Kentucky Rear View Mirror

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SPARTA, Ky. – It took Kentucky Speedway 14 years to get its first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. As expected fans supported the race tremendously, with a sold-out crowd jamming the track for Saturday night’s Quaker State 400.

Now the question becomes where does Kentucky go from here?

All over the area the excitement and energy for NASCAR’s top division coming to town has been high. Located about 45 minutes south of Cincinnati and about 90 minutes north of Louisville, the area is chock full of race fans. Since the track opened its gates in 2011, the Nationwide Series, Camping World Truck Series and Indy Car Series races held at Kentucky have been very well attended with crowds in excess of 60,000 for some of those events.

That solid support was why the original management group clamored for a Cup date, which didn’t come until a nasty legal battle with NASCAR and eventually a sale to Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. was completed.

Smith took a date from his Atlanta Motor Speedway and on paper the trade has already been successful with at least 30-35,000 more fans on hand at Kentucky Saturday night than was announced at Atlanta’s last spring race in March of 2010.

But now comes the hard part. After the new car smell of the first race disappears, will fans come back for year two, three, four and beyond?

Horrific traffic problems getting fans in and out of the track won’t help bring back some. Certainly management expected growing pains for its first Sprint Cup weekend but horror stories of four and five-plus hour commutes in and out on Saturday were many.

There’s also the question of how many fans decided to come to Kentucky in year one and forego a trip to Indianapolis, Bristol, Michigan or even Chicago – all relatively nearby and the main reason NASCAR did not want to bring a Cup race to the track. After the euphoria of attending the inaugural event subsides it will be interesting to see what decision those fans with other options make in the future.

Finally there’s the product itself and that’s the kind of competition fans paid to witness. For the most part all three of the weekend’s races featured pretty typical action that is produced by intermediate-sized tracks like Kentucky. Whether that’s good enough to entice fans to come back remains to be seen.

It was nice to have a fresh stop on the schedule, something that the Sprint Cup Series hasn’t seen since 2001. The area is gorgeous, people friendly, fans were plentiful and in the end year one of Cup racing at Kentucky Speedway was a big hit.

But here comes the fun part.

  • The frustration continues to mount for Dale Earnhardt Jr. who for a second straight week ended his night with complete disappointment. After his Daytona problems drafting to the finish line last Saturday night, Earnhardt had a tire blow after leaving pit road for his final stop in Kentucky. The damage knocked Earnhardt to 30th in the final rundown but more importantly slid him to the danger zone of the Sprint Cup standings and eighth place.
  • The resurgence of Penske Racing continued over the weekend with Brad Keselowski’s Nationwide Series in on Friday night and the team’s pair of Cup drivers – Keselowski and Kurt Busch – turning in Top 10 runs on Saturday. The lone Dodge team does not seem to be lacking for resources any longer and particularly at intermediate tracks the Penske pair is a force these days.
  • Lots of talk in the garage area over the weekend about NASCAR’s decision to move next year’s Nationwide Series race from the Lucas Oil Raceway short track to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Most every team owner thought it was a good move to give the series a bigger spotlight that could help the business end of the sport. Drivers for the most part were also excited about the opportunity to race on one of the most famous racetracks in the world. But others hate the fact that another short track has bitten the dust and you’d be hard-pressed to find many fans that have so far embraced the move.
  • The inaugural Kentucky Sprint Cup race also sparked discussion about what track would be next to get a new visit from NASCAR’s top division. Consensus seems to be Iowa Speedway, which changed ownership hands last week. Rusty Wallace, who designed the track, is now part of the new group of owners and said they would actively seek expansion of the facility and the pursuit of a Sprint Cup date. NASCAR officials stated over the weekend the schedule would not grow past its current 36 race slate so any date moving to Iowa would need to come from an existing venue.

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