SPARTA, Ky. – Even with the significant unknowns facing NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers at Kentucky Speedway, Team Penske figures to have an edge.
Yes, there’s new pavement on the 1.5-mile track. Yes, the racing surface has been reconfigured to create two vastly different sets of corners, in the image of Darlington Raceway.
Yes, Goodyear is providing a different tire from the one used during a recent organization test at the speedway. The change derived from concerns about wear on the outer portion of the dual-zone tire Goodyear originally had planned to use.
Accordingly, Goodyear tabled the dual-zone tire in favor of a more durable single-compound version that is new to the Sprint Cup series.
While teams had to adjust to all those variables during practice on Thursday, the competition package on the cars themselves was familiar, having been used in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte, the June race at Michigan and during the organization test.
And in the two races that featured the lower-downforce configuration that also will also be used in Saturday’s Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Team Penske drivers have excelled.
Joey Logano won both races. Brad Keselowski finished second in the All-Star Race and fourth at Michigan.
So is it a reasonable conclusion that the Penske shop has found an edge with the shorter spoiler and smaller splitter? If that’s the case, Keselowski isn’t saying so.
“I don’t know,” Keselowski demurred before Thursday’s opening practice. “I feel like we’ve been running well, whether it’s low-downforce or not.
“We don’t have as many wins with the other regular low-downforce – we need a better name than low-downforce and lower-downforce – but I feel like the results have been more positive for us. But I don’t feel a real difference in the cars, so I don’t know.”
Of greater concern to the driver of the No. 2 Ford was the way his car might behave in treacherous Turns 3 and 4 after the repave.
“In general, the cars at Michigan were really, really loose behind someone,” Keselowski said. “I would expect that to be the same, and I would expect Turns 3 and 4 to really, really be a challenge, because it’s such a finesse corner already.
“Then you add the lower-downforce package to it, and it’s really going to be a hold-onto-your-butt corner…”
Keselowski’s words proved prophetic. Early in Thursday’s opening practice, his car slipped in Turns 3 and 4 and nicked the outside wall. Fortunately, the damage to the No. 2 car was merely cosmetic.