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Kentucky Speedway ready to host Sprint Cup debut

File photo: Columbia native Carl Edwards celebrates his victory Sunday in Las Vegas.

File photo: Columbia native Carl Edwards celebrates his victory Sunday in Las Vegas. Photo by The Associated Press.

Carl Edwards kept hearing the same question over and over every time the NASCAR star would step out of his hauler before a Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway.

“They always ask when are the Cup cars coming? When are we getting a Cup race?” Edwards said.

Edwards, who admittedly doesn’t get too involved with the politics of which tracks get a Cup race and which ones don’t, never really came up with a good answer. Now he doesn’t have to.

NASCAR’s top series will make its longawaited debut at the 1.5-mile oval tucked in the northern Kentucky hills Saturday night, a visit that has given the dog days of the NASCAR schedule a much-needed jolt.

Though the Nationwide and Truck Series have been coming to the track annually almost from the moment it opened in 2000 and Cup teams have logged thousands of hours of test laps here before the series cut down on testing to help teams save money, Edwards acknowledges things are a little different this time.

“Right now it feels like it’s kind of a novelty event,” said Edwards, who won his first NASCAR event when he captured the truck race here in 2003. “There’s a bit of buzz in the air.”

A sensation a long-time coming for a state with deep ties to stock car racing’s roots.

This isn’t actually the first time NASCAR’s top series has come to the Bluegrass. Corbin Speedway in southeastern Kentucky hosted a Cup race in 1954, an event won by Hall of Famer Lee Petty.

The Waltrip family, headed by Darrell and Michael Waltrip, is from Owensboro in western Kentucky and Michael will honor his brother with a paint scheme honoring Darrell’s first NASCAR win at Nashville in 1975.

That history is one of the reasons Jerry Carroll was so eager to build a high-performance track in the state. The head of the ownership group that opened the track in 2000 was certain he could build a facility good enough to land a Cup date and the tens of millions of dollars in economic impact that come with it.

Building the track turned out to be the easy part, move a few hundred million cubic yards of dirt and advertise stock car racing to one of the most devout NASCAR fan bases located outside of the deep South and things tend to work out.

Kevin Harvick thought the speedway was Cup ready a decade ago when he won the inaugural Nationwide race in 2001. He saw the packed grandstand — Kentucky has consistently led the one-off tracks in Nationwide attendance — and the technical prowess needed to successfully maneuver through the bumpy circuit and felt the Cup could thrive here.

Yet Harvick knows enough to know it takes more than nice digs, a ton of fans and a quirky track to get on the Cup schedule.

“When you do have a new facility I think everybody wants to see if it is able to keep bringing the fans in and keep the longevity of that particular facility might be proven to get to this level of a race,” Harvick said. “It’s great to see here. I know it took 10 years but it’s good.”

Even if it took 10 years too long for Carroll.

When NASCAR kept brushing aside his attempts to get a Cup date, Carroll and the rest of the ownership group took NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., to court, claiming the two held an unfair monopoly on stock car racing.

The courts consistently sided with NASCAR during the lengthy four-year legal battle as the ownership continued to pursue the fight even after selling the track to Speedway Motorsports Inc. in 2008.

SMI chairman Bruton Smith promised the day he took over he would do what Carroll couldn’t and get a Cup race. The state pledged millions of dollars in tax incentives if he could get it done, and last August he delivered when he moved a Cup date from SMI-owned Atlanta Motor Speedway to Kentucky.

The last 11 months were spent trying to get through Smith’s lengthy to-do list.

Two days out, the finishing touches are still being worked on, though the majority of the overhaul has been completed head of schedule.

Pit road has been moved closer to the grandstands, where more than 40,000 seats have been added. The camping area has been expanded to accommodate 4,000 vehicles and officials claim to have sold tickets to fans from all 50 states. Yes, even Alaska.

A late ticket push has led to a sellout, making the race the second-biggest event in the state behind the Kentucky Derby.

It will also make for some headaches.

Tony Stewart complained Thursday the track could use more SAFER barriers, a notion vice president of competition Robin Pemberton would be evaluated after the weekend.

The cars, however, went through a pair of lengthy test sessions during the afternoon without an incident and several drivers believe the layout will provide for multiple-line racing, something that can be hard to come by on the 1.5-mile ovals.

“It’s not just one groove sitting on the white line, single-file racing,” Edwards said. “It’s a track where you can chase down a guy and pressure him.”

Carroll, who has remained on as an adviser, is convinced the drivers will put on a good show. He knows they better because of the traffic that awaits shortly after the celebration in Victory Lane on Saturday night.

Interstate 71 serves as the only major road in and out of the somewhat remote area located about halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati. Though the state has invested millions of dollars in road improvements in the immediate area, the interstate is still in the midst of several construction projects that could make the ride home a lengthy one.

After waiting so long to get a Cup race, Carroll thinks a slow ride home is a small price to pay.

“When it’s over, we hope the experience has been so great that they’re going to accept the time it takes to get out,” he said with a laugh.

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