SPARTA, Ky. - Flashbulbs popped as pole sitter Kyle Busch led the 43-car Sprint Cup field to the green flag at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night to kick off the long-awaited debut by NASCAR's top series at the 1.5-mile oval.
Yet the real story of the inaugural race at the track tucked among the hills in northern Kentucky was unfolding over the wall behind Turns 3 and 4 as Busch roared to the start/finish line.
Cars, many of them stuck in gridlock for hours on nearby Interstate 71, continued to inch along the overstuffed access roads. The maddening parade continued as the laps ticked off, with some fans eventually being asked to turn around after the race passed its halfway point so the track could start allowing those that did manage to make it in to leave.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith promised to deliver a memorable show when he received permission from NASCAR to move a date from Atlanta Motor Speedway to Kentucky last summer.
The track's first night on the series' biggest stage was memorable all right, but for all the wrong reasons.
Though more than 100,000 packed the revitalized grandstand, the race will be remembered more for the sea of brakelights along the interstate than for Busch's third win of the season.
Even the drivers weren't spared. Denny Hamlin worried he would miss the prerace driver's meeting after getting parked for several hours on I-71.
"It's back to reality to see the other side of things," said Hamlin, who did make the meeting and finished 11th. "Some guys around us had some problems. It's tough. Bruton and all those guys know it's an issue. ... You've got a lot of fans that want to watch the race but you can't do anything about a two-lane road."
Kentucky officials spent weeks assuring NASCAR folks they had a plan that would make the drive in bearable.
The state spent millions of dollars over the p ast decade to improve the infrastructure around the venue in hopes of one day getting a Cup date. Yet widening the interstate to three lanes for a couple of miles heading north to Cincinnati did little to expedite things.
Smith warned fans in the days leading up to the race that there would be some problems, calling I-71 the worst stretch of road in the country.
Officials pledged to address the problem before the circuit comes back next summer.
"I'd rather have 12 months to work on that type of an issue than some of the other ones that you would possibly have," said track general manager Mark Simendinger. "Not to make any excuses but I do think that when it's your first time through you learn a lot of stuff and we certainly learned tonight."