SPARTA, Ky. (AP) – NASCAR fans in Kentucky have pined for a top series race ever since Kentucky Speedway opened in 2000.

But the lack of a Nextel Cup event hasn’t stopped some of the series’ drivers from running at Kentucky Speedway, and five Cup regulars will be in the field for the Busch Series Meijer 300 tonight.

Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Rusty Wallace rank in the top 10 in the points standings for the Nextel Cup, and Sterling Marlin and Kentucky-born Michael Waltrip also are expected to run.

“This is a big race for Kentucky Speedway,” said Kenny Wallace, a Busch Series regular and the brother of Rusty Wallace. “There’s a lot of great race car drivers that are going to be here. I told everybody the Busch Series is becoming a mini-Nextel Cup Series.”

Without a Cup date, the Busch stop has become Kentucky Speedway’s premiere race. The Meijer 300 figures to be a sellout for the fifth straight year, with more than 70,000 fans expected.

Nextel Cup drivers say that amount of support makes it worth the effort to run the race, even though it will require significant travel to also compete in Sunday’s Cup event – the Batman Begins 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

The Meijer 300 will be just the second Busch race of the year for Rusty Wallace, who owns a team in the series. His regular drivers, Jeremy Mayfield and Jamie McMurray, had conflicts this weekend.

“Everybody kept moaning about how hard it was to get back and forth from a Cup track and I said, The heck with it, I’ll do it myself,”‘ Wallace said. “I tested my No. 66 car here last year and the speeds I ran would’ve put me on the front row for the race, so I kicked myself for not driving here last year.”

Biffle has enjoyed plenty of success at Kentucky Speedway, running second in each of his three Busch Series starts, in 2001, 02 and 04. He lost the lead to Kyle Busch last year with two laps to go.

Biffle and Edwards are among a small number of Cup drivers who plan to race the entire Busch Series schedule this year.

Biffle is second in the Nextel Cup standings and ninth in the Busch standings. Edwards, who won a Craftsman Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway in 2003, is fourth in both series’ standings.

“Coming here to Kentucky is always awesome,” Edwards said. “We roll in the gate and I think about how the first win I got in my NASCAR career was right here.”

Edwards doesn’t mind racing in both Kentucky and Michigan this weekend.

“The races aren’t the tough part. It’s getting all the practice and qualifying in,” Edwards said. “If there’s any inclement weather, it’s going to make it tough. I get to ride in some neat helicopters and jets, so it’ll be a fun thing. It just takes a lot of logistical planning.”

The weather forecast for northern Kentucky calls for dry weather and temperatures in the high 70s.

Edwards led the Busch Series standings from early in the season until this past week, when he was unable to start the Federated Auto Parts 300 at Nashville Superspeedway. The race was postponed one day because of inclement weather, so he was only able to run in the Nextel Cup race at Pocono 500 – which he won.

Fellow Busch Series rookie Reed Sorenson took over the points lead. Martin Truex Jr. is second in the standings, 51 points back, and Clint Bowyer is third.

“The fact that I didn’t get to start the race in Nashville was deeply frustrating, but at the same time it’s almost inspiring,” Edwards said. “I noticed it in the shop with the guys. There’s an attitude right now that we’re going on a mission to gain back this championship points lead.”

AP-ES-06-17-05 2033EDT

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