SPARTA, Ky. -- As a heat wave grips a large portion of the United States -- with possibilities of record highs in the Ohio Valley and South -- Kentucky Speedway is feeling the effects. More to the point, those in attendance for the Quaker State 400 race weekend are feeling the effects, and the drivers are no exception.
The high temperature for Sparta on Saturday is expected to be 100 degrees, and it won't be much cooler at the race's scheduled 7:45 p.m. ET start time. During Happy Hour on Friday, an excessive heat warning was in effect. It was 95 degrees when the session began, with an on-track temperature of 139 degrees. It is believed to be the highest temperature for an on-track event at Kentucky, topping the old mark of 130 degrees set in an IRL event in 2005.
-- BRAD KESELOWSKI
"Yeah, it is definitely toasty and I am glad it is a night race and not a day race," Matt Kenseth said. "Hopefully when the sun gets down and cools off a little it will be nicer not just for us but the fans and crews working down there. Getting rid of the sun will help a little bit but it is going to be the hottest race all year, for sure."
Overnight lows are expected to drop all the way to 72 degrees. But racing under the lights at Kentucky will be long over by the time the temperature hits that mark as most lows are recorded in the early morning hours just before sunrise.
Brad Keselowski, who approximates temperatures anywhere from 110 to 130 degrees inside the car in conditions such as these, doesn't expect much relief under the lights.
"During the night, it'll get a little bit better and no, that's not a comfortable environment, but as a race car driver I think you accept the risk of being in a hot environment that's not very friendly," Keselowski said.
Not surprisingly, the hot conditions led to a slick racing surface during Friday's practice sessions as grip eluded drivers and teams.
"It was really slick," said Kenseth, who was 35th on the speed chart in final practice. "We're just trying to work on getting some grip. I've only raced here once and things change a lot in a year and this is what everyone is dealing with and you have to figure out how to make it work better than anyone else."
Michael Waltrip said he hadn't run at a track like this in a couple of years and the hot temperatures made for a cautious driver.
"I picked a heck of a day to come out of retirement," quipped Waltrip, who hasn't made a start on a 1.5-mile track since Homestead in the 2009 season finale. "I was just really careful ... didn't want to make a mistake. It was a struggle, but we tested here in the winter when you had more grip and now it's hotter than it's ever been and it's slippery."
Kenseth expects a slower pace in the race due to the lack of grip, but it's not the only concern.
"You just run less tape with more grille open and keep the engine cooler than you normally would," Kenseth said.
To keep the drivers cool, well, that may be impossible. But there are precautions to take.
"You try to make sure you are extra hydrated ... and get extra rest and eat right the night before," Kenseth said. "You make sure you have little coolers so you don't burn your feet and stuff like that. It is definitely more of a challenge. It is always hot in those cars lately anyway and certainly when you get in an environment like this with the heat radiating off the pavement and everything it will certainly be a challenge."
Clint Bowyer joked that the drivers' firesuits may be needed for purposes other than their original intention.
"Going to be a little steamy in the car. We may need these firesuits before too long without even a fire in the car," said Bowyer, who has spent the week in the Midwest, where temperatures were reaching triple digits. "I think I saw 106 [degrees] one day, so I'm kind of used to it. ... You've just got to tough it out."
Keselowski hopes the extreme heat will work to his advantage. In fact, he said he enjoys it.
"It's a little bit of the macho man thing and everybody says 'Aw, I can take the heat better than you can' and I kind of like that challenge," Keselowski said. "I don't usually have problems with it so I feel pretty good about it. I know that there are some people that do but I do really well in the heat so I feel good about it."
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