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Track bumps, bump-and-run contact mark Happy Hour

June 29, 2012, Jarrod Breeze, NASCAR.com

Brad Keselowski helped out in the shop with the 'Blue Deuce' after he and Juan Montoya got into each other. (Getty Images)

Highlights: tangles with bumpy track, Kes and Montoya tangling with each other

SPARTA, Ky. -- Kentucky Speedway is one of eight mile-and-a-half tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule, and Saturday night's Quaker State 400 marks the fifth of the season on a venue of similar distance.

But grouping all the 1.5-mile tracks in the "cookie-cutter" category is a bit of a misnomer. Contrary to popular belief, not all of them race alike. Kentucky definitely plays to its own beat, and much of that beating can be found between pavement and tire.

Kentucky's bumpy asphalt surface creates challenges no other track in NASCAR presents, and drivers and teams must be able to smooth out the rough edges in order to get an edge.

Quaker State 400

Practice 1
Pos.DriverSpeed
2.Dale Earnhardt Jr.176.817
3.Jimmie Johnson176.540
4.Clint Bowyer176.488
5.Martin Truex Jr.176.327

"The bumps are very difficult to navigate here at Kentucky," said Brad Keselowski, who led 79 laps in a seventh-place finish in the inaugural Cup race at Kentucky last year. "It produces a race track that, by its very nature, is hard to be consistent to drive because it's hard to hit the same bump twice, even in a race car as a supposedly professional driver.

"We can't hit the same bumps twice, whether it's passing traffic or tire fall-off that changes the way our car enters the corner. ... Each bump you hit changes the way the car drives. So it's hard to really predict, as a driver, what the car is going to do until it does it when you're on a bumpy surface. That's very challenging and requires a more disciplined skill set to drive. It rewards some and obviously doesn't reward others. It requires a little bit more feel, so I think it rewards some of the more talented drivers, as well."

Pos.DriverSpeed
2.Brad Keselowski174.633
3.Greg Biffle173.958
4.AJ Allmendinger173.572
5.Carl Edwards173.494

Keselowski went for a bumpy ride in Friday's two practices, but it wasn't the track that gave him a problem more so than it was Juan Montoya. Contact between the two less than five minutes into the opening session sent Keselowski's No. 2 Dodge into the wall, forcing him to a backup.

Keselowski spent 50 minutes in the opening practice helping his crew prepare the backup car. He responded in Happy Hour with the second-fastest speed. He made 40 laps, and his last was his best, at 174.633 mph (30.922 seconds).

Montoya's car suffered a double-dose of damage; after the 42 team elected to repair its primary following the first incident, more contact between the two brought out a red flag. Montoya's car needed repairs to its left-rear quarter panel after repeated hits from Keselowski, who volunteered himself to the NASCAR hauler to discuss the situation.

Jeff Gordon paced the session at 175.097 mph (30.840 seconds). Greg Biffle (173.958/31.042)) was third, followed by AJ Allmendinger (173.572/31.111) and Carl Edwards (173.494/31.125).

Kyle Busch, who led the first practice with a speed of 177.801 mph (30.371 seconds), dropped to ninth in Happy Hour at 172.723 (31.264). Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seventh in final practice (173.144/31.188) after posting the second-fast time in the opening session (176.817/30.540).

Earnhardt says it's a fine line drivers face in racing on the bumps at Kentucky.

"With our cars, you've got to get them close to the ground to get the best aero platform and downforce that you can get. But, you can't be on the ground too hard and the bumps really make that a challenge for the engineers," Earnhardt said. "With a bumpy track the splitter is always banging on the ground, so you have to listen to the driver really when it comes to the bumpy tracks. He'll tell you the splitter is bothering the car and making it tight. It's kind of tough. That's really a challenge."

In preparation for last year's race at Kentucky, Jimmie Johnson knew he was presented with a challenge. Before Kentucky was awarded a Cup race, it served as a frequent test stop. Johnson came to Kentucky last season with preconceived notions, most unflattering toward the track. He left with a different feeling after a third-place finish.

"I got a lot of laps so I could understand what the Cup car was like. Through all that, I really didn't enjoy this race track because I crashed a lot down in Turns 3 and 4," Johnson said. "We got into the race weekend and starting race with people, I was really surprised with how racing the track was and how much fun I had."

Johnson was third-fastest in the first practice at 176.540 mph (30.588 seconds), but dropped to the 12th position in Happy Hour. He made 58 laps, second only to Busch's 67, with a top speed of 172.480 mph (31.308 seconds).

Johnson wasn't the only driver troubled with Turn 4 at Kentucky. Matt Kenseth struggled with it in last year's race before settling for a sixth-place finish. He said it's another example of Kentucky's separation from other 1.5-mile tracks.

"It is really challenging with as rough as it is with our cars and bump stops and all the things that we do."

--MATT KENSETH

"Turn 4 is really different and it took me three-quarters of the race to figure that out," said Kenseth, who struggled in Happy Hour. He was 35th on the speed chart at 170.767 mph (31.622 seconds). "There are a couple little things down there where there is some speed. It is really challenging with as rough as it is with our cars and bump stops and all the things that we do."

Kenseth thinks Kentucky's distinctive qualities are a good thing, though. "The more character it has the better."

Both Earnhardt and Johnson also said the track's characteristics lend it to get exciting racing.

"It's a little rough and the groove is not real distinct. So, it lends itself to good side-by-side racing," Earnhardt said. "The exit to Turn 4 is really, really wide, so you just kind of play around and find a groove that works for you. Every time you change tires you kind of have to be ready to move around a little bit and find out where you car is fast and where that set of tires wants to run on the race track."

"The bumps are frequent and everywhere," Johnson said. "It doesn't matter with lane you are in. They are all around the race track. That challenge I think puts on for better racing. It's multiple lanes available for the drivers out there. It should put on for a great race."

Keselowski says Kentucky embodies what NASCAR is about -- a complete effort from the shop, to the garage, to the track and everyone making it work.

"I like that about the sport, that we go to different race tracks, and I would equate that to a football player that plays in the snow one week, then in the rain the next and the heat and then at a dome. Well, it's the same thing for racing where we go to different tracks and one's bumpy, one's smooth, one's flat and one has a lot of tire wear and then, who knows, we can go to a road course in between. So, I think that's good. It showcases the drivers and teams that are the most versatile and can find a way to be successful," Keselowski said.

Saturday's race will mark just the second in the Cup Series for Kentucky Speedway, but it already has developed a reputation.

"It is a different and unique race track," Kenseth said.

Much like a snowflake, no two mile-and-a-halves are alike. No snowflake has a chance this weekend at Kentucky, where heat advisories are in effect. For a driver to have a chance, they'll have to beat the heat -- and the bumps.