SPARTA, Ky. – Brad Keselowski will tell you he likes the track at the Kentucky Speedway. He’ll tell you that he feels comfortable on the 1½ mile tri-oval in no small part because of his experience at the facility.
But ask Keselowski what it is exactly about the track he likes and, well, that’s where the 29-year-old defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion draws the line.
“I can’t tell you that,” said Keselowski Thursday afternoon. “That’s like asking the secret ingredient, you know? That’s like going into Wonka’s place and asking how they make the gum. That’s asking the secret ingredient.”
Whatever the secret ingredient is, Keselowski is looking for it to work in his favor a second straight year Saturday night during the third annual Quaker State 400 race.
Keselowski took the checkered flag last year by 4.4 seconds over Kasey Kahne for a victory that helped springboard him down the stretch of the Sprint Cup regular season and into the Chase for the Cup where he won his first overall championship.
Saturday’s race is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. There is a 40 percent chance of rain, according to weather.com. Practice for the Quaker State 400 begins at 11:30 a.m. Friday. Two-lap qualifying is set to start at 5:10 p.m.
Keselowski was 10th in the Chase for the Cup standings after last year’s Quaker State 400 win. He’s sitting in ninth place this season, 119 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson (573 points) and just one point ahead of Martin Truex, Jr., last week’s winner at Sonoma, for the 10th and final automatic qualifying spot for the Chase with 10 races to go. There are also two wild card spots for those drivers that finish between 11th and 20th based on who has the most wins.
Keselowski doesn’t have one of those yet this season. Aside from a fifth-place finish at Dover three weeks ago, he hasn’t finished better than 12th in the last seven races. He had seven top-nine finishes in the first eight races of the year, including four top-five placings.
“Realistically if you have two or three wins you’re in pretty good shape,” said Keselowski. “We don’t have those but we have had solid runs where we’ve been close to winning. A lot of could’a, should’a, would’as but those don’t count for anything so now’s our time to really shine.”
Johnson has three wins this season and 10 top-10 finishes while placing himself at the top of the points board after all but two races, including the last 11 in a row. Johnson has a 25-point advantage over second place Carl Edwards.
Johnson, who won five consecutive championships from 2006-2010, has finished sixth and third in the final Sprint Cup standings the last two seasons. He finished sixth at Kentucky Speedway last year after starting on the pole.
The Kentucky Speedway is hosting NASCAR’s top three series this weekend. The Camping World Truck Series is running Thursday night with the UNOH 225, while the Nationwide Series Feed the Children 300 will be run Friday night.
Keselowski, Scott Riggs and Kyle Busch are scheduled to compete in all three races. Busch was the winner of the inaugural Quaker State 400 two years ago and has led more than 100 laps in each of the first two years of the event. Busch, who is currently in eighth place in the Sprint Cup standings, has led 40 percent of the laps he has run in all competitive events he’s raced at Kentucky Speedway, said track general manager Mark Simendinger.
“For me, I like laps. I like being able to get out there on the race track and be able to run as many laps as I can. To me just getting that extra track time is like getting extra practice. I don’t mind taking advantage of all of that,” said Busch.
Like Keselowski, he wasn’t going to give away any personal track secrets.
“It’s an interesting race track. It’s certainly challenging. It’s tough, so I think it brings out the better drivers,” said Busch. “You’ve got to have a good handling race car to get around the bumps here but you can de-tune the speed of your race car to get over the bumps better and slow your car down, which is not very good. You’ve got to find a happy medium to that and I think that (crew chief) Dave Rogers does a really good job of helping me with that as well as just being able to keep the speed in the car.”
Now that the Quaker State 400 is in its third year, there seems to be less concern about outside issues that plagued the event the first couple of years; mainly those of traffic congestion and parking. Simendinger said there is more staff on hand for the entire weekend to help facilitate fans with their experience. Management, race teams and fans are all two years wiser about the event.
Now, the focus is on the racing.
“It’s a challenging track. It’s hard,” said Simendinger. “The turns are not symmetrical, and that’s obviously on purpose. That’s one of the things that makes it different and more challenging. We work hard here and our goal is to build the very best track in the country.
“We’re in our third year. You can’t buy tradition, you have to build it a year at a time and you have to earn it. You earn it by people coming out and having a great experience and you earn it by having great competition on the track. Hopefully both of those things occur.”