SPARTA, Ky. — Kyle Busch figured the best way to beat the traffic on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.
He simply stayed out of it.
Busch rolled to victory in the inaugural Sprint Cup race at the 1.5-mile oval, pulling away from Jimmie Johnson on a restart with three laps to go to collect his third victory of the season and jump into the points lead with two months to go before NASCAR’s Chase for the championship begins.
“This is cool man,” Busch said. “This is right up there with the best of them.”
For now anyway. The way Busch is surging, better days almost certainly lay ahead.
Track officials hope they can say the same for their venue, which experienced some ugly growing pains during its first step into the spotlight. A massive traffic jam made the trip in a tortuous test of patience.
Even the drivers weren’t immune. Denny Hamlin nearly missed the driver’s meeting while getting stuck in the snarl.
Not exactly the kind of Cup debut Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner Bruton Smith was hoping for when he successfully lobbied NASCAR officials to let him move a date from Atlanta Motor Speedway to the quirky oval in the northern Kentucky hills.
“It was one of those things,” said Hamlin, who finished 11th after starting from the back of the 43-car field. “You’ve got a lot of fans that want to watch the first race. You can’t do anything about a two-lane road.”
And the drivers can’t seem to do anything about Busch, who moved into the points lead as the season reached its halfway point. He leads Edwards by four points heading into next week’s race at New Hampshire with about two months to go before the Chase for the championship begins.
Kevin Harvick began the night with the points lead, but slipped to third in the standings after finishing 16th.
“It’s certainly good to know we’re figuring things out,” said Busch, who has 99 career victories across NASCAR’s top three series.
David Reutimann slipped past Johnson to finish second. Ryan Newman was fourth, followed by Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.
“He was strong all night long,” Johnson said of Busch. “Spent a lot of time chasing him (and) watched him inch away from me the longer the run went on.”
It’s a feeling the fans who spent hours in gridlock on Interstate 71 could echo. Cars were still packed up several miles from the track when the race began, with some eventually turning around when track officials went to their exit plan when the race reached its halfway point.
Speedway officials acknowledged the traffic was worse than they anticipated and promised to work on remedying issue before next year’s event.
“We expect the track to address this head on and have a much better situation for the fans moving forward,” NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said.
Providing a more compelling race next time would certainly help.
The drivers spent the week talking openly about the buzz created by the Cup’s first new venue since Chicago and Kansas were added to the schedule in 2001 and the challenge of getting over the track’s signature bumps in Turns 3 and 4.
It was much ado about nothing. The three-wide racing promised by Smith never materialized and the bumps provided little drama as the race unfolded in a series of long green flag runs, most of them dominated by Busch, who led 125 of the 267 laps to win for the second time in three days.
Busch won the Trucks race on Thursday despite starting from the back. He wound up on the pole for the Cup race after rain washed out qualifying, and he didn’t let the advantage go to waste as he moved within one victory of becoming the third driver in NASCAR history to collect 100 wins across the sport’s top three series. The 26-year-old has 22 career Cup wins, 48 in the Nationwide Serie s and 29 in Trucks.
“I’m hoping (No. 100) comes at Loudon (next week),” Busch said.
Kentucky Speedway is located halfway between Louisville and Cincinnati in northern Kentucky has been clamoring for a Cup date from almost the moment it opened in 2000.
Smith believed adding a new venue to the schedule would give the series’ dog days a much-needed boost.
Instead the fans who managed to make it inside were treated to a parade. There were no green flag passes and no kind of chaos that dominated last week’s race at Daytona as drivers played nice at a track they’re still trying to get to know.
“I think it’s a challenging place,” Johnson said.
Not for Busch. There were few anxious moments, though he allowed Reutimann may have had the best car at the end of the night. That wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Busch found himself pulling for Reutimann on the final lap, hoping Reutimann could give Johnson so much trouble the five-time defending series champion wouldn’t have enough to chase Busch down.
“I was like, ‘C’mon, Reuty. If you start racing him and hold him up, that’s going to help me,”’ Busch said. “I cannot just cruise through turns three and four but concentrate on hitting my marks rather than seeing if somebody would get in my mirror.”
No one did, with Johnson ceding second place to Reutimann after inadvertently letting off the gas just a bit right before the finish line. He laughed about it afterward, but then again, he didn’t have to face a lengthy commute home.
“This is such a great market, so many fans are enthused and want to be here,” Johnson said. “To not get them all in the door is kind of a bummer.”