Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LEBANON, TN – The NASCAR Cup Series holds its second track debut weekend of the season with Sunday’s Ally 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Nashville Superspeedway.
Only five current series drivers have won previously at the 1.333-mile track – Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski each won a pair of NASCAR Xfinity Series races when that series competed at Nashville from 2001-2011. Joey Logano also has a previous Xfinity Series win. Austin Dillon won the last NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Nashville in 2011 and Kyle Busch has two Truck wins and an Xfinity Series victory.
Certainly, the big name coming into this week’s 300-lapper, however, is Kyle Larson, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. He has won the last three races coming to Nashville – the Charlotte 600-miler, the Sonoma, Calif. road course and then last Sunday, the non-points paying NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway.
Should Larson win at Nashville he would become only the fifth active driver to win three consecutive points races – matching the work of Harvick, Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Logano.
“I’ve tested there before – a couple times in an Xfinity car and I think once in a Cup car,” Larson said of Nashville. “It’s a track where very few drivers have any experience.
“We will have practice and qualifying before this Sunday’s race so I’m looking forward to the challenge of getting up to speed quickly. This team and Hendrick Motorsports as a whole, have been strong on intermediate-type tracks this year, so I hope we can have another strong finish in the Valvoline Chevrolet.”
His crew chief, Cliff Daniels expects the weekend to be a big learning curve for most teams.
“The most relevant things to pull from my previous experience there and Kyle’s testing experience there is the nuance of the track,” Daniels said. “It’s a really unique track geometry. It’s sweeping into turn one but then gets tight off turn two.
“We know the track is going to be temperature sensitive. Knowing that will help us, but we don’t have a pure setup from a race strategy standpoint. We don’t have any data points to go off.”
In fact, only 14 drivers entered this weekend have any experience at Nashville and as Larson noted, there will be practice and qualifying to give the competitors some track time before Sunday’s green flag.
Championship leader Denny Hamlin is among those that have competed previously at Nashville. He holds the distinction of topping the NASCAR Cup Series points standings for most of the season, but he has yet to win a race. His eighth-place work at Sonoma two weeks ago is his 12th top-10 through 16 races – a series-high mark he shares with William Byron. He also has a series-best nine top-five finishes in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, including five finishes of second or third-place.
The 2014 series champion Kevin Harvick has been similarly shut out of Victory Lane. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has 11 top-10 finishes but only four of those have resulted in top five outcomes. His best finish in 2021 is runner-up at Kansas. However, Harvick is a two-time Xfinity Series winner at the Nashville track and is as motivated to hoist a trophy as he’s ever been.
Even without a victory, Harvick’s ninth place position in the points standings appears Playoff-worthy. But with only 10 races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field, the intensity is starting to rise.
There have been 11 race winners through the opening 16 races, leaving only five Playoff positions available – at this time – based on wins and points position. Six former NASCAR Cup Series race winners – Kurt Busch (18th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (19th), Ryan Newman (23rd), Erik Jