SPARTA, Ky. — Kyle Busch hopes his Kentucky Speedway magic has enough shelf life to put him back in victory lane.
He’ll have two chances to find out after discovering there’s plenty in reserve.
The 2015 NASCAR Cup champion isn’t exactly panicking with a third-place points standing entering tonight’s 400-mile race at Kentucky Speedway. On the other hand, Busch arrived here last summer with three victories in hand before adding another at Indianapolis, which now seems like an eternity since he has gone 33 starts without a win.
Fortunately for Busch, Kentucky arrived just in time to remind him why he loves the place.
He earned poles for the Cup and Xfinity races on Friday, clocking a track-record 190.282 mph in rain-shortened qualifying to earn the right to lead the field to green in the main event.
“Certainly, this place has just trended well for me and my team and everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing over the years,” Busch said, “and hopefully we can continue that pattern tomorrow night.”
Busch has been Kentucky’s most dominant driver with two wins each across all three NASCAR national series, including the 1.5-mile track’s inaugural Cup race in 2011. Busch’s Cup win total is just one behind defending race winner Brad Keselowski, and another Kentucky triumph would firm up his playoff prospects unless somebody else figures out how to break through into the exclusive winner’s club that includes Matt Kenseth (2013).
“We certainly think we have as good a shot as any to get back to victory lane there,” said Busch, who has led 437 laps in six Kentucky Cup starts. “It’s a place we get excited about, for sure.”
The challenge facing fellow drivers this weekend is finding the formula on a track that has added yet another wrinkle.
Not content with unveiling a resurfaced, reconfigured layout for last year’s event, Kentucky added another layer of asphalt last October to seal cracks that resulted in so-called “weepers” after showers.
There were no such issues in Thursday night’s rain-delayed Trucks race. Reviews after two Cup practices under clear skies Friday were encouraging on many levels.
“The repave here last year, even @ Texas this year was much better, more forgiving than a typical repave,” said Kenseth, who will start third after clocking 189.740 mph in a Toyota.
“I feel like they’re making progress on that, whatever they’re doing. I think the racing will be OK.”
How much Kentucky’s latest change levels the field, so to speak, and opens the door for a new winner remains to be seen. Considering there have been four first-time champions this season and seven different winners in as many races, seeing a fresh face smiling with the checkered flag wouldn’t be shocking.
“There have been a lot of different winners this year, so that would be the trend,” driver Landon Cassill said. “Anytime you race on a new surface, the races are pretty unpredictable. So, I’d call for a pretty unpredictable race on Saturday night.”
The race might be a bit more sentimental for Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he makes his final Kentucky start.
Junior has posted two top-five runs and won the 2013 pole here along with making his feelings known about Kentucky’s bumpy former surface. Track general manager Mark Simendinger joked that the facility made improvements that have ended that discussion, leaving Earnhardt to develop the right package to challenge for a win.
Such an outcome would obviously please Earnhardt’s legion of fans eager for a happy farewell. Especially since Kentucky turned out to be his finale last season before concussion-related symptoms led him to shut it down. Though 22nd in points and riding a 54-race drought dating back to November 2015, Junior is happy to be healthy again and hungry to prove how far he has come — no matter where he finishes.
“It reminds me about how much we had to overcome and how much rehab went into trying to get healthy,” Earnhardt said. “When you start racing this year, you kind of forget about last year. Little things like this will bring those memories back and remind you to be thankful and fortunate.”