The only thing good about 20,000 fans missing Saturday night's Quaker State 400 due to traffic was that they missed the Quaker State 400.
As expected here, the inaugural event at Kentucky Speedway was a dog, with Kyle Busch leading a single-file parade around the 1.5-mile oval for much of the night. At one point, Busch's advantage over second place was more than eight seconds. He did have to hold off Jimmie Johnson – a rally that emerged only because of a late caution that made for a two-lap sprint to the finish – to collect his third win of the season, but other than that the race was entirely unmemorable.
That still likely won't be enough to placate the estimated 15,000-20,000 fans who never made it to Kentucky Speedway, but were instead stuck in a traffic jam on I-71 where, according to reports, traffic was so snarled it took one group four hours to travel 13 miles. Nearly 90 minutes into the race, traffic remained backed up for miles, with some race goers finally giving up, turning around and going home.
Those who did make it to the track were reportedly given instructions with a "leave time." More than an hour after the race, many remained stuck in the parking lots, unable to move.
"There's 15 to 20,000 people that won't get in here today," track owner Bruton Smith told Cincinnati.com. "Traffic is horrendous. Interstate 71 is a disaster.
"It may have been OK in 1955," continued Smith, talking about I-71. "But somebody should have rebuilt that thing 20 years ago."
Politicking publically is nothing new for Smith, who got out in front of this story early, predicting Friday that traffic was "going to be a problem," jokingly saying that "we expect everyone to be home by Tuesday."
Smith will likely make good to those fans that didn't make it, but he clearly doesn't want to take the blame. What he should be blamed for is adding yet another 1.5-mile track to the Cup schedule.
For as pristine and fan friendly (save the traffic issues) as his eight tracks are, they don't produce the most entertaining races. Saturday night's was no different.
Outside of pit stops cycling through and on restarts, there wasn't a single pass for the lead – not one – in 267 laps. With less than 12 laps to go, there were seven cars on the lead lap. A late caution was the only reason it didn't end that way.
The race did produce a new points leader in Busch, who moved ahead of Kevin Harvick, and further muddled the weekly who's-the-driver-to-beat conversation. Just two weeks ago it was Carl Edwards (who remained second in the standings), last week it was Harvick, and now it's Busch, who tied Harvick for the Series lead with three wins on the season.
"It was really good to figure this place out," Busch said, emphasizing the need to be good in the 1.5-mile tracks, of which there are five in the Chase. "But, you know, the next steps are, of course, going to be the Chase races that are the mile and a halfs, like Chicago and Texas, Charlotte is in there, Homestead is in there. Those places we've run well at in the past, but maybe not on a consistent basis. It would certainly be nice to know that we're figuring things out."
The Chase picture isn't any clearer further down the standings. Clint Bowyer completely missed the setup Saturday night, wrecked, finished 35th and dropped to 12th in the standings. David Ragan, fresh off his win in Daytona, came home eighth to further solidify himself as a legit contender. And Brad Keselowski, another driver with a win, finished seventh to move within one point of the top 20, a necessity if he's going to claim one of the two wildcard spots.
An even tighter race to the Chase is the only good that came out of Sparta, Kent., Saturday night. For many, they'll just be glad when the nightmare is over, which hopefully will come before Tuesday.
"I think the only thing that made this a great race today was the green-white-checkered and the excitement and energy of the fans," Jeff Gordon said. "I think when Bruton is looking at how to get the traffic in here, he's going to have to look at the race track as well. It's rough."
That about sums it up.
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- Bruton Smith