Kentucky offers last 1.5-mile NASCAR stop before Cup playoff

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SPARTA, Ky. (AP) — NASCAR drivers know there is little data from Kentucky Speedway’s unique 1.5-mile layout that can be applied to the remainder of the intermediate tracks on the Cup schedule.

But there are four stops at 1.5-mile tracks looming in the upcoming playoffs and Saturday night at Kentucky gives teams a chance to hone their intermediate packages. Different banking at opposite ends of the Kentucky track adds intrigue to the 400-mile race as well as curiosity as to whether NASCAR’s new aerodynamics package generates more passing.

Two-time defending race winner Martin Truex Jr. welcomes a challenge after dominating last July. He led 174 of the 267 laps while starting from the pole.

“I think that’s one of the most unique parts about our sport and what we do as drivers and teams,” said Truex. “This stuff is always changing. … They change the tires all the time. The rules of the cars are changing all the time. All the top drivers are consistently working on how they drive the cars and how they do better. It’s a huge challenge to try to stay near the top of the sport, and that’s part of what makes it fun.”

Truex is among the favorites Saturday night as he and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch lead the series with four wins each. One of Truex’s victories came at 1.5-mile Charlotte in May, but Truex desires more consistency at that length.

Brad Keselowski is a three-time winner at Kentucky, while Busch has won twice and both figure to be in the picture after qualifying inside the top 10. The winner of seven of the last eight races at Kentucky has started inside the top 10.

Toyota teams have won five times at Kentucky, while Ford has two wins and Chevrolet is still seeking its first trip to this victory lane. But Chevy is coming off back-to-back wins the last two weeks with Alex Bowman at Chicago for Hendrick Motorsports and Justin Haley on Sunday at Daytona for Spire Motorsports. Bowman and Haley marked the first back-to-back first-time winners in the Cup Series since Casey Mears and Truex in 2007.

Kurt Busch, who might have won at Daytona on Sunday if he had not pitted from the lead right before weather stopped the race, is hoping Chevrolet shines at Kentucky.

“I’m hopeful to have the right sequence of pit stops,” said Kurt Busch. “This place is really starting to act a lot like Texas with the tire and the banking on both ends of the track. What we’re looking forward to doing is just kind of simulate the way we’ve seen sister tracks and how the winds have happened.”

The field’s mission is handling a tri-oval where turns 1 and 2 are banked slightly higher (17 degrees) than turns 3 and 4 (14 degrees) following a 2016 reconfiguration and repave. Finding a groove is another matter, though drivers seem pleased with a mixture of rubber and traction additive that has improved grip.

How much that will be a factor on Saturday night and several months from now remain to be seen. The drivers’ objective is just making the most of Kentucky and hoping that provides some baseline for a layout they’ll see often this fall.

“Now the track’s pretty smooth,” Keselowski said. “And the grip is mostly on the bottom, except for the PJ1 (additive) they put down. Long story short, it was a little more comfortable before it was repaved, but it is what it is now, a roller coaster.”

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