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Something new, finally, in NASCAR

7/5/2011 - NASCAR

Ten long years. That's how rare this is.

A decade has come and gone since the last time NASCAR broke new ground in the Sprint Cup Series.

It will happen this weekend at Kentucky Speedway, the first time the Cup will race at a new place since Chicagoland Speedway and Kansas Speedway were added in 2001.

Gray was just a drab color to me back then instead of an increasing portion of my hairline.

It wasn't supposed to be this way; so few new tracks, I mean. Not my hair. That's inevitable.

Plans were in place for shiny new speedways in New York and Seattle. Denver also was in the mix. NASCAR wanted to continue expanding into bigger markets in new regions of the country.

But the best-laid plans went awry. State and local governments were no longer willing to help foot the bill to build state-of-the-art racing facilities. The economy went bust, and the goals for new speedways were put on hold indefinitely.

So instead of going to fancy, new facilities in the Big Apple or the majestic Pacific Northwest, NASCAR's first new Cup race in 10 years comes in northern Kentucky about 40 miles southwest of Cincinnati.

Tony Stewart The tri-state area there has such deep racing roots with dirt-track racing and pavement racing. It's a perfect market, it's a perfect area and the race fans that go there are true die-hard race fans.

-- Tony Stewart

"Definitely long overdue, for sure," Tony Stewart said last week. "Ever since the speedway opened, we all wondered when we were going to have a Cup date there. It definitely took a lot longer than all of us anticipated.

"The tri-state area there has such deep racing roots with dirt-track racing and pavement racing. It's a perfect market, it's a perfect area and the race fans that go there are true die-hard race fans."

Nothing against the good folks of Kentucky and Cincinnati (did I mention I love Skyline Chili?), but this isn't exactly what NASCAR had in mind for the next venue in Cup.

It doesn't help NASCAR's hopes of adding races in underserved markets. If anything, it adds a Cup event to an area that has more than its share -- Indianapolis, Michigan, Chicagoland and Bristol all have Cup races within 350 miles of Kentucky Speedway.

Another 1.5-mile oval (a cookie-cutter track to some of you) isn't ideal, either.

New races in new places are what NASCAR wanted and needed, but money and politics got in the way. Don't they always?

Speedway Motorsports Inc. mogul Bruton Smith bought the Kentucky track, which was struggling without a Cup date.

Now in its 11th season, Kentucky Speedway has hosted the Camping World Truck Series and the IndyCar Series since 2000 and the Nationwide Series since 2001. It has produced some great races and some nice crowds when the track had only 66,000 seats. But here's the deal: A major speedway that costs $150 million to build can't make ends meet without a Cup date.

The original owners sued NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. (a facility-management company controlled by NASCAR's France family) in hopes of getting a Cup date.

The chances of winning that lawsuit were zero. Once that fate was realized, the owners were forced to sell to Smith for the reduced price of $78 million.

SMI has made major improvements to the facility to get ready for its Cup debut. Smith had to move a race from Atlanta (another SMI track) to get one for Kentucky. The track added about 40,000 seats, all of which have been sold for the Saturday night race that will have an expected crowd of more than 107,000.

Not many places can say that these days for a Cup event, but can they maintain it once the novelty wears off? And are some of those people coming to Kentucky when they would have gone to Indy or Michigan or Chicago?

In the end, it all boils down to the on-the-track action as to how most fans will judge the race. The racing surface is bumpy, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Drivers who have raced at Kentucky in Nationwide events might have a slight advantage, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that's overplayed.

"We have all been there testing, so there is no real challenge," Earnhardt said this past weekend at Daytona. "It's not like opening up a new place. But everybody will want to get on the racetrack and get around [other cars] and see how the aero is and see what you need to work on with your car when you are in traffic."

How long will it take to get adjusted to a new track?

"About 20 minutes," Earnhardt said.

Twenty minutes to learn the intricacies of the track; 10 years to get there.

Kentucky isn't where NASCAR wanted to be for a new Cup race, but it's there. Try to make the most of it.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.