Race Weekend Central

Bowles-Eye View: Oh No, You Didn’t – Marred Kentucky Debut Leaves Unanswered Questions

You never want a new, flagship event to fizzle into a long list of Negative Nancy items by the checkered flag. But by the finish of Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race at Kentucky (July 9), when one public relations director actually noted the National Guard was needed to curb a chaotic outflow of traffic you could sense this event will be talked about at the water cooler Monday for all the wrong reasons.

If anything, NASCAR was shouting USA 10 times louder than anyone Sunday during the Americans’ dramatic comeback at the World Cup; it’s the one start to the work week where they’ll be happy to get ignored, those women taking the spotlight off their moment of shame.

Certainly, people at the track will point to six-hour jams 20 miles long on I-71 as their living nightmare; but what we’re forgetting was millions of fans on their couches psyched up for the sport’s first “new” Cup track since 2001 subjected to paint-drying, single-file competition that was hardly a deterrent from spending their Saturday night doing something, anything else.

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Perhaps that’s the biggest, under-reported aspect of what’s missing in the midst of gridlock madness; on a stage where NASCAR could tout progress on those yawn-inducing, tough-to-pass intermediate ovals they gave fans some of the same old, same old dreary competition that disappointed them at Chicagoland, Kansas, Texas, and Las Vegas in their debuts. The difference now? It’s been 10 years since NASCAR added one of these tracks to the schedule, a full decade to flush out problems and come up with solutions so the next time they went back to the drawing board, it wouldn’t happen again.

But it did.

“I don’t know if the track is not taking any rubber,” said Jimmie Johnson, clearly noting a facility – one that’s had a dozen years to fix its flaws – needs dramatic improvement. “I’ve heard from some people there’s a different grooving pattern above where we’re running, that’s why the cars aren’t comfortable up there, but something to widen out the lanes would put on a better show.”

And then, came the words that these days bring groans to any stock car supporter: “The clean air really makes a big difference.”

Such an aero push, a driver’s hidden enemy remains the serial killer to NASCAR competition officials, drivers and engineers can’t catch. To Bruton Smith’s credit, the owner of Kentucky Speedway and about a dozen Sprint Cup dates keeps attempting to halt the problem; he’s just attacking it with the wrong type of weapon: new asphalt.

“The track was roughly two-and-a-half-lanes wide,” claimed Kyle Busch. “The top was a little slick. Whatever grind they did up top seemed to hurt it, I think, rather than help it.”

“I’ve heard rumors of repaving this place. Hopefully they ask us before they do it.”

That renovation would be a multi-million dollar project, the type that’s been used at Smith’s Charlotte, Vegas and even the short track of Bristol with limited success. Like trying to unclog a sink with a hammer, the two are completely unrelated to each other; aerodynamic issues are caused by speed and tire grip, not bumpy spots on the asphalt. How many times can Smith try to put makeup on a pig and call it a supermodel? Wouldn’t some sort of radical, graduated banking, a shorter track or even a couple more Goodyear tire tests make a bigger difference?

Smith talked a good game after the race, but for certain he’s on top of the “Oh no, you didn’t” list after the fallout. This guy’s the one who bought this track specifically to bring a Cup date, brought millions in renovations to add seats in the stands and has been helping prepare for this moment for over two years. Sure, he can’t fix the car chassis themselves but some of that money could have been spent on more parking lots, traffic research and government lobbying for an expansion of I-71.

What good are adding tens of thousands of seats when angry fans will be there only one year? Smith also didn’t immediately announce ticket refunds, discounts or any type of “make good” program on Saturday night, a plan that needed instant action in this age of social media dictating perception.

You see, it’s not 1998, where people will wait in Las Vegas traffic for eight hours and just say “it’s part of it;” in 2011, when negative experiences get spread on Twitter in seconds combined with the ADD nature of our general public today, fans just won’t put up with the problems.

A track statement, released Saturday by GM Mark Simendinger won’t get it done either; Smith himself needs to be the face of Kentucky’s recovery, tackling not one but both major issues. Otherwise, he risks spoiling a market once drooling for Sprint Cup competition. And that needs to happen sometime this week, before fans move on to the next big thing and all they’ll remember was a long list of others’ bad experiences.

On the racing side, so many stars spend this Monday shaking heads at their own performance. Joey Logano, with his job on the line and entering Kentucky – a track where he’d gone 3-for-3 in Nationwide competition entering this weekend – had a golden opportunity to kill rumors his job was on the line, but didn’t. The No. 20 never contended, failing to crack the top 10 for more than a handful of laps en route to 14th.

Included on the stat line was zero laps led, combined with limited TV time on a track where three years ago, he came into his own at 18. Now, the youngster seems unlikely to score a victory during the rest of the regular season, refocusing the conversation on an ugly start, a third missed Chase and whether Home Depot’s become permanently impatient with limited progress.

There’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. whose blown tire, putting the No. 88 out of its misery meant he didn’t stop the bleeding on a slump that’s now lasted about a month. Runs of 21st, 41st, 19th and 30th have dropped him to eighth in points, sapping confidence and linking to recent history of a similar fall from Chase contention last year… and the year before that… and really, for all intents and purposes (although Junior had enough cushion to make the ’08 Chase) the year before that.

Steve Letarte’s biggest test as a crew chief, not long removed from putting Junior on the cusp of title contention now lies ahead.

For Brad Keselowski, an all-important second victory that would have all but assured him a bid on the Chase, especially considering his recent run of solid performances didn’t transpire. Sure, a faulty radio played a part but this race seemed like one Keselowski could have had. He had Kyle Busch in his sights and could have even roughed up the No. 18 considering their back-and-forth history but wound up in the wrong place on the wrong time on double-file restarts, fighting an enemy he could not see.

“At the end, the restarts are just a crapshoot,” he said after fading from first, leading 79 laps total to seventh in the final few circuits. “If you get the bottom lane, you’re going backwards. When you restart on the bottom lane, not only do you not have air on the nose, you don’t have air on the right side of the car. The right side is what keeps these cars from spinning out. When you don’t have that air, you’re awful.”

“It’s just a product of double-file restarts. That’s why drivers hate them because some tracks are great and they put on a good show, and then there are tracks like this where it just completely screws your day.”

Hours after the checkered flag fell, too many people from all walks of NASCAR Nation were busy using those words, “I got screwed.” So now, the question becomes in the wake of plenty of “Oh no, you didn’ts” what are the main principles involved both on the track and off actually going to do before it’s too late?

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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