the big names like Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson were similarly familiar with the Speedway in some car or other. Carl Edwards had even taken his first national-level carrer victory here in Trucks, while Joey Logano was particularly expected to build on recent momentum given that he had been the winner of the last three years of Nationwide races - although he could finish only tenth this year in a race won by Brad Keselowski.

In the Cup race, Kyle took the green flag in the late day sunshine alongside Juan Montoya, but it was his brother Kurt who got the best drive off the final corner to break through and run alongside the #18 , finally getting a nose in front to officially lead the first lap, the two running side-by-side and exchanging the lead through a lap for the next several minutes before Kurt finally got past and put some clean air in between him and Kyle, the two of them pulling out a comfortable lead over the rest of the field.

Because of the recent rain, NASCAR had already announced a competition caution for lap 30 for the teams to check over how the cars were faring, and Kasey Kahne led at the restart only to get trounced by Kyle Busch who was once again the king of the restarts, with Kurt soon up to second but over 2s behind Kyle as the field embarked on a green flag stint that would last 111 laps and which would see over half the 43-car field go a lap down.

There was little change in the top six which saw Kahne, Johnson, Edwards and Keselowski playing back up roles to the Busch brothers in the top six. Green flag pit stops started around lap 80 (save for Marcos Ambrose who needed to pit earlier after a miscommunication with his team in the earlier stop) and Kyle Busch cycled back to the front once they were complete. Brian Vickers got a speeding drive-thru penalty, Dave Penalty needed to come back in for a missing lugnut, Kahne was complaining of a mystery vibration that the team couldn't trace and told him simply to deal with it, and Jimmie Johnson was back to his perennial chronic problem of slow stops.

With little to report on track other than David Reutimann cracking the top five and Denny Hamlin impressing by getting within sight of the top ten having started from the rear because of that overnight engine change, it was almost a relief when green flag pit stops loomed once more, starting on lap 120 with Kasey Kahne but not seeing leader Kyle Busch hit pit road for another nine laps, after which he resumed in the lead with nearly 9s lead over Carl Edwards now in second.

With the darkness now well set in and track conditions changing fast, the second yellow of the night - and the first "proper" caution - came out on lap 139 for debris. While most cars took the chance to come into pit lane, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart opted to stay out and assumed first and second position for the restart ahead of Kyle and Kurt Busch and Kasey Kahne in fifth.

This green flag lasted only six laps before another caution, this time for oil on the track after David Ragan was seen skidding at a very wild angle and lucky to save the #6 from a wreck. A few cars opted to take the latest opportunity to pit, including Kahne who still needed that vibration taking care of, but the leaders as a whole stayed out on track and in the restart on lap 158 there was a three-wide battle between Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski for the lead before Keselowski finally stamped his authority on the matter.

Not that it was all going so well for Keselowski: he was suffering from radio problems, receiving nothing from pit lanes and only intermittently able to talk with his spotter, forcing him to rely on using old school hand signals to relay information to his pit chief Paul Wolfe about whether the car needed adjustments for understeer of oversteer at the next pit stop. Keselowski was also forced to keep track of fuel mileage and make his own call on when he needed to come into the pits, and to his credit pulled this all off with aplomb.

Having gone off-sync in their previous pit stops, Stewart was in on lap 180 and Keselowski on lap 187, while Kyle Busch was able to stay out with the main field until lap 193. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin had just come into the pits - handing the lead temporarily to David Ragan - when Jamie McMurray's #1 car suddenly suffered an engine failure on lap 200 and expired in a trail of smoke, triggering the fourth yellow of the evening which allowed Ragan to come in for a more leisurely yellow flag stop, rejoining in tenth place.

Keselowski resumed in the lead ahead of Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart when the green flag came out again on lap 210, but all the leaders would have to pit for one last splash and dash before the end of the race.

