Believe it or not, No. 14 Rush Truck Centers/Mobil 1 Chevrolet driver Tony Stewart circled Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway in Sparta on his calendar way before the 2016 NASCAR season began. Just short of the Daytona 500 or maybe the Brickyard 400 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Saturday night’s race on the newly repaved 1.5-mile oval is as important as any this year to Stewart, who’s in his final season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition.
Kentucky Speedway is about 80 miles from his home in Columbus, Indiana, and a good contingent of Hoosiers will head to the Bluegrass State this weekend for one of the final opportunities in the area to watch the three-time champion race in NASCAR. It’s also his final chance to win at one of the only two tracks where he has yet to record a Sprint Cup victory.
Kentucky and Darlington (S.C.) Raceway are the only tracks remaining on Stewart’s very short winless list. He’s said winning at every track on the circuit would be an incredible feat.
“Winning a race at Kentucky and winning the Southern 500 in Darlington, that would absolutely cap off everything that – if we win at Darlington and Kentucky – would cover every track we currently have on the schedule,” Stewart said. “No matter what happens in the championship, I could say that was perfect.”
There’s even an historic importance to Saturday night’s Kentucky race. It marks Stewart’s 600th Sprint Cup start – the 24th-most in the sport’s history. As importantly, the race is another chance for Stewart to rack up points to clinch a berth in NASCAR’s 2016 Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs.
Because he missed the first eight races of the season after sustaining a burst fracture of the L1 vertebra in a Jan. 31 all-terrain-vehicle accident, Stewart’s first race in 2016 didn’t occur until April 24 at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway. NASCAR granted Stewart a medical waiver that made him eligible for the 2016 Chase. After a dramatic last-corner pass June 26 at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway to end an 84-race winless streak, Stewart now must race his way in by ending NASCAR’s 26-race regular season in the top-30 in driver points. Heading into this weekend, Stewart holds the all-important 30th position but only leads Brian Scott by three points.
By his standards, Stewart hasn’t excelled at Kentucky Speedway in its brief history with the Sprint Cup Series. In five starts, he’s only led one lap at the track and has yet to post a top-10 finish.
There are two factors weighing heavily in Stewart’s favor this weekend. He’s been on a hot streak of late beginning four races ago at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, where he qualified sixth and ran in the top-10 before an accident deprived him of a good finish. The next week at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Stewart started third and never left the top-five until late in the race and finished seventh. A 10th-place qualifying effort plus a good car, great race strategy and phenomenal driving over the final 22 laps led to Stewart’s road-course victory in Sonoma. At Daytona, Stewart raced in the top-five before an accident with 12 laps remaining in the restrictor-plate race left him with a 26th-place finish.
The Kentucky Speedway he and the Sprint Cup Series will visit this weekend should be vastly different from the track that opened in 2000. In January, a full repave began at the racetrack, which featured increased banking in turns one and two, plus an additional 3,200 feet of SAFER Barriers. The banking in turns one and two have increased from 14 to 17 degrees, narrowing the racing groove in the process. Turns three and four remain at their original 14 degrees.
Stewart said he’s glad for the repaving, but admitted Kentucky’s once rough surface made the track unique.
“I think that’s part of what made Kentucky fun,” Stewart said. “The front straightaway was probably the most brutal part of it. What was fun about it was those little bumps gave it a lot of character and brought back what I would consider a lot of the old-school racing as far as making your car get through bumps and not worrying about attitude all of the time. You had to make your car go through bumps and ride well.”