Joey Logano owns Kentucky Speedway....in Nationwide. What can he do this weekend in Sprint Cup? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
In recent years, in a stunning round of body blows to the sport's news coverage, newspapers in Dallas, Fort Worth, Miami, Philadelphia, Richmond, Raleigh, Nashville, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta, Daytona Beach, St. Petersburg, Fla., Jacksonville, Fla., Seattle, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, Birmingham, Ala., and Indianapolis have all either eliminated NASCAR beats entirely or severely cut back coverage to just a few events.
Meanwhile, about that theory that two-car Daytona drafts are safer than big-pack racing…..Those 30 drivers who were involved in big crashes in the final seven laps of Saturday night's Daytona 400 may still be licking their wounds, and debating how better they might have played those green-white-checkered overtimes.
But they won't have much more time this week to consider all that, because they face new problems, on the bumpy 10-year-old Kentucky Speedway asphalt that could make this 1-1/2-mile track a bit more challenging than most cookie-cutters.
Bruton Smith bought this $150 million track just south of Cincinnati, and moved a Cup date from Atlanta Motor Speedway to create this Saturday night's 400-miler.
But even more than 10 years in, there have been questions all week about whether or not this place is ready for a Sprint Cup weekend. Traffic is expected to be very bad. All three NASCAR touring series, Truck Thursday, Nationwide Friday and Cup Saturday, will run here.
The grandstands, always filled for NASCAR's Nationwide events here, have been expanded to 100,000 seats, and the track says it has a sellout, which would be a rarity these days on the stock car tour.
How well I-71 and the Kentucky State Highway Patrol can handle this event remains to be seen.
The new boss at Richmond: Dennis Bickmeier. (Photo: ISC)
In more NASCAR breaking news, the France family's International Speedway Corp. has made a sudden, unexpected shakeup at Richmond International Raceway, bringing in veteran Dennis Bickmeier – from California Speedway and most recently Michigan International Speedway – to take over as president of RIR. Bickmeier, 44, is a well-respected NASCAR figure, who has between now and the last event of the 'race to the chase,' Sept. 10th, to boost ticket sales at RIR.
And in more NASCAR news, NASCAR's Nationwide race in Montreal appears to be in some question now, with politicians not willing to put up $1 million to support the race. (In contrast, pols in Austin, Texas, are anteing up $25 million for that F1 race.)
But NASCAR Wednesday announced it would add a Nationwide race to next year's schedule at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, moving the long-running Indy weekend event from cross-town short track Raceway Park. Adding the Nationwide race may be a good move, in getting more rubber down on the notoriously fickle racing surface, and in adding some action to an otherwise slow-paced weekend. However IMS is also adding a Friday Grand-Am sports car race on the Formula 1 road course, which is more problematic, since getting the track changed over from oval racing for Cup and Nationwide from the road course will likely take some time. Adding more racing to the Indy weekend has been a possibility since the 2008 tire debacle at indy.
Nearly every driver on the Cup tour knows Kentucky Speedway, even though this will be the Cup series' debut, because for years this track was used for frequent testing. NASCAR two years ago banned testing at tour tracks, though Roger Penske is repeating his request that NASCAR open up testing.
Kyle Busch, who hasn't won much in a couple of weeks now, is going for the 'trifecta' this weekend, running Truck, Nationwide and Cup.
"There are a lot of sweeping corners, so you've really got to keep your momentum going," Bush says. "There's a lot of throttle-on time.
"You carry a lot of good speed, but the place is really wide, so you've got room for maneuverability.
"You can run the bottom. It seems like you can run the middle. I don't know how great the top will be; but we'll see, once we see what kind of tire we're on."
The tire setup to be used here was tested in early June by Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Travis Kvapil, Joey Logano, Mark Martin and David Reutimann. These left-sides were raced at Michigan three weeks ago; the right-sides are a new design.
However perhaps more important than tires……
"The biggest challenge for all of us is just how bumpy the track is -- and how much load we can distribute through the bump-stops versus through the springs…..or hold it down with a shock," Busch says.
"If the bumps are too harsh and you're bouncing up the track, you can't run in under somebody because you're afraid you're going to bounce up into them."
Want a good pick for Saturday's Kentucky 400? Might consider Matt Kenseth, here with team owner Jack Roush, and Matt's wife Katie and daughters Kaylin and Grace (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
"It's one of the rougher track we race on, so we'll have to work on that part of the handling, kind of like we do at Vegas," Greg Erwin, Biffle's crew chief, says.
Teammate Carl Edwards, who had a difficult Daytona, after spinning into the wall early, will be trying to regain momentum, after losing the Cup tour lead with his 37th place finish. "The track has so many bumps and different lines you can run that I think it will be a lot better racing than we see at a lot of these 1-1/2--mile tracks," Edwards predicts.
Edwards and Busch will also be running Friday's Nationwide event. And how is that series doing on TV? ESPN's Daytona coverage earned a 1.6, averaging just over two million viewers; last year's event drew a 1.9. (The most-viewed Nationwide race cable was the 2010 February race at Daytona, with Danica Patrick, earning a 3.2 rating, some 4.2 million viewers.
Up on tap here Thursday, a test of NASCAR's planned fuel injection systems.
While officials are downplaying the issue – perhaps because the new devices are expected to add about $150,000 per team to the price of fielding a Cup car – Roush says he's intrigued with some of the possibilities:
"Most of the hardware is determined," Roush says of the McLaren-designed FI systems, which apparently will have Bosch electronics. "The calibrations will be somewhat left to the teams to figure out what the air to fuel ratios are. You're still going to have an opportunity to burn the engines up if you want to…which makes me happy -- because I need to have that amount of risk in my life for decision-making, to know how bad that's going to feel when that happens."
The next Chad Knaus? Well crew chief Drew Drew Blickensderfer just won Daytona.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
One of the men to watch here is Logano, who has won several races here. Logano, after closing out 2010 with a hot streak, opened 2011 in a bit of a funk. However the last few weeks he appears to be getting back on track.
"I've needed something to turn around," Logano says. "It seems like everything's been going the wrong way.
"Now we've had a good run in Sonoma, and a first (Nationwide Friday) and a third (Saturday).
"Kentucky is a really good track for us…at least we think it is."There is definitely a lot of momentum on my side. Me personally I needed a lot for self-confidence."
Saturday at Daytona he wound up third, in the crash-filled finish – 30 drivers were involved in crashes in the final 20 miles. Logano got lucky on an incident with Mark Martin: "It was on the restart, I was shooting the center, and Mark was trying to come down in front of me.
"It could have gone either way. I could have backed off a little bit and let him in. I was wide-open; I didn't care. And he was coming down across me.
"We were going to try to team up there if we were able to do that…but I was going to go in there guns blazing and see what the heck happened on the other side and try to find a partner once I got over there."
Logano got there but a lot of others didn't, including Martin.
The big winner, in more ways than one probably, was David Ragan, who has been on the hot seat needing to renew sponsor UPS. This win could be just the boost needed.
But then teammate Matt Kenseth, who pushed Ragan to victory, has won twice already this season yet his long-time sponsor Diageo's Crown Royal just decided to leave NASCAR.
For team owner Roush it's already been a pretty darned good year, with Trevor Bayne and Edwards going 1-2 in the Daytona 500, with Edwards clearly one of the favorites for the championship, and now with Ragan winning.
"But David has been in position to win a number of races this year," Roush pointed out. "It hasn't been for lack of performance or lack of sound judgment on the way the car's been prepared. So it was just a matter of time."
And Ragan, though four years now on the tour, is still just 25. "Ford is in very good shape for having a good cadre of young talent coming," Roush says. "If we can find sponsorship for them and keep the programs going, we'll be able to really have a harvest."
For Drew Blickensderfer, Ragan's crew chief, the Daytona win is a big personal boost. He, ironically, was Kenseth's teammate at Daytona two years ago when Kenseth won the 500.
"With 10 races to go last season, I felt we gained some momentum," Blickensderfer says. "This year our mindset's gotten better; we felt like a top-20 team to start the year…and a top-15…and 10…and now the winner."
The Daytona crowd of some 115,000 (as estimated by NASCAR) watching the 400 couldn't have seen a wilder finish.
"Those guys jumped up on the outside, and then another group jumped up on the outside, and we were three-wide," Ragan said of the final restart.
"We only had two laps, and we were satisfied with staying on the bottom, and whatever was going to happen is going to happen.
"When we came off turn four, I didn't know where the other cars were, or how close they were. But Matt came on the radio and said 'I'm going to stay with you.' So I assumed he had someone on his outside.
"It's not like Matt to push and push and push and run second."
Joey Logano: Finished 2010 hot...opened 2011 cold...now he's hot again, but can he keep it up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)