Column: Kansas Speedway Has Helped NASCAR Make Its Mark On The Heartland Of America
Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – DAYTONA BEACH, FL – Kansas Speedway’s 2001 debut on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule was immediately embraced and the popularity of the brand-new facility has endured through present times.
It’s place in the sport welcomed and its mark on the sport absolutely seen as essential as modern-day NASCAR established itself in important regions outside the traditional Southeastern United States markets.
From the time NASCAR came to terms with the state and local governments to construct the 1.5-mile track just outside Kansas City, Kansas the reception locally and within the sport was enduringly optimistic. As NASCAR celebrates its 75th Anniversary season, Kansas Speedway has proven to hold an important place in the modern history of the sport.
And as teams travel to Kansas this week for Saturday’s Heart of America 200 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series‘ AdventHealth 400 (3 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) the sport continues to benefit from its substantial popularity in the country’s heartland – a nod to the modern day NASCAR executives who guided the sport westward and have helped keep it thriving there.
The same architects who oversaw the creation of the former Chicagoland Speedway, handled the work at the Kansas 1.5-miler. And initial ticket sales for the Sept. 20, 2001 NASCAR Cup Series debut at Kansas Speedway were so robust that the track actually expanded its original capacity from 75,000 to 82,000 to accommodate all the fans eager to have the sport now in their backyard.
In the years since that grand opening, lights have been installed at the track and in 2012 it was repaved, adding an infield road course and most notably, changes to the banking from 15-degrees in the corners to the kind of progressive banking (17-20 degrees) featured in so many other speedways now.
A casino opened that year – overlooking Turn 2 – and later signed a decade-long agreement to sponsor one of the annual Kansas races. The area has since become a robust center of sporting activity with a Major League Soccer stadium – called Children’s Mercy Park – visible from the Kansas Speedway grandstands.
“It’s one of the last tracks NASCAR ever built, one of the newest facilities,” explained Kansas native and former NASCAR driver Clint Bowyer, who will be in the FS1 television booth this week with Mike Joy and Kurt Busch calling the action from his “home” track.
“I’ll never forget before that a lot of my friends around the Kansas City area worked on the job site, worked on clearing the land for it, had the contracts to do some of those things. It all started there for me and then the significance of what it meant to Wyandotte County, Kansas and that area.
“It was pretty much an old neighborhood and nothing very overwhelming and then all of a sudden you put that first piece of the puzzle down and look what’s become of it – the whole area around it – shopping malls, casinos, sporting complexes – soccer, baseball, car dealerships. That whole area blew up because NASCAR laid that first piece of the puzzle on the table and really created a neat area for the Kansas City market.”
In 2011, a second NASCAR Cup Series race was added to the Kansas track and has since held a prominent position in the NASCAR Playoffs. This year it’s the second race of the opening round – scheduled for Sept. 10.
When it comes to the brand of racing on track, Kansas has provided plenty of highlight reels.
Four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon, now a NASCAR Hall of Famer, won the first two races in Kansas Speedway history with the top-10 finishing order in that 2001 inaugural race including other soon-to-be Hall of Famers from Rusty Wallace to Mark Martin and Tony Stewart.
In 2004, Joe Nemechek became the first driver to sweep a Kansas race weekend winning both the Xfinity Series and NASCAR Cup Series races. In 2015, Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth famously had a spirited battle on track with Logano going on to win all three races in that round of the Playoffs that year.
And last season, 23XI Racing turned in its first team “track sweep” with driver Kurt Busch winning in the Spring event and Bubba Wallace taking the trophy in the Fall.
Three active drivers – Logano, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick – are tied with Gordon and Matt Kenseth as the all-time winningest competitors at Kansas with three trophies apiece.
Beyond the important geographical location and popularity among the fans, it’s telling that Kansas Speedway is a track so well-received among the drivers.
“I think Kansas has been a great race track and from a driver’s standpoint, a fun race track because of the fact, it’s worn in so well,” said Harvick, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver who has competed in every race since the track opened and not only leads drivers in winner’s trophies (three), but his 12 top-five and 19 top-10 finishes are most in this week’s field too.
“Kansas has become one of the more unique race tracks because of the fact the asphalt and the shape of the race track is so driver-friendly, as far as where you can drive on the race track,” he continued. “You can literally drive from the wall to the apron all the way around the race track. So, it’s a fun race track.”
Logano echoed that fondness for the track – acknowledging the facility has been the ultimate in racing sympatico – good for those watching and good for those racing.
“It’s a track that takes everything to go fast,” said Team Penske’s Logano. “You have to have great downforce, you have to have great power – everything has to go together to run fast there.
“To me, it’s one of the truest judges of where you stack up in the field.”