It was shortly before 11 p.m. local time Saturday when the two images that will come to define this inaugural Sprint Cup weekend at Kentucky Speedway began to intersect. Kyle Busch stood in a Victory Lane styled after that from a horse-racing oval, giving television interviews amid the litter of damp confetti and empty energy drink cans. A few hundred feet away, a line of still red taillights snaked out of the tunnel and onto Speedway Boulevard, as spectators began the slow crawl into the traffic gridlock that had greeted them several hours earlier.
The first premier-series event at this Bluegrass State facility was everything officials had hoped for, from a sellout crowd, to a packed grandstand that pulsed with energy as the starting lineup was announced, to an exciting finish with Busch holding off Jimmie Johnson on a restart with only two laps remaining. Kentucky promised a massive turnout and it delivered, jamming more than 107,000 NASCAR-starved souls in and around this 1.5-mile oval on a night fans in the region had waited on for more than a decade.
"This crowd, I was out there coming back in from hospitality, honestly, they were 30 abreast trying to walk up to get in the stadium," said Joe Gibbs, Busch's car owner. "They were coming over the top of the hills. This is fun to be at a place like this. It was exciting. Everything was packed. I went out and signed a few autographs out at a video truck we had. The people were just great. Hats off to this area, the racing, people in this area, everybody that was here, everybody that couldn't get here. We appreciate being here. I think it's a huge deal."
It was a huge deal, on so many levels. It was huge for a state and a speedway that had long lobbied to bring NASCAR's premier series to the region. It was huge for Busch, whose 99th victory in a national-series event not only brought him within one of the century mark, but also moved him into the Sprint Cup points lead. And it was huge for the series, which has seen too many patches of empty grandstands in too many places during the past 12 months, and received a nice jolt of momentum for coming to a new venue that brought such unbridled enthusiasm with it.
"It was definitely a special event here this weekend," Busch said. "We felt the energy. We saw the people."
It's too bad so many of those people endured so much misery getting in and out of this speedway, which has been plagued by traffic tie-ups since it first hosted a NASCAR national-series event in 2000. That was a Truck Series race, and the place held only 66,000. Saturday brought the big show to a venue that had been expanded to 107,000, and the result was automotive apocalypse so bad that at one point Interstate 71 -- the main artery to the race track -- eventually backed up for 20 miles. The traffic began to stack up in the late-morning hours Saturday and just kept coming, getting so bad that state police closed an I-71 off ramp, and speedway officials simply ran out of places to park cars.
For those in the midst of the gridlock, it was frustrating, angering, and sad all at the same time. Fans trying to make their way in vented on Twitter, claiming that they had bought tickets only to turn around after sitting in traffic for so many hours, or being told there was simply no place to put their cars. One-hundred laps into the race, Speedway Boulevard was still gridlocked. At one point executives from the track and parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc. went out to help park cars themselves. The place had simply been overwhelmed.
"I think the basic issue was that cars just kept coming," track general manager Mark Simendinger said. "We parked a ton of cars. We parked a ton of cars. And they kept coming. We parked cars in every square inch of this place. The neighbors parked cars in all the remote lots that we had estimated that would have been more than sufficient for this crowd size, and yet they still kept coming. That was the issue. We'll look at all the data, and we'll figure it out."
Although the track was sold out, there were many empty seats at the green flag. According to fans posting on Twitter, some were still arriving as police began reversing the traffic pattern to prepare for the exodus. "We had a great race and a heckuva crowd here this evening," NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp said. "It's disappointing the fans had a difficult time getting in here [Saturday night]. We expect the track to address this head-on and have a much better situation for the fans moving forward."
It wasn't just fans who were affected. Denny Hamlin reported before the race via Twitter that he was stuck in traffic and in danger of missing the mandatory drivers' meeting, which he ultimately made. Jimmie Johnson went home to Charlotte on Friday to celebrate his daughter's birthday, and had planned to drive to the track. He scrapped that idea when he heard about the traffic, and took a helicopter in. Even so, he was well aware of the epic gridlock he avoided, which in many minds ranked right up there with the mammoth traffic tie-up that plagued the inaugural race at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997.
"I heard there's been plenty of trouble trying to get everybody into the facility, [and] I think coming back next year that would be the priority. Leave the surface alone on the race track and make sure that the fans have the experience they deserve to have," said Johnson, who finished third.
"The stories I heard, [it] sounds like there's some upset fans, people that were turned away and weren't able to get into the event [Saturday]. It's disappointing. I mean, the SMI group knows race tracks and does a very good job at all the race tracks they own. It's unfortunate we were unable to look ahead and see where these potential problems were. This is such a great market. So many fans are enthused to come and want to be here. To not get them all in the door is kind of a bummer. Knowing [SMI chairman] Bruton [Smith], he'll get it fixed for next year, and unfortunately it happened this year."
The vast majority that ultimately got in witnessed a vintage performance by Busch, who ran away early in the race and then rallied to win it late. Busch dominated the first half, leading 125 laps and building an advantage of nearly 8 seconds, but everything changed when Brad Keselowski used some pit strategy to get to the front. In traffic the No. 18 wasn't the same, but quick pit stops helped Busch get back into the lead, and that's where he was with two laps remaining when he lined up alongside Johnson for what proved the final restart. Taking the preferred line in the less-bumpy upper groove, Busch had used restarts to break away from the field. This time, the five-time champion stuck right with him.
On fresher tires, Johnson nosed ahead. But Busch regrouped, and drove deep into Turn 2 to edge back in front as the cars hit the backstretch. Johnson fell behind and got into a fight with David Reutimann for second, proving Busch with enough clearance to pull away. "Good job David Reutimann!," Busch thundered over the radio after he had taken the checkered flag, his third of the season.
"He got a good start," Busch said of Johnson. "We had to race down into Turn 1 side-by-side rather than me getting a jump on him. I was just hoping that the outside lane would prevail, I could get a run through there, carry my momentum and clear him down the backstretch, and just kind of race him into Turn 3. It was certainly a tense moment there for a second. But after I took the white, I saw the 00 [car of Reutimann] coming on the 48 [of Johnson] and getting there to make a move on him. I was like, 'C'mon, Reuty. If you start racing him and starting hold him up, that's going to help me.' I could not just cruise through Turns 3 and 4, but [could] concentrate on hitting my marks rather than seeing if somebody would get in my mirror."
He did just that. And it, that wasn't Busch's best move of the night. No, that belongs to his decision to compete in a late-model event Sunday at Slinger National Speedway in Wisconsin, which came with an added benefit -- an extra night at the track in his motorhome, which prevented him from having to venture out into the gridlock trying to exit Kentucky Speedway after the event.
"I had this planned long ago, not thinking about what transpired here [Saturday night]," Busch said. "Seems like I'm pretty smart, I guess. I'm just falling into the lucky category."