Drivers pit during Sunday’s Quaker State 400 race at Kentucky Speedway Sunday, June 30, 2013. NICK DAGGY / STAFF
Photo: Nick Daggy
Photo: Nick Daggy

5 things to watch when NASCAR visits Kentucky Speedway

The best love it, while others fear it.

That’s been Kentucky Speedway’s motto for its bumpy, bone-jarring 1.5-mile track that’s left more than a few drivers with bloody noses and nasty headaches.

Most of the bumps are gone thanks to an off-season repaving project. But there are still obstacles to overcome to win the Quaker State 400 presented by Advanced Auto Parts on Saturday (7:30 p.m.; NBCSN). More banking was added to Turns 1-2, while also making it narrower. The increased banking should add speed heading down the backstretch and make racing into Turns 3-4 more of a challenge as cars battle for track position.

Kentucky Speedway also addressed past drainage issues and increased the width of the pit road exit, which also helped narrow Turns 1-2.

Along with the track improvements, here are five things to watch when NASCAR visits Kentucky Speedway:

1. Keeping track of changes: Getting shaken around on the rough pavement for 267 laps left Sprint Cup drivers rattled. Now, with the repaving eliminating most of the rough spots, the most common ailment might be bruised egos. “You won’t leave with a headache. That’s the best part about it,” Kevin Harvick said after testing the track in June. Turns 1-2 also got a makeover. The banking increased from 14 degrees to 17 degrees. The width of the pit road exit went from 14 feet to 30 feet. And the width in Turns 1-2 shrank from 74 feet to 56 feet. “I think the biggest thing right now that I see,” said Kyle Busch, “is the groove goes from being so wide coming out of Turn 4 down the front straightaway, that it kind of narrows getting into Turn 1. The race track width narrows up and the groove, it’s only one-groove wide right now.”

2. Beating around Busch: No driver has been better at Kentucky Speedway than Kyle Busch. He’s won six times in four different series (ARCA, Camping World Trucks, Xfinity, Sprint Cup), including last year’s Sprint Cup victory. Busch has raced 18 times at Kentucky in NASCAR’s three national divisions. He’s finished among the top five 13 times. He’s finished outside the top 10 twice.

Busch goes for the trifecta this weekend. He’s scheduled to race in the Truck Series (Thursday), Xfinity Series (Friday) and Sprint Cup (Saturday), the only driver so far attempting that feat. Brad Keselowski is scheduled to race in the Xfinity Series and Sprint Cup Series.

3. Stewart’s last stand: Saturday’s race will be the final one for Stewart at Kentucky Speedway. The three-time Sprint Cup champion and owner of Eldora Speedway is retiring from Sprint Cup racing after this season. Stewart – who grew up in Columbus, Ind., has struggled at Kentucky. His best finishes were 11th in 2014 and 12th in 2011. Besides those efforts, Stewart has logged finishes of 20, 32 and 33. Stewart has asked for no retirement gifts from tracks, but he’d gladly accept a trophy in Victory Lane from Kentucky Speedway.

4. Xfinity Series and beyond: Daniel Suarez leads the points standings entering Kentucky, but not by much. Elliott Sadler is six points behind Suarez, while Ty Dillon is 16 back. Suarez made his debut at Kentucky Speedway last season and finished fourth. He was 23rd after starting from the pole in the 300 last fall.

Winning won’t be easy. Sprint Cup drivers have won 11 of the 16 races. The last Xfinity full-time driver to win at Kentucky was Brendan Gaughan in Sept. of 2014. Before that it was Austin Dillon sweeping the season in 2012.

Sprint Cup drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski both have three wins at Kentucky in the Xfinity series. Ryan Blaney has two wins and Kevin Harvick one.

5. Keep on Truckin’: The Series is adding its own Chase playoff system this year and so far five drivers are locked in: Christopher Bell, William Byron, Matt Crafton, John Hunter Nemechek and Johnny Sauter. Eight drivers qualify for the postseason. As the series rolls into Kentucky, drivers have eight races to grab that elusive win and one of the last three qualifying spots.

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