Senior staff writer
Only Jeff Gordon could manage a bit of a smile among the Hoosier-bred racers or former IndyCar drivers after the NASCAR Sprint Cup Quaker State 400 Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.
Gordon, competing in his farewell season, finished a career-best seventh in the five races at the 1.5-mile track, the only venue where he failed to win.
“It was a solid evening; it wasn’t a winning evening, but I’m still proud of the effort,” Gordon said. “We had to fight through a few handling issues and some restarts and pit road and a bunch of things, but there at the end everything kind of came together. We got the car working really well, got a couple of good restarts and a good pit stop.”
Gordon, driving the No. 24 Hendrick Chevrolet, trailed winner Kyle Busch, who led the most laps, 163-of-267, runner-up Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Brad Keselowski, who won the Xfinity Kentucky 300 Friday night.
Four of the top five finishers drive Toyotas for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Other drivers with Indiana or IndyCar connections had all kinds of problems.
Only 2013 Brickyard 400 winner Ryan Newman joined Gordon among the top 20; Sam Hornish Jr. was 22nd, Casey Mears 23rd, A.J. Allmendinger 26th, Tony Stewart 33rd and Danica Patrick 34th.
Hornish led one lap (189) by staying out under caution while most drivers pitted.
Patrick was among the top 20 briefly, but the GoDaddy Chevrolet was rammed in Turn 1 by Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose Chevrolet had no brakes. The feisty Patrick retaliated by bumping into Earnhardt later on pit road.
“I didn’t have any brakes going into the corner,” Earnhardt said. “I know better than to run into her because it gets so much attention. There wasn’t nothing I could do. It’s not like I just drew her name out of a hat and decided she was the one I was going to run into tonight.”
Stewart had to take the high groove and scraped the backstretch wall while trying to avoid two cars that had made contact on Lap 144.
The top 27 finishers were on the lead lap.
Busch led the final 20 laps after outracing Logano for the lead. Busch is on a determined comeback trail after missing 11 races due to leg injuries sustained in a crash at Daytona. He is 78 points from 30th place, which would guarantee him a spot in The Chase with his two wins. There are only eight races left to determine the 16 drivers for The Chase.
The race was the first one this season with a revised aero package which featured a much smaller rear spoiler and less downforce; the setup will also be used on the Labor Day weekend race at Darlington, S.C.
“I felt like a race car driver again,” Edwards said. “We were able to drive these cars again, and this track had always been a challenge to make passes.”
Gordon took more of a wait-and-see attitude.
“Kentucky is such a challenging racetrack already, and basically the cars just drove really bad right from the beginning and just always drove bad around all the cars,” Gordon said. “It didn’t change a whole lot when you are around other cars … the only way you can make a low downforce package work is to have the proper tire.”
NASCAR will try a different aero package for the Brickyard 400 July 26 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The result could be more drafting and passing.
The series heads to New Hampshire Motor Speedway before the Brickyard 400 July 26 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.