It’s one of the best columns of the year for me to write when the Sprint Cup Series makes its annual stop at Kentucky Speedway. Back in the day when I first started this column, Sprint Cup racing in the Commonwealth wasn’t even in the dreaming stage. The sport was exploding in popularity and it seemed that every track on the schedule was adding seats and plans for new tracks were being announced but none of those announcements had a track landing in Sparta, Ky.
Of course, all of that changed when in 1998 ground was broken on what was then a 66,089-seat capacity mile- and- a- half oval with the idea that if you build it, NASCAR will eventually come. NASCAR did come in 2000 when in June, the NASCAR All-Pro and Camping World Truck Series combined for the first-ever event weekend at the track. Greg Biffle won the first-ever Truck Series event held at the track, but a little piece of track trivia is that Billy Bigley Jr. was the first-ever NASCAR winner at the track in the All-Pro race. The track was an immediate success with every team, driver and NASCAR official.
The track also began hosting events from the ARCA and Indy Car Series, but its path to one day hosting a Sprint Cup event took a big step in June of 2001 when it held its first Nationwide race. The race was held in front of a capacity crowd that was treated to a trip to victory lane by Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick.
That race was also my first trip to Kentucky Speedway and I remember leaving that night thinking that even though it was a long shot at the time, there was a chance that one day the Sprint Cup Series would wave a green flag in Kentucky. It was obvious that the track would have to undergo some major changes to be in a position to be awarded a Cup date, but at least there was hope.
The biggest change to the track occurred in 2008 when Speedway Motorsports Inc. announced that it would be purchasing the track. The deal was not made official until the end of the year and SMI wasted very little time in announcing that it would be investing $13.5 million in a facility-enhancement project that would create more camping spots and improve the track access roads.
By now the track had become very popular with Sprint Cup teams as a test track as testing on tracks that hosted Sprint Cup events was not being permitted during that time. The track’s layout resembled the other mile-anda half tracks like Charlotte and Atlanta, so a test there could pay dividends at more than one track. The teams testing were leaving the state singing the praises of the track and saying that the track was indeed worthy of hosting a Cup event.
Once SMI bought the track, you just had that feeling that its chairman and CEO, Bruton Smith, would do whatever it took to bring a Cup race to the track. He immediately announced that he would be increasing the seating capacity to 107,000 and moving pit road closer to the stands to enhance the fans’ experience.
Smith finally did what many thought would never happen and that was announce that a Sprint Cup race was coming to Kentucky in July 2011. The track played to host to its first NASCAR tripleheader weekend when it hosted the Craftsman Truck Series, Nationwide Series and Sprint Cup Series. Traffic problems highlighted the weekend, but Smith and the state officials rolled up their sleeves and solved the problem before the following year.
The track now has cemented its spot on the schedule and with its old, worn out, rough racing surface that always produces some great racing. It will be another opportunity to win and get in the Chase for the drivers that like the mile-and-a-half-tracks. Kentucky and Atlanta are the only mile-anda half tracks remaining before the Chase field is set.
Event: Quaker State 400
Track: Kentucky Motor Speedway (1.5-mile oval, 14 degrees of banking in the turns)
Date: June 28, 7:30 p.m.
Defending champion: Matt Kenseth