By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer
SPARTA, Ky. (AP) - 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.
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