Still off-sync, Stewart was the first of those to take to pit road under green on lap 233, surprising many by opting to elongate his stop by taking four tyres where others were set to gamble on taking only two. It was a callback to the traditional approach of using the fresh rubber to stream back up through the field to recover any places lost because of the longer stop, but the changes to cars and tyres this year have repeatedly demonstrated that this tactic no longer works on medium-length "cookie-cutter" ovals such as this and that track position is far more evaluable than fresh tyres - and it was no different here at Kentucky. Stewart would pay for that call by crew chief Darian Grubb and would finish in 12th place, although Stewart himself put the blame down to the #14's pace at restarts: "We just couldn't get going on the restarts," he said. "Beyond frustrating."

Keselowski was still in the lead by Kyle Busch was not slashing the gap between them and looked set to make a jump, when instead he dived for pit lane on lap 239 and the #18 crew put in their predictably phenomenal job in turning their man around and getting him back out on track. Keselowski came in next time around and had a less speedy stop, which - while by no means bad - meant that after coming in a second ahead of Busch, he returned to the track three seconds behind.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was among the last of those to pit, and as he exited pit lane the left front tyre - which hadn't been changed during the flying stop - suddenly exploded on him, taking an awful lot of bodywork with it as the rubber flailed around, depositing debris on the track that forced the fifth caution of the evening.

Earnhardt Jr. denied that it has been a case of worn tyres that they should have spotted and changed in the pit stop just seconds earlier. "No, I slid the left front tyre real bad coming on to pit road. It was all my fault."

It hadn't been the best of nights for the fan favourite in any case. "We didn't ride the bumps good. The car didn't cut the corner good. We could change the balance but it wouldn't make us go faster; when we were too loose and we would tighten it up, we wouldn't find any speed in that," he said afterwards. "So we just didn't have a good set-up in there for whatever reason. And we would have finished well if we could have gotten some track position ... We were just so slow all night we could never take any chances on track position and stuff like that. We were just too slow."

It's the latest blow to Earnhardt's Chase hopes. After a strong run of performances earlier in the season that saw him up to third place in the points standings, a recent string of poor finishes has wiped out all that good work and slumped him down to eighth and at risk of not making the cut; and without a race win this season (or indeed for an uncomfortably long time of over three years despite coming agonisingly close several times in 2011 only to be pipped at the post, twice by Kevin Harvick.)

David Reutimann had been in the lead when the caution came out, but he needed to hand that lead back to Kyle Busch in order to come into pit lane, returning to take the restart on lap 259 in third place behind Busch and Matt Kenseth and just ahead of Jimmie Johnson.

The green flag lasted only three laps before another caution: Clint Bowyer spun the #33 after losing a tyre, hitting the wall with his rear and then struggling to get the car pointing the right way and get going again on the steep Kentucky Speedway banking. It was surprisingly almost the only impact that any of the Richard Childress Racing drivers had made on the race all evening, RCR looking oddly anonymous here with even their standard bearer Kevin Harvick only managing a mediocre 16th.

That set up a two-lap shootout for the race win with Kyle Busch ahead of Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, David Reutimann and Brad Keselowski. Unusually for Kyle - who typically dominates restarts - this time he struggled with a touch of wheel spin and Johnson was able to stay right alongside him through the first turns and threatened to take the lead, which would have been the race decider.

"Did Jimmie and them come get tires on that one restart?" asked Kyle at the post-race press conference. "I knew he had fresher rubber than I did for a restart. I tried to do the best I could ... but I overshot my acceleration just by a little bit and spun my tyres a fuzz. That allowed him to get a little bit of momentum on me. He got a good start. We had to race down into turn 1 side-by-side rather than me getting a jump on him.

"I was just hoping that the outside lane would prevail, I could get a run through there, carry my momentum and clear him down the backstretch, race him into turn three. It was certainly a tense moment there for a second. But after I took the white, I saw the #00 coming on the #48 and getting there to make a move on him. I was like, 'C'mon, Reuty!'"

Once the #18 proved to have the edge and managed to pull ahead, Johnson faltered and fell back into the clutches of Reutimann who looked particularly strong in these final minutes. With the #48 and the #00 locked in battle for second place it gave Busch all the time he needed to pull out a safe gap at the front and cruise to a comfortable win in the end having led 125 of the 267 race laps.

"I was able to hang with the #18 inside of turns 1 and 2, and he just cleared me going down the back," said Johnson said. "If I could have stayed inside of him, it would have been one heck of a finish at the end ... but it didn't happen that way, and then he cleared me and went on, and then I had my hands full with the #00. David was probably the best car at the end, and if he had cleared me sooner, I think he would have been up there with the #18 racing for the win."

"It was hit or miss the first part of the race," said Reutimann. "We would make it better, then make it worse. Every time we put four tires on, we couldn't go anywhere, too tight." But as the race had gone on, the set-up changes started to kick in and suit the cooling night time conditions: "We unfortunately have a bit of a history of being fast when it doesn't really matter. Tonight worked out where we were fast at the end of the race, which is evidently what you got to do!"

Reutimann pipped Johnson for second while a late dive to the inside line rewarded Ryan Newman with fourth ahead of Edwards and Kenseth. Meanwhile, having led for 79 laps, Brad Keselowski couldn't hide his frustration at finishing seventh which was poor reward for all that work. "Disappointed in the results. It's just a product of double-file restarts," he said. "At the end, the restarts are just a crapshoot ... There's a reason why the leader takes the high lane on the restart," he went on. "If you get the bottom lane, you're going backwards. I kept getting in an odd position and just kept getting on the bottom lane. Every restart just kept playing against us."

No such problems for the only man to lead more laps than the rejuvenated #2 Penske, race winner Kyle Busch.

"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," said Busch, who is not traditionally all that strong on the 1.5 mile 'cookie cutter' ovals and who is yet to win one of the 'major' NASCAR flagpole events despite all his series success. "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."

Kyle gave a lot of the credit for the night's win to his crew chief Dave Rogers, who has been uncomfortably in the spotlight himself recently with fines for a ride height violation and an unapproved oil pan on the #18 during a financially costly June.

"I was telling him the car is good, but he would still make a change knowing what the track is going to do," said Kyle. "That's just experience. Knowing this racetrack pretty well, for us it worked well. We kept up with it. We stayed up front all the night, made it seem easy, but certainly it wasn't. There at the end there was a couple tense moments, but we prevailed."

The victory put Kyle Busch in the record books, and it's an entry that unlike all the other "greatest" and "fastest" stats in the record books will never be overturned - there will only be one first-ever winner of the Cup race at Kentucky, and for now and all time that will be Kyle Busch.

Not that Busch thinks in terms of records or making history, he's too busy looking ahead to the next race - in this case, despite having driven three complete NASCAR races with all the attendant practice and qualifying sessions on top, he was off to compete in a fourth race of the weekend on Sunday night: the Miller Lite Nationals Super Late Model event on the 0.2 mile Slinger Super Speedway in Wisconsin. When asked what the most important aspect of Saturday's win was, he replied without hesitation: "That I won on the way to Slinger ... I'm going to stay here tonight, chill out and get a good night's sleep, get out of here in the morning and head up there and, hopefully, win a Late Model race."

Of course, Kyle being Kyle, he did indeed win when he passed Dave Feiler after a restart with 26 laps to go to take the win by 2.171s; Matt Kenseth's son Ross Kenseth finished sixth, and Nationwide Series driver Kelly Bires was seventh.

And Kyle being Kyle, he was as thrilled by that minor league win as he had been about his 22nd career Sprint Cup win in 240 starts, his third of 2011 and his 99th national series career victory at Kentucky that had given him the lead of the Cup points standings.

Actually, come to think of it, that minor league win was probably a lot more fun to race in and to watch than the inaugural Quaker State 400 proved to be ...

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