SPARTA, Ky. – Getting into Kentucky Speedway wasn't the biggest race this time.
After a year of stinging rebukes, apologies and detailed plans to correct problems, officials said things appeared to be going smoothly in the hours leading up to Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup race in the Bluegrass state.
"Whenever you have about 100,000 people showing up, you've always got concerns," track manager Mark Simendinger said. "Trust me, I'll have concerns until the last person leaves and we turn the lights out. But I'm really pleased with the way things are going."
Thousands of fans were angered a year ago by horrible traffic congestion that resulted in many cars waiting so long to get to the track in rural Northern Kentucky that they were forced to turn around and head home before ever getting on the grounds.
The situation was so bad that most people remember the inaugural Sprint Cup race at the track for its maddening parking and access problems than for Kyle Busch's spirited victory. Local and commonwealth government and track officials responded by widening ramps and roads, increasing the police presence and expediting the flow of fans to and from the parking areas, where room for 20,000 vehicles was added.
"Look, it is a race, there may be minor delays," Simendinger said. "But obviously I think everybody's understanding that the traffic snarls of last year are just not going to happen."
PUSHED AROUND? It's not acceptable but certainly widespread: Seniors belittle freshmen and veteran athletes put down rookies.
Danica Patrick's crew chief, Tony Eury Jr., said recently that he felt many male drivers were trying to intimidate and push around Patrick on the track.
The matter gained momentum last week in the Nationwide race at Sonoma when Jacques Villeneuve, the 1995 Indianapolis 500 winner and 1997 Formula One champ, ran into Patrick's car on the last lap. In contention for her best finish of her rookie year, she fell to 12th.
For her part, Patrick made light of the situation.
"Don't they watch the news?" she said, laughing. "Bullying is the new not-cool thing!"
Several drivers jumped to her defense.
"She is doing just fine," Tony Stewart said. "She got run over by a guy that runs two Nationwide races a year and has hit everything but the pace car religiously every race. Every time everybody gets around that guy they get wrecked so it doesn't matter whether it's her or anybody else."
It's a matter of not backing down, Dale Earnhardt said.
"Some guys don't respect anybody, no matter what their gender," he said. "Every (driver) has to stand up for themselves at some point and set the tone that they won't put up with it from anybody. When I first started hanging out with her and got to know her even before I raced with her, I knew she wasn't the kind of person you run around pushing buttons with. Some guys don't see it that way I guess and push her around on the race track. She will just have to settle that however she wants. There's way to do it."
Jimmie Johnson was pushed around as a first-year NASCAR driver, but learned to counterpunch.
"You have to take three or four lumps before you pass one out. That was my philosophy," he said. "Rookies get used up. It doesn't matter if it's our sport or baseball or football; it's just how it is. It gets better with time and that stuff goes away."
Patrick, who is not in the field on Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, has yet to break into the top 30 in three Cup races. She has just one top-10 finish in the Nationwide Series, an eighth at Fort Worth, in 15 starts.
She said it's a question of just getting to know all the drivers in a new circuit.
"It's feeling each other out, knowing how far you can push each other and find the limits," she said. "I feel like that's all it is. It's nothing I haven't dealt with."
Patrick said a few years back at Phoenix other drivers were taking advantage of her and she got clearance from Eury to respond. She rolled down the back stretch and plowed into a driver who had been muscling her around the track.
"I don't really think anybody messed with me for a little while after that," she said.
BIRTHDAY BOY: "The King" of NASCAR, Richard Petty, turns 75 on Monday.
Aric Almirola, driving Petty's No. 43 Ford Fusion in the Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway on Saturday night, was asked about the celebration plans.
"I don't know," he said. "I think they might be secret and I don't want to spill the beans."
As expected, Petty isn't celebrating his big day with cake and ice cream while sitting in a rocker.
The seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ and owner of 200 Cup victories, including seven at the Daytona 500, will blow out the candles in the same town where he was born, Level Cross, N.C. He'll also be working at his garage and will later spend time with his family.
Later in the week, he'll fly to Daytona Beach, Fla., where Petty and his family and friends will not only celebrate the Fourth of July but also his birthday. A special dinner at a resort hotel will include guest speakers from Petty's life, capped by a fireworks display.
HORSEPOWER VS. HORSES: Bruton Smith, head of the Kentucky Speedway's parent company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., took direct aim at the commonwealth's signature sporting event, the Kentucky Derby, prior to his track's inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup race last year.
"We will outdraw this horsey race you talk about," Smith said in 2011, adding that the car race would be larger than any Kentucky Derby.
The Derby was coming off a record attendance in 2011 and set a new mark in 2012 with more than 165,000 fans attending. Smith didn't back away from those comments Saturday, instead doubling down with a somewhat playful challenge.
"What I'd like for them to do is come forth and swear and give us a sworn statement that they had that many people," the 85-year-old Smith said. "If they do that, then we'll continue the argument."
Smith doesn't expect a sellout for Saturday's race but did predict a crowd "in excess of 100,000."
TOUGH ROAD: Points leader Matt Kenseth's series-shaking revelation earlier this week that he is leaving Roush Fenway Racing at the end of the season may have a profound impact on how he finishes out the year.
Dale Earnhardt and Clint Bowyer have been down that road.
Earnhardt left the team his father founded in May 2007 to sign with Hendrick Motorsports.
"As tough as it is and as many unknowns as there are about a move like that, more often than not things work themselves out," Earnhardt said. "Everybody kind of ends up in a better place."
That doesn't mean it will be easy.
"It will be a little tough with the transition just emotionally because he's been in the same place for so long," Earnhardt added. "But eventually it will lead to better days and he'll find out that things are going to work out just fine."
After spending his entire NASCAR career with Richard Childress Racing, Clint Bowyer jumped to Michael Waltrip's team a year ago.
"For me, it was very hard to keep that momentum going," Bowyer said. "Everybody was kind of wanting to give up on the season and get it over with."
For his part, Kenseth said every member of the team needed to pull together to concentrate on winning now, not at some point in the future.
"It has really just been business as usual at the race track," he said. "It hasn't really changed anything with what we do or go about it or think about it. Every time you go to the track you want to do the best you can and race as hard as you can and try to win races. There is no incentive for any of us to not do that."
Carl Edwards believes that Kenseth, more than most, can make the move successfully for all parties.
"I don't think there is anyone more mentally tough than Matt Kenseth," he said. "I would imagine the difficult stuff is behind him now and he can go out and race and do the best he can."
He starts 20th in Saturday night's grid.
DON'T QUOTE ME: Driver Kevin Harvick denied that he said over his radio at last week's race that his entire crew's jobs were in jeopardy if things didn't turn around soon.
"I never said that. I never said everybody," he said. "I said that everybody needed to step up and do exactly what they need to do and I was tired of sitting in the seat and making up for mistakes. We have made a ton of mistakes this year. I said we were all going to lose our jobs if we all kept losing. I never pointed out anybody and said that I was going to fire them. I said we were all going to lose our jobs."
BUMPY RIDE: Like snowflakes and fingerprints, all race tracks are unique.
The 1.5-mile oval at Kentucky Raceway is known for its somewhat uneven surfaces. Several drivers discussing the track this week have grinned while saying it has "a lot of character."
Some have been less charitable, while trying to be upbeat.
"The bumps are frequent and everywhere," Jimmie Johnson said. "It doesn't matter which lane you're in, they're all around the race track. And that challenge, I think means better racing and will make multiple lanes available for the drivers."
Yet it's not always easy finding that lane.
"It's a little rough and the groove is not real distinct," Dale Earnhardt said. "Every time you change tires you kind of have to be ready to move around a little bit and find out where your car is fast and where that set of tires wants to run on the race track."
DODGING DODGE: Penske Racing has still not made a decision how it will handle engines next season when it leaves Dodge for manufacturer Ford.
But team president Tim Cindric has denied an Internet report that claims Penske has sold its engine shop to Michael Andretti.
"Contrary to recent published speculation, Penske Racing has not sold its engine company," Cindric said in a statement Saturday morning. "The team's focus continues to be on successfully completing the 2012 season, competing for championships and victories in the both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series for Dodge and our other sponsor partners."
There has been speculation that Michael Andretti will form a NASCAR program with Dodge, and one published report claimed Penske had sold his engine shop to his fellow IndyCar team owner so that Andretti can build Dodge engines.
Penske could keep his engine shop and build Ford's next season, but Roush Yates Engine currently supplies for all Ford teams and the manufacturer prefers that arrangement. Penske has always built his own engines.
AP Auto Racing Writer Jenna Fryer contributed to this report.