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Caraviello: Kentucky surface could play role in deciding inaugural race

July 08, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

SPARTA, Ky. -- Track surface could play role in deciding Kentucky's inaugural race

For the pole winner for Saturday night's inaugural Sprint Cup event at Kentucky Speedway, there will be only one place to line up at the start of the race. For the leader, there will be only one place to line up on restarts. For faster cars, there will be only one place to overtake slower vehicles.

Together, it all sounds like a spotter's call over the radio: Outside, outside, outside.

Sound Off: Bumps


Drivers weigh in on the "character" of the track and how they will navigate it.

The fact that this 1.5-mile oval in the Bluegrass State is bumpy came as no surprise to the drivers on NASCAR's premier series, almost all of whom had been here before to test or compete in lower-division events. Everyone knew it was going to be like driving over a rutted interstate highway, and navigating those bumps while piloting aerodynamically-sensitive vehicles that like to hug the asphalt would be crucial to getting around the place fast. What wasn't totally expected, though, was the degree to which that weathered surface might impact the outcome of the race.

That began to dawn on Denny Hamlin during Thursday night's Camping World Truck Series event at the track, as he watched vehicles in the rougher bottom struggle to overtake vehicles on the smoother top.

"[Thursday] night was a prime example. Anybody who restarted on the bottom was done," Hamlin said Friday. "They could not do anything at all. Passing was nearly impossible unless you made it really on the high side. It is rough. It's really, honestly, like two different race tracks from one groove to the next. We struggled to get over the bumps like everybody else [Thursday], but I think we got better as the day went on. It's still going to be very, very hard. You're going to have to be a lot faster than the guy [in front] to clear him and pass him on the bottom."

It may be a new venue on the Sprint Cup tour, but Kentucky's is far from a new surface. The asphalt here was put down when the track was repaved in 2005, seven years after construction. Since then it's seen plenty of action, from stock-car and open-wheel events to the countless test laps NASCAR teams turned here before the practice was banned. To a man, drivers say the surface is among the bumpiest they'll see all year. Bumps were fingered as the culprit when Mike Harmon spun in a vicious crash in 2003, and when Rick Crawford's record of 330 consecutive Truck Series starts ended two years later in a qualifying accident. The track is also grooved, a feature Jimmie Johnson says makes the car wander from side to side, as if driving over a steel-deck bridge.

It all makes the setup of the car a challenge, particularly since crew chiefs like to get the noses of their vehicles as low to the ground as possible. "The majority of the bumps are down the front straightaway. There are some bumps in the corners, but the front straightaway has the majority of them," Kevin Harvick said. "You've got to keep the front splitter on the nose off the ground, otherwise the car will start hitting the ground and not be able to turn like it needs to be. It's just a few different things that you have to do to keep the car off the ground aside from what you would do at some other places."

Drivers will try to avoid the bumps where they can. In Turn 1, they can go wide, an approach aided by the angle at which drivers have to enter that corner. On restarts, Hamlin said the leader will always take the outside lane Saturday, which provides a distinct advantage compared to the driver on the bumpier inside. But they won't be able to avoid them all the time. At some point they're going to have to venture down there, and setups that allow drivers to best navigate that rocky region -- not to mention pass -- may very well have an impact on the final result.

"When we get into the race, you're going to have to run those other lines if you're going to pass. You're going to have to go low," Jeff Gordon said. "You're going to have to go through the middle with some of the bumps, or you're going to have to go higher to try to find ways around it. Most of it's in the setup of the car. It's just how you spring the car, shocks, the more aggressive that you get with the setup for downforce, the more the bumps will affect you. That's what we were looking at [Thursday] night with our data and what we'll be playing around with [Friday]. Just trying to find that package that compliments the bumps the best, but keeps the best aero platform in the car to maximize the downforce, which hopefully will maximize corner speed, maximize speed in general."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. went as far as to say the track has "jumps" in it, which makes it that much more difficult for teams to find the aerodynamic balance they need, but without getting the car quite as low to the ground as they're used to. Nobody wants to see their front splitter chewed up by all the bumps.

"The character in the track, it's fun, different. You have to drive it very differently. Maybe it will allow us to rough each other up a little bit."

--KURT BUSCH

"It's a balancing act, for sure," Kyle Busch said. "Like [Thursday] night, I felt my truck was too rough. My Nationwide car is pretty good, my Cup car is pretty good. There are shock packages you work on, different things you do with springs to try and help it out. It's fine-tune adjustment. You just have to work on it. From what I've heard, they're redoing the infield here after this event. I certainly hope they're taking into consideration redoing the race track. I'm not sure what's going on there, but it needs a good look."

Earnhardt said he last tested in Kentucky a few years ago, and since then "it's deteriorated a ton." This inaugural race has been dominated by two questions -- just how bad will traffic be Saturday when 120,000 people try to squeeze in and out of this place, and does parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. have any immediate plans to resurface the facility? The former, SMI chairman Bruton Smith acknowledges, is going to be a problem. "We expect everyone to be home by Tuesday," he said, hopefully only joking. The latter doesn't seem to be a pressing concern.

"That's only talk," Smith said. "Some want it, some don't. I've reviewed that with NASCAR, and they don't have any comment on it one way or the other. I don't think we'll do it next year, but maybe the year after. That's not a commitment. But we'll do whatever is necessary, I promise you that."

And yet, despite the somewhat bone-jarring nature of the racing surface at Kentucky, there seems to be a sizeable contingent of drivers who enjoy the challenge it represents. Over and over again these past few days, competitors have used the term "character" as a catch-all to describe the qualities of those race tracks that bring something a little different from the weekly grind. And in many minds, Kentucky has plenty of character -- bumps and all.

"The character in the track, it's fun, different," Kurt Busch said. "You have to drive it very differently. Maybe it will allow us to rough each other up a little bit -- give 'em that door doughnut by accident because, with the bumps, you can't predict which way you're going to slide and move around. I think everybody just has an open feeling of, hey, let's put on a great race. Maybe if it's one of the best races this season, they'll leave the track alone for next year. Who knows?"

"I'm speaking for myself in general, but we as drivers really like the older pavement, the older race tracks, the more character," added Ryan Newman. "This place here has a ton of character, and luckily it has more character on the straightway than it does in the corners ... because I think it will inhibit us less racing side-by-side because of that."

Yet those predictions of door-to-door and side-by-side racing action don't necessarily mesh with what Hamlin saw in the Truck event Thursday. Eventually, he said, drivers and crew chiefs will find a better way to get over the bumps at Kentucky. But right now, he sees the groove moving up, up, and up, as drivers fish for a lane that upsets their cars the least.

"It's going to be tough," Hamlin said. "The optimism in me hopes it's one of the best races we've seen, and I hope it is. But the driver in me thinks, man, it's going to be very, very tough to overtake someone unless you're on new tires or you're on a different pit sequence or something like that. It's tough to say. I don't know how our cars are going to react to side-by-side racing over the bumps. I just know that if was hard for the Trucks to make passes on the bottom, it's going to be extra hard for the Cup cars to do it. That part of it, we'll just see how it plays out."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.