SPARTA, KY. (WDRB) -- This year, Kentucky Speedway officials had nothing to apologize for. If you've ever gotten into a Sprint Cup race more quickly or smoothly, name it.
The only problem is, no one was quite sure whether to attribute this year's improvement to track changes or a significantly smaller crowd, or both.
Around 80,000 (my estimate, no official attendance figures were provided) watched Brad Keselowski run off with the second NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 Saturday night. That's a long way from the 107,000-plus sellout that steamed in traffic to get into the facility last year, turning the spotlight of the race onto the traffic outside of the track instead of the traffic on it.
This time, I didn't talk to anyone at the race who had a bad time. Fans reported no stops getting to the track gates -- even as late as an hour before the race -- and a couple of fans from Louisville said they left minutes after the checkered flag, had walked to their car in 15 minutes and were back on the interstate in another 15.
Concessions improvements, added restrooms and the option to bring in your own cooler all were hits.
So now comes the question -- can the track win fans back? Track publicity director Tim Bray had used a phrase, "penalty box" in a discussion we had last month, saying fans could be waiting a year to see how this race went, or staying away out of frustration.
Officials knew weeks ago sales were down, and 100-plus degree heat probably killed what walk-up they might've hoped for, though you really shouldn't be hoping for walk-up to fill a Sprint Cup race.
Hopefully, the track gets another chance next year. By all appearances, it responded to its first-year problems in a first-class way.
On the track, Sprint Cup racing has settled into a groove. SMI and Kentucky Speedway owner Bruton Smith talked about it before the race and actually suggested bringing out more caution flags -- even if there was no wreck or other reason to force one.
Why? Saturday night's race served as a prime example. You'd get some great racing at the start or on double-file restarts, especially in the first 6-8 laps. Then the field would begin to spread out and within 15 laps or so you're watching a strung out field run circles with little head-to-head action, at least where it matters most.
So you waited for green-flag pits, or you waited for another caution to let the action heat up.
I sat in the press box above the main grandstand, and you could see the pattern not just on the track, but in the stands. Fans would come to their feet on the restart, stay that way for five or six laps, then settle back down into their seats.
"We need caution flags," Smith before the race. "I don't care what you want to call it, we need those caution flags because that adds excitement to what we do.
"You just can't sit there and nothing is happening. It ruins the event. It's damaging to our sport. Look at some of your other sports. They have a mandatory timeout, TV time and all these things, and that creates things within the sport. We need to be creative in what we do."
On Saturday, the best action of the night came on restarts, and there was some awfully good racing in short stretches. After a caution came out on Lap 126, the restart featured a three-way duel between Denny Hamlin, leader Kyle Busch and Jimmy Johnson, with those three dueling and Johnson nosing in front to take the lead from Busch, before Hamlin got a run and pulled away from them both.
What followed for about five laps was the best competition of the race -- Johnson vs. Busch for second. Bush held the lead, with Johnson repeatedly diving below him between Turns 3 and 4, but unable to overtake him. It was an extended full-throttle run between two of the series' best drivers, and it kept going until Johnson got the advantage and the field became strung out again.
There also was some brief 4-wide action on the restart on Lap 154.
But in the end, fuel calculations played as much of a role as anything. Keselowski grabbed the lead from Hamlin then coasted into the pits on fumes for his last fuel stop on Lap 208. A caution on Lap 210 brought others to the pits, but he gambled that he had enough fuel to make it to the finish, and he did. He assumed the lead when others pitted for fuel, and never looked back. He won by a commanding 4.4 seconds.
If you like stories about handling adversity and persevering, this race gave you plenty.
Keselowski wrecked his primary car in his first practice attempt on Friday, but still had enough to win Saturday, in his third race of the week over the 1.5-mile tri-oval. He was the only driver to try the Truck Series, Nationwide, Sprint Cup triple.
"I guess it took us three times to get it right," said Keselowski, 28, who won the Nationwide Race here last year. "It wasn't the newest car we got, but it runs. "They put together a backup car from last year in 100-degree heat in one hour's time to get me back on the track. You have to call this a team victory."
It was Keselowski's series-leading third win of the year. But his tale of perseverance had nothing on Kasey Kahne, who finished second.
Early in the race, Kahne exited a pit stop with a loose wheel, and had to come back into the pits to have it tightened. When he returned to the track he was two laps down and in 29th place. But he had a fast car, took advantage of regaining a lap on a restart, and patiently worked his way back into the top five before making a run at the finish.
He had no chance of catching Keselowski, "I was just hoping he'd run out of gas," Kahne said.
Hamlin, who finished third, was just hoping his own car wasn't. He was running fast enough to win, but wound up having to conserve fuel in the final stretches just to preserve a top-five finish.
Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished fourth, fifth and sixth.
Kyle Busch, a three-time winner here who won the inaugural Sprint Cup race here last season and led the most laps of any driver (118) Saturday night, scraped the wall about halfway through the race, broke a shock absorber, and fought his way to a 10th-place finish.
The race featured only five cautions, which actually is more than races have in recent weeks. Frankly, the drivers have gotten so good and the teams so efficient that you're not seeing a lot of need for cautions -- expect from a competition standpoint.
Fans at Kentucky Speedway had some fun on the restart. Now, after a smooth showing in the books, we'll see if those fans who stayed away will push the restart button on the Kentucky track next year.
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