The scene was surreal. Just a short while before, a nationally televised NASCAR race had taken place, but now heavy equipment beeping and pounding had replaced the natural track sounds of high-pitch, high-performance engines and the whomp...whomp...whomp of cars whizzing by in short, staccato-like bursts.
The first of two NASCAR weekends at Kansas Speedway in 2012 had come to an end, and the next event on the track's schedule was already under way: a major restoration project that calls for track resurfacing, construction of a new road course and new variable banking between Turns 1 to 2 at the south end of the track and Turns 3 to 4.on the north side.
Construction work on the 12-year-old racetrack began late Sunday afternoon. The project, estimated to cost around $9 million, is expected to be completed by Sept. 12, according to Kansas Speedway President Pat Warren.
"We're confident we're going to have great racing in the fall," Warren said in an interview with The Kansas City Star. "You never do a repave unless you have to. It's something we have to do for the safety of the drivers and for the security of the facility, because if you have a catastrophic failure - a pothole kind of incident - you don't race."
Avid NASCAR fans can recall the lengthy delay incurred during the Daytona 500 two years ago when a large piece of the racing surface broke loose during the race. "Daytona focused everyone on the problem," Warren said. "It lowered the tolerance because everybody saw when something bad happens, it's really bad.
"As a company, we're doing everything we need to do to keep that from ever happening again," he said.
Earlier Sunday afternoon, Denny Hamlin took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. in the STP 400 Sprint Cup race with just 31 laps remaining and held on for the victory, his second of the season and his first Cup win at Kansas in nine tries. Truex, who had dominated the race up to the very end, leading 173 of the 267 laps, finished a disappointing second, followed by Jimmie Johnson of Hendrick Motorsports in third and two Roush-Fenway drivers, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle, in fourth and fifth.
It was not a good day for hometown NASCAR favorites Carl Edwards and Clint Bowyer, although it was much worse for Bowyer than for Edwards. Both drivers grew up on opposite sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line, a little over 100 miles from Kansas Speedway's Kansas City, Kan., location.
Edwards overcame another very mediocre qualifying session, moving up from a starting position of 21st to finish with his fifth top-10 of the season in ninth place. Bowyer, who was born and raised in Emporia, Kan., never had much of a chance in his eighth Sprint Cup race in his home state, despite starting eighth. Bowyer's No, 15 Toyota, which he drives for Michael Waltrip Racing, spun out on lap 53 and he had to retire the car to the garage for repairs. He was back on the track a short while later, but far behind the leaders, and on lap 140, Bowyer's No. 15 car was dealt the final death knell with a blown cylinder, ending Bowyer's day and his return to his home track.
Bowyer's DNF was his first at Kansas Speedway, where his best finish in Sprint Cup competition has been second (2007). "It just wasn't our day," Bowyer said afterward. "Any place but here."
A third local driver, Jamie McMurray, who grew up in Joplin and is also winless at Kansas, finished 14th on Sunday, but 22 spots better than his starting position.
Edwards, Bowyer and McMurray will get another shot at Kansas this season when newly renovated Kansas Speedway plays host to the sixth race in the season-ending Chase for the Cup Championship, the Hollywood Casino 400 on Oct. 21. That same weekend the Kansas City venue will also host the Kansas Lottery 300 Nationwide race.
The attendance for the STP 400 on Sunday was close to 75,000, and a number of those fans stayed over after the race to witness the groundbreaking for the renovation project. NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski, who won this race at Kansas a year ago and came in 11th on Sunday, took turns with Speedway President Warren taking a lap in a U.S. Army Abrams tank while and Armored Combat Earthmover tore up chunks of asphalt from pit road.
"The (Midwest) weather (over the 12 years the track has been in existence) hasn't been too kind to it," said Martin Flugger, director of engineering for International Speedway Corp., which owns Kansas Speedway, and will oversee the restoration project. "The asphalt is starting to get brittle and there's not much elasticity, so the cracking is getting worse."
While the decision to undergo these extensive track repairs now may have been an easy one for NASCAR and Kansas Speedway officials, it wasn't necessarily being viewed favorably by the drivers themselves.
"I understand that we have to address these things," said Carl Edwards. "I am a driver that likes to race on a bumpy, rough, slick racetrack with the cars sliding all over the place. Hopefully when they repave this, they will leave some of the bumps...they'll use some sort of pavement that isn't so perfectly smooth and sanitary."
Here's what other NASCAR drivers, past and present, are saying about Kansas Speedway and the apparent track repaving trend that is underway in NASCAR:
Jeff Gordon: "I love Kansas and other worn-out tracks. I think worn-out track surfaces are the ones that put on the best show."
Richard Petty, seven-time Sprint Cup champion: "The deal with repaving a racetrack is it always ruins the race. It takes a while for the track to be competitive."
Greg Biffle: "I think the racetrack (Kansas) has a lot of character. It gets slick, it gets slow, it takes a lot of strategy."
Jeff Burton: Typically tracks get better as they get older. I think Kansas Speedway is a good example of that."
The reason Kansas Speedway officials have set Sept. 12 as the deadline for completion of the track renovation work is to allow ample time for the teams to test the new surface and the new banking on the turns before major-league racing returns the weekend of Oct. 19-21.
For complete coverage and news insights on NASCAR racing, in or out of the season, be sure to check out nascar.com.