Five things we learned at Kentucky
Horrendous traffic overshadowed Kyle Busch's win at the inaugural Kentucky 400
Track owner Bruton Smith: As many as 20,000 fans missed the race all together
David Reutimann notched an impressive 2nd-place finish; Junior struggled again
Perhaps one day 107,000 fans will claim to have cheered, booed, or gazed down scornfully as Kyle Busch won the first Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway. Some of them may have actually heard it from their cars, still trying to creep into the overwhelmed facility through clogged roads on Saturday night, some from I-71 as they angrily returned home, children weeping, dreams smashed, vacation money wasted. They should be allowed the indulgence of blocking out what by all accounts was one of the most inept debuts of a facility as a big league venue in recent memory.
And they shouldn't see their horrible experience wielded by a billionaire to pay for upgrades he admits were long overdue before he sold them a ticket.
Busch, although he had to hold off late bids by David Reutimann, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson, was oppressive in his own right, leading 125 of 267 laps to win his third race of the year and assume the points lead. That Busch is capable of such things is not novel. But here are five other things we learned at Kentucky:
1. The Bluegrass State needs more blue pavement. Kentucky Speedway's reputation as an epicenter of traffic mayhem preceded it. An increase in seating capacity to 107,000 and an inaugural Sprint Cup race guaranteed that the already troublesome venue would become one of the most inaccessible in all of NASCAR. Fatal vision fulfilled. Traffic backed up on I-71, the main artery into Sparta, Ky., for miles and hours, prompting track owner Bruton Smith to declare on Cincinnati.com that 15-20,000 fans never even made the race. Scores were reportedly turned away when traffic flow was reversed during the race to prepare for egress. The president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., who purchased Kentucky Speedway in 2008 and this year moved it to a race from his underperforming Atlanta track, generally applies his wealth and his will to get what he wants. He helped goad the "realignment" of Georgia Highway 20 -- later re-branded the Bruton Smith Parkway -- as a four-lane thoroughfare into Atlanta Motor Speedway -- which in retrospect was a mediocre investment. And the gate success of Kentucky Speedway's Cup debut could provide leverage to finance -- with state or federal funds -- the army of steamrollers necessary to ease traffic flow at his new hot market south of Cincinnati. That said, he will have much repair work to do to with fans whose first experience with Cup racing in Kentucky was so completely unsavory, especially if they feel he's exploiting their ordeal to improve his lot.
2. Brad Keselowski is about to throw the wild card race into a tizzy. A seventh-place finish on Saturday night moved Keselowski to within three points of 20th place in the driver standings and the second and final wild card spot. A winner at Kansas this season, Keselowski is therefore three points from knocking two-time series champion Tony Stewart -- who is in 11th place, but winless -- and would-be title contender Clint Bowyer -- who fell from ninth to 12th in points with a 35th-place finish after crashing with four laps left -- out of the playoffs. There is certainly plenty of time remaining until the Chase given the minuscule margins being negotiated and Stewart generally excels in the summer, but Keselowski is stringing together enough strong performances and reasonable finishes making him a viable first-time Chase qualifier.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s rough stretch continues. A blown left front tire relegated Earnhardt Jr. to a 30th-place finish, dropping him one position to eighth in the driver standings. Granted, Earnhardt's recent string of poor finishes is not completely attributable to poor performance. He was involved in an incident not of his doing at Sonoma, which caused an overheating problem and led to a 41st-place finish. He had among the best cars last weekend at Daytona, but was caught in a late flurry of spinning cars and finished 19th. But it all counts, and with eight races left to the Chase for the Championship, Junior is winless and holding just an 18-point advantage over tenth-place driver Denny Hamlin, and is recessing into perilous territory.
4. The future is soon. NASCAR's first major test of electronic fuel injection in Sprint Cup cars was deemed a success by vice president of competition Robin Pemberton and series director John Darby. Teams and manufacturers, while continuing to assess the competition curve and absorb initial changeover costs, appear pleased enough, and expect little change in the quality level or aesthetics of racing.
"From the fans side, they will not notice anything different," said Jeff Andrews, Hendrick Motorsports director of engine operations. "Maybe one of the biggest things that a fan would notice is a lot of times you get a lot of questions like, 'What's that big blue flame coming out of the right side of the car when the driver gets off the throttle or goes into the corner at Martinsville?' That's just fuel that has spilled out of the carburetor and gone through the engine in an off-throttle condition and is being burned out the exhaust pipe. You won't see that any more. They'll be some good efficiency gains that are being made there with this fuel system in terms of fuel economy. But in terms of performance, the power levels between a carbureted and a fuel-injected engine are very close; so you won't see a dramatic increase in lap times."
The new McLaren Electronic Systems and Freescale Semiconductor system will regulate fuel intake more efficiently than the carburetors currently used. They will not likely obsolete the restrictor plates used at Daytona and Talladega, Darby said.
"The easiest and most economical way for us to accurately -- and across the board in fairness control or restrict the horsepower of the engine -- is with the amount of air that's introduced into it. So we'll continue to do it that way," he said. "Will it be in the form of what we know today's restrictor plate? Maybe, maybe not. We're looking at some other things. We more than likely won't go down the path of trying to restrict the engines through electronics because we have a much higher comfort level doing it in a mechanical way. It's the same for every engine that's on the racetrack type of fashion, which will be through some sort of an air restriction."
5. David Reutimann had a chance to smile (but didn't). Reutimann's season has been admittedly disappointing, and while a season-best second-place finish on Saturday didn't fix all the ills of a season in which he is 24th in points, it perhaps signaled improvement could be possible. Utilizing a brand new No. 00 Toyota that was the product of a collective rethink, he said, by Michael Waltrip Racing and Toyota Racing Development, he led seven laps and would have been good enough, said third-place Jimmie Johnson, of winning with one more lap.
"It's been an awful season for us," said Reutimann, who has just two top-10 finishes this season. "At the end of last year it felt like we were making some gains. This year we haven't had the results we've been looking for. With that being said, it's easy to get upset and down when things aren't running well. The guys are trying to figure out why we're not running well, and hence we have a better car this weekend.
"I'm not saying that's the answer, the magic bullet, but it's a step in the right direction."
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