The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ 1.5-mile tracks are commonly referred to as "cookie-cutters." That’s because there’s so many of them — eight to be exact.
Don’t think for a second that Kentucky Speedway — site of Saturday night’s Quaker State 400 — is a mere carbon copy of the other mile-and-a-halves, however. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Kentucky, which opened in 2000 but didn’t host its first Sprint Cup race until 2011, is indeed its own animal. The reason can be summarized in a word: bumps. Lots of them.
"The first thing you do as a driver to go around Kentucky is put a mouth piece in because you don’t want to chip a tooth while you’re going around there," said Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer, who finished third in last season’s lone Sprint Cup visit to the Bluegrass State. "It’s kind of neat because it’s an obstacle and it’s something you have to overcome and get your car to ride those bumps good and keep those tires on the ground."
If you think Bowyer is exaggerating about the track’s egregiously abrasive nature, third-generation driver Ryan Blaney can back up Bowyer’s claim.
"I actually got a nosebleed right in the middle of practice," said Blaney, a full-time Camping World Truck Series driver who tested a Nationwide Series car at Kentucky on Wednesday. "That’ll say how bumpy this place is."
The natural question, of course, is why Kentucky is so bumpy. The answer is simple — the track’s surface is, at least by NASCAR standards, bordering on ancient. In fact, today’s pavement is the same that was in place when the track opened 14 years ago.
"It’s an extremely rough racetrack," said Brian Vickers, Bowyer’s MWR teammate. "I broke a wheel there last time, so it’s pretty rough. I like tracks with some bumps and some character. It’s so rough on the straightaways and your head is moving around so much, and I get a headache. It’s going to be a tough track for everyone just because of the way it is."
Adapting to such an abrasive surface – and actually using it to one’s advantage – is one of the biggest keys to being fast here and having a chance to go to Victory Lane.
"The place certainly has a lot of character. It really depends on what your setup is in your race vehicle," said Kyle Busch, winner of the inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky in 2011. "You can help the bumps out, but you can also slow your car down by doing the same thing. You really have a fine balance there that you have to work on in making sure that you can get over the bumps well enough, but yet keep your car fast. It’s a trade back and forth there a little bit."
Could it be high time for Kentucky to follow the way of many other tracks and get a repave? Perhaps. Then again, that may not be the answer.
"I don’t know where the line is for what’s too rough and what’s too bumpy," said 2003 Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth, last year’s winner at the Sparta facility. "But, however, I do know unless somebody changes the asphalt and makes an aggregate they use and all that stuff, that paving a track does not make for instant good racing. It takes typically years and years before it gets back to being what I would consider real good.
"Kansas got pretty wide and I think it’s only the second or third race on (new pavement). It was a fast race, so there’s some hope there, and Michigan is starting to widen out a hair, so I think another couple races there that’s going to be a little better, too. It’s just that the new blacktop is so good, (and) it takes a long time to come in and get widened out.
"So certainly there’s an adjustment from going to an older, more weathered surface than a new surface, just because Goodyear has got to bring a really hard tire and the match-up of the pavement. There’s a lot of challenges with new pavement, for sure. I would never be the guy to raise my hand and ask somebody to pave a track."