Keselowski stays cool amid heat to emerge at Kentucky Speedway
Using a backup car, Brad Keselowski dominated down the stretch at Kentucky
Denny Hamlin's extension proves there's plenty going on at Joe Gibbs Racing
Plus: Kenseth's distractions, Junior's focus, Bristol's future and more thoughts
SPARTA, Ky. -- For many years, the NASCAR schedule used to throw a sweaty one-two punch at the drivers, with daytime races held at Daytona and Talladega in the blistering heat of the Southern summer sun. NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison said he would prepare for those scorchers by cruising around in his personal car with the windows shut tight and the heater cranked to full blast, transforming the auto into a rolling toaster oven.
While the drivers and fans had to endure the heat, nobody enjoyed it. So about 15 years ago NASCAR finally got out of the kitchen. In 1997 Talladega's annual summertime race was moved to the fall. A year later Daytona installed lights, enabling the track to shift its traditional Fourth of July race to an evening start. The remainder of the summer schedule has been filled mainly with trips to such cooler locales as Michigan, upstate New York and the Pocono mountains.
But it felt just like old times this past weekend at Kentucky Speedway, where a record-setting heat wave that engulfed much of the country baked the track with temperatures that sizzled into triple digits. And even though Saturday's Quaker State 400 Sprint Cup race was held at night, it was still red-hot in the bluegrass state.
So perhaps it was appropriate that the race was won by a driver and a team that was able to keep their cool in the face of repeated adversity. Brad Keselowski had to go to a backup car after being involved in an accident during the first lap of Friday's practice session, and then was forced to conserve fuel during the closing laps of Saturday's race. But through it all he maintained his composure and picked up his series-leading third victory of the season.
"This was probably the toughest weekend as a team that we've ever had," said Paul Wolfe, Keselowski's crew chief. "Not only did we have the really high temperatures, but having trouble on the first lap at the racetrack always sets you back.
"One thing about all the guys on this team is it seems like we're able to find another level to work when it comes to adversity ... I don't know if we thrive off that or what. But it seems like when some people might think we're down and out, we're able to find a whole other level to compete and find ourselves in victory lane."
Here are five other things we learned at Kentucky:
1. There is a lot going on at Joe Gibbs Racing. Before the race began it was announced that Denny Hamlin had signed a contract extension with the organization. Hamlin's old contract ran through next season. Meanwhile, Gibbs said the team is "working real hard" to extend Joey Logano's contract as well. Logano's current deal expires at the end of this season, and as recently as two months ago there was widespread speculation that JGR was going to let him go. But Logano has had four top-10 finishes in the past seven races -- including a victory at Pocono -- and remains in contention to make the Chase for the Championship.
"We've had a great relationship with Joey," Gibbs said shortly before the beginning of Saturday's race. "We signed him when he was 15. We have a lot invested in Joey. Right now he's stepping up, and we want him to be with us. ... We want to get that (deal) done."
JGR also is considered to be the possible landing place for Matt Kenseth. It was announced last week that Roush Fenway Racing is replacing Kenseth in the No. 17 car next season with defending Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr., but there was no immediate word on where Kenseth is headed.
When asked about the possibility of bringing in Kenseth and making JGR a four-car operation, Gibbs said, "There's nothing really to talk about there. We have a lot of things going on with our race team. We have a lot of decisions that need to be made, and we're in the middle of all that.
"There is the possibility for us to be either a three or a four (car team). It's been that way for a couple of years. Both of those are possibilities ... Everything is kind of up in the air for us right now."
2. All the talk about his future isn't distracting Kenseth from the present. With everybody wanting to know what Kenseth is going to do in 2013, it is easy to overlook the fact he has a good chance of winning the championship in 2012. Kenseth has 12 top-10 finishes in 17 starts this season (only Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson have more) and he has been either first or second in the point standings since early May.
The question is whether being a lame-duck driver the rest of the season will prove to be a distraction and ruin Kenseth's shot at the title. That certainly did not appear to be the case Saturday night. Despite struggling with an ill-handling car for much of the race, Kenseth managed to work his way into the top-10 over the final 50 laps and wound up with a seventh-place finish.
"The guys on this race team, we're the ones in control of how big of a distraction this is," Kenseth said. "If we don't let it become a distraction, then it won't be one."
3. Breaking his four-year winless streak hasn't made Dale Earnhardt Jr. complacent. Earnhardt ran in the top 10 nearly the entire race and finished fourth. During his lengthy winless streak Earnhardt often seemed to accept such performances with a resigned shrug, seemingly content to be good but not great. But now that he has finally tasted victory once again, Earnhardt said he wants more.
"We're just ready to win," Earnhardt said. "I really had fun winning the other week, so I'm ready to get back to victory lane."
When told that it had been only two weeks since his last victory, Earnhardt laughed and said, "I know. But I ain't going to be as patient this time."
4. The Bristol race in August should be better than it was in March. After last year's car-mageddon traffic nightmare at Kentucky Speedway, in which fans were stuck for hours on I-71 and other roads leading to the track, Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Bruton Smith promised that the situation would be vastly improved this year. Sure enough, by all accounts the traffic moved no more sluggishly Saturday than before a typical Sprint Cup race, and it was definitely much better than last year.
While a decrease in attendance likely contributed to the improved traffic flow, Smith also demonstrated that determination and money can go a long way toward solving a problem. He will attempt to prove that again in August at Bristol Motor Speedway, another track owned by SMI. Attendance at Bristol has dropped significantly since a 2007 reconfiguration eliminated the old bump-and-pass style of racing and turned it largely into a follow-the-leader style in which the few passes that take place happen smoothly and boringly.
After the March race was held before half-empty grandstands, Smith vowed that changes would be made to the track to bring back the beating and banging that had made Bristol so popular. If the improvement of the Kentucky traffic situation is any indication, then there is a good chance that Smith's assertion will become a reality in August.
5. You can't count out Jeff Gordon. This has been a miserable season so far for Gordon, who through a mixture of bad luck and bad races has been stuck outside the top 15 of the point standings all season. It looked like it was going to be more of the same Saturday, as Gordon dropped from ninth to 16th early in the race.
But Gordon battled back and would up fifth, his third consecutive finish in the top six. While it is unlikely that he can make up enough ground to qualify for the Chase through points, he could sneak in as a wild card if he can win two of the next nine races. And that is certainly possible for Gordon, who has 85 career Cup victories. All he has to do is get hot.