At 32 years of age Kyle Busch is still young – even for NASCAR standards.
But compared to the rash of young faces emerging with the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Busch seems more like one of the sport’s elder statesmen. Busch, though, isn’t out for a Sunday (or sometimes Saturday) drive just yet. He’s ready to block NASCAR’s youth movement, especially at Kentucky Speedway.
The Cup Series shifts to Kentucky Speedway's 1.5-mile, tri-oval for the Quaker State 400 on Saturday (7:30 p.m.; NBCSN). Busch has won two of the six Cup races at Kentucky with victories in 2011 and 2015. Three different drivers have won the Quaker State 400: Matt Kenseth (2013), Brad Keselowski (2012, 2014, 2016) and Busch.
Eleven different drivers have won the 17 Cup races this season. For three of them – Rickey Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney – it was their first career victories. And Saturday they’re among a group looking to join Busch, Keselowski and Kenseth in Kentucky’s Victory Lane.
To do so they’ll have to navigate Kentucky’s tricky Turn 3. It’s labeled one of the toughest turns in NASCAR with a narrow entry that makes three-wide racing a yellow flag waiting to happen.
“For a lot of guys you just can’t get the feel you’re looking for … feeling like the car is stuck and being well balanced for the rest of the track,” Busch said. “You can be as tight as you want on the entry on turn three to feel comfortable but you’re going to suffer on the rest of the race track. There’s some give and take at that track.”
The turn was modified prior to the 2016 race. More banking in Turn 2 has the cars carrying more speed into the flatter Turn 3.
“Since the repave at Kentucky you definitely have to put turn three on the short list of the toughest corners in our sport,” Keselowski said. “It ranks right up there with Turn 10 at Sonoma, which I think is the toughest turn in NASCAR, and any corner at Darlington. All of those corners are tough to drive by yourself and when you try to go into them beside someone they’re almost impossible. But this is the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and we need to have more of those corners in our sport, in my opinion, that really bring out the skill of the drivers.”
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“It took a lot of discipline to race at Kentucky last year. If you got into turn three and four the least bit wrong, you wrecked. … I think it’s a good challenge. We’re professional race car drivers. It shouldn’t be easy. It was very, very difficult and you had to certainly be very smart.”
Busch enters Kentucky tied with Kenseth for the best average finish of 5.2 through six races at the track. Keselowski’s average finish is 8.2. No other driver’s average finish is in the single digits.
“You look at the stats and the best of the best win at Kentucky Speedway,” Busch said. “We’re all (driver’s points) champions of the sport and we’ve all won at Kentucky Speedway. There are plenty of other guys that have been greats in our sport like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and the like who haven’t won at Kentucky. That’s because we’re stealing them every year. I wouldn’t say we’re any better than those guys it just seems like we have a little better edge at Kentucky.”
The new crop of drivers looks to change that Saturday. Larson, 24, leads the Cup standings and has two wins. Chase Elliott, 21, is in sixth place. Stenhouse Jr. (29) won his second race after his Coke Zero 400 victory at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday. Blaney (23) and Dillon (27) have scored wins this season.
The rise of young talent has coincided with the retirement of stars like Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. On Saturday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his final laps around Kentucky Speedway before calling it a career.
“I remember when I came along it was Richard (Petty), Cale (Yarborough), Buddy (Baker), Bennie (Parsons, the Allison brothers. That was the establishment,” FOX NASCAR analyst Darrell Waltrip said. “People were like what are we going to do if they ever quit? They all quit. I came along. Dale (Earnhardt) came along. Terry (Labonte) came along. Rusty (Wallace) came along. There were guys who could fill those shoes or at least create some new shoes.
“We’re aging out. It’s a fact of life. Once you turn 40 it’s hard to win a lot of races. Maybe your desire is great as it ever was but things diminish. These young kids are quick as lightning, they have hand-eye coordination. They do things I don’t want to do. They do things I don’t think you should do and get away with it. I love where we are.”
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