Tony Stewart has never won here. Kyle Busch never loses, or at least it feels that way.
Kentucky Speedway puts its repaved 1.5-mile, tri-oval to the test against the NASCAR Sprint Cup field on Saturday in the Quaker State 400 presented by Advanced Auto Parts. The characteristic bone-jarring and nose-bleed inducing bumps are gone. But the track with the self-proclaimed motto “the best drivers love it and the rest fear it” can still leave drivers a bit disoriented, especially this year.
With a major renovation, drivers might feel as if they’re visiting a new track. In addition to the repaved track, the speedway reconfigured Turns 1-2. The banking was increased from 14 degrees to 17 and the width of Turns 1-2 decreased from 74 feet to 56. Track officials anticipate drivers carrying more speed into the backstretch as they roar into Turn 3, while making the battle for positioning heading into Turns 1-2 more challenging.
“I think that’s part of what made Kentucky fun,” Stewart said. “The front straightaway was probably the most brutal part of it. Those little bumps gave it a lot of character and brought back what I would consider a lot of the old-school racing.”
Kentucky will also run the same aerodynamic package used at Michigan International Speedway to promote closer on-track competition. The package includes a reduction in spoiler height from 3.5 inches to 2.5 inches, a two-inch reduction of the front splitter and a re-sizing of the rear deck fin.
Busch, a two-time Quaker State 400 winner and the defending champion, tested at Kentucky in June.
“I think the biggest thing I saw is that the groove goes from being so wide coming out of turn four and down the front straightaway, it kind of narrows up getting into Turn 1,” Busch said. “Not to mention the groove is probably only one car wide. Then, getting into Turn 3, the track kind of widens out and you have plenty of room.”
Busch is always a favorite to win at Kentucky. He has four wins in four different series (ARCA, Camping World Truck Series, Xfinity, Sprint Cup) and in five Sprint Cup races has a series-best average finish of 3.8. He won the inaugural race in 2011 and last season passed Joey Logano — who also excels at Kentucky Speedway — to lead the final 19 laps.
Brad Keselowski (2012, 2014) and Matt Kenseth (2013) also have Sprint Cup wins at Kentucky.
“I love Kentucky. … It’s a pretty challenging race track,” Busch said. “It used to be a place that lends itself to different kinds of setups because it was so rough. Fast lap times at Kentucky come from momentum. The place is so round that there’s not a ton of banking compared to some other 1.5-milers. It’s all about how round the corners are and just being able to maintain corner speed and stay on the gas.”
Busch plans to run in all three NASCAR races starting with the Camping World Truck Series Buckle Up In Your Truck 225 on Thursday (8:30 p.m.; Fox Sports 1). The Xfinity Series Alsco 300 follows Friday (8:30 p.m.; NBCSN). He then goes for his third Quaker State 400 win Saturday (7:30 p.m.; NBCSN).
Stewart, meanwhile, goes for his first victory at Kentucky in his 600th Sprint Cup start. It’s one of two active Sprint Cup tracks Stewart has never won at along with Darlington Raceway. His best finish was 11th in 2014 and he has an average finish of 21.6.
“Winning a race at Kentucky and winning the Southern 500 in Darlington, that would absolutely cap off everything,” said Stewart, who plans to retire from driving after this season. “No matter what happens in the championship, I could say that was perfect.”
Stewart’s win at Sonoma Raceway has him currently qualified at No. 11 in the Chase for the Sprint Cup standings. The top 16 make the playoff field. Drivers must also be among the top 30 in overall points to make the Chase. Stewart, who missed the first eight races with a back injury, is 30th.