Commentary

Bumpy track a challenge at Kentucky

Updated: June 27, 2014, 8:30 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

SPARTA, Ky. -- How bumpy is Kentucky Speedway? That question was answered during a day of Nationwide Series testing when Ryan Blaney tweeted that he had a bloody nose.

The next thing you'd expect would be a tweet calling for the track to be repaved, but he stressed he didn't want that to happen. Drivers getting ready for Saturday night's Sprint Cup Series race here share that perspective -- at least for the most part.

[+] EnlargeMatt Kenseth
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCan Matt Kenseth rediscover the magic -- and Victory Lane -- Saturday night at Kentucky?

"Nobody enjoys it from about 100 feet off of Turn 4 to about 200 feet getting into Turn 1," points leader Jeff Gordon said Friday. "There is nothing enjoyable about that, but we put up with it because it's on the straightaway and it's just uncomfortable. Once you get in the corners this place is fun.

"We all like a challenge of the grip level going away; maybe a crack or a bump that you have to get over and you can use that to your advantage. Just search around the racetrack before somebody else gets out of shape and you take advantage of that. So the corners here are great. We don't want them to repave this track -- none of us do. But I would like for them to pave that front straightaway."

The 1.5-mile facility was last paved in 2000, and rugged winters and hot summers have taken a toll on the asphalt. That "character" makes the track a challenge, one drivers embrace compared with the recently paved tracks that are smooth as glass -- lacking in character and, oftentimes, exciting racing.

Freshly paved tracks feature one groove, and drivers daring to move up the track often find themselves hitting the wall in an instant. Passing is at a minimum, and races resembling parades excite neither drivers nor spectators.

Saturday's Quaker State 400 (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) should feature at least two grooves as drivers look to navigate their way through the bumps. Whoever masters it best will have earned the trophy. And reaching the checkered flag first will mean successfully navigating much of the frontstretch a final time.

"If you can bounce through it better than the next guy -- all that horsepower and everything that those other guys are enjoying right now -- if you can't put it down to the racetrack, you won't be able to use it," Clint Bowyer said, referring to the cars powered by Hendrick Motorsports engines.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to overcome that with handling."

The right shock package is always imperative, but engineers are really put to the test at Kentucky. The surface is the fourth-oldest on the Sprint Cup circuit behind Dover (1995), Auto Club Speedway ('97) and Atlanta ('97). Dover's surface is concrete, which traditionally lasts longer than asphalt.

Bowyer says the Kentucky track is still probably smoother than any road he's driven on, but as chassis setups get more rigid, any undulation in the surface is magnified.

"You've rode in a one-ton pickup [truck] with nothing in it or not loaded down and it will bounce you all over the road. It's kind of like that," Bowyer said. "It's definitely very rough, but it's due in part to the setups that are a big part of that."

One driver who hasn't hit the right setup yet this year is Matt Kenseth, who won here a year ago. It was his fourth win of a seven-win season, which makes the fact that Kenseth has yet to win this year more surprising. Joe Gibbs Racing dominated the 1.5-mile tracks much of 2013, but that magic is nowhere to be found thus far.

Kenseth has five top-5s and 10 top-10s in 16 starts and sits fourth in points but knows his team needs to find more speed. That speed likely will come via gains in horsepower provided by Toyota Racing Development, which provides the team's engines, and by getting a better feel for the new aero rules in effect this season.

At this point, Kenseth knows his team is still searching to fine-tune things enough to consistently challenge for wins. He saw glimpses of a turnaround a month ago, but the team has endured disappointing finishes the past three weeks.

"I felt like up until we got to Pocono, I felt like we were making some gains, we were running better, we put ourselves in position to win the [Coca-Cola] 600, and I wasn't able to hold onto it," Kenseth said. "We just missed it a little bit there at the end, had ourselves up front at Dover -- we didn't have a winning car but we had a top-three or -four car. So I felt like we were making some gains. Had a tough Pocono, Michigan and Sonoma here, but hopefully can go back to Kentucky and get back on track and hopefully continue those gains and be up there at the end."

Kenseth's "tough" stretch is one most drivers would dream of this season, and he fully realizes that. As even-keeled as they come in the garage, his approach is perfect for the winless stretches every drive endures.

"I think one of the keys to the sport ... is to try to control the peaks and valleys the best you can. When things are going great, try not to be too high, and when things are going bad, try not to be too low," Kenseth said. "You've got to keep it somewhere in the center. Things in general are usually not as great as they seem when they are going great, and they are not as bad as they seem when you are struggling a little bit.

"So I think you've just got to keep that focus, keep working on it, keep trying to figure out how you can get better, how you can do a better job at doing your part, how you can help your team more. I think everybody just has to keep working on it, and it'll turn around sooner than later. Everybody always hopes for instant success, and you always hope it turns around on the sooner side. The fact is you've got to keep working on it and give it 100 percent, and it'll come back around."

At Kentucky, drivers just hope to traverse the bumps well enough that they keep the rear end of their car from coming around and sending them into a spin. It's a challenge drivers relish, especially after the previous two races on ovals were at recently paved Pocono and Michigan.

Jimmie Johnson says a driver needs to be half a second quicker than the car ahead of him to easily complete a pass on a one-groove track. And in the days of laser inspections and templates aplenty, the cars are so evenly matched that passing is at a premium.

"When you have a surface that throws the cars around and forces drivers to make mistakes, it forces a second lane, a third lane," said Johnson, who believes the grinding that's been done has left this as a two-groove track. "So we've got a good couple of lanes from the three-quarter mark down on the racetrack that we can use.

"And the bumps make mistakes out of drivers. They put us in situations where we blow it, and open a door to get passed or look for an opportunity to pass someone."

Drivers wouldn't have it any other way -- even if the end result is a bloody nose every now and then.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.

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