The Kentucky Speedway has been on the cutting edge during its relatively short-lived tenure of six years as a host for Sprint Cup races.
The 1.5-mile track in Sparta, Ky., was among the first to buck the Great Recession by selling out for the first race in 2011. Of course, many of the grandstand seats were left empty due to a massive traffic hullabaloo for fans trying to get to the track from points north like Indiana and Cincinnati or from Louisville to the south.
Track owner Bruton Smith eventually got the traffic sorted.
Meanwhile, the seating capacity was already in the neighborhood of 100,000, considered the perfect size for a Sprint Cup track as the new Daytona International Speedway "stadium" approach suggests. Smith didn't even have to downsize as he has done at his facilities in Atlanta and Charlotte.
The latest cutting edge trend for the Kentucky track concerns its role as the a 1.5-mile asphalt Petri dish for experiments by NASCAR on how to improve the racing. It was the scene of the first race using a low downforce package last year -- and the first "in season" rules test by NASCAR. After Kyle Busch ran down Joey Logano and passed him for the victory in the late stages, the low downforce package was judged a success and became the basis for the 2016 season's rules.
This year, the NASCAR officials are not bringing something entirely new. They'll be requiring teams to use the same low, low downforce package first tried at the Michigan International Speedway in June. That's the one where the front splitter and rear spoiler are trimmed significantly. Also, teams will have to set up rear suspensions without "skew" as was run at Michigan and in the Sprint All-Star Race in Charlotte, which inhibits sideforce in the corners.
It's the first time this package has been run on the 1.5-mile tracks, which dominate the Sprint Cup schedule and the postseason Chase. So how well the competition fares at Kentucky will be important to the future conduct of the Sprint Cup.
What is new at Kentucky is the pavement for the entire track and the banking in Turns 1 and 2, which has been increased from 14 degrees to 17 degrees. In the same vicinity, the pit exit has been widened, meaning a narrower racing groove in Turn 1, which used to have enough room to host a land rush on re-starts. The asphalt expanse was so wide drivers practically needed a compass to navigate through it.
With the increase in banking, drivers are expected to carry more speed into Turn 3 at the end of the back straight -- where the experiment on the new rules package will really begin. With less grip from aerodynamics, there's going to be more give-and-take at the end of the back straight at best. The worst case scenario may be a "Big One" more familiar to restrictor plate tracks.
It's anybody's guess as to who might win, although it's likely to be one of the teams that have been winning all season: the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and affiliated Furniture Row Racing; the Chevy affiliates of Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas Racing; or the Fords of Team Penske. Also, it's most likely to be Brad Keselowski, who has two wins at the track, or Busch, who scored his second in Kentucky last year. The only other previous winner is JGR's Matt Kenseth. It's interesting to note that Kyle Larson, still looking for his first points victory, won the pole for last year's race in Chip Ganassi's Chevy and Kentucky seems to be one of the tracks he does well on.
The fallacy of the rules experiment is that it's the same for everybody. Alas, the teams with deeper budgets and more engineers inevitably catch on sooner -- although sometimes even those teams get left out. (Witness Hendrick Motorsports' troubles last summer and its relatively slim volume of victories this year -- two by Jimmie Johnson.)
One of the lesser sung heroes of the low downforce revolution has been Goodyear Tire 7 Rubber Company. Goodyear got on board with the idea of producing stickier tires with more "give up" over the course of a stint that were needed for a low downforce pacakge. But the company insisted on a slow gestation with adequate testing last year at Kentucky and later the Darlington Raceway.
This year, the low downforce has worked in no small part because Goodyear has developed the needed gripping tires that give up over the course of a green flag stint and help produce "comers and goers" as a result. For Kentucky, the company will borrow from Michigan and use a compound on the outside tires that worked well there. It is remarkable that no "tire flap" has occurred this year -- the ones where the tires instead of the racing becomes the story. There were some issues in testing at Kentucky last month, but those are believed to be resolved.
A substantial number of fans from Indiana are expected to show up for this year's race, since it's the last appearance at the track 80 miles from the hometown of Tony Stewart and Columbus, Ind. It will be Stewart's 600th career start and second since his bounce-back victory at the Sonoma Raceway. But Stewart has been miserable, in a word, on intermediate tracks for the past year and a half. At Kentucky, he has led one lap and has yet to finish in the Top 10. The track is likely to remain one on the Sprint Cup schedule where Stewart has not won (the other being Darlington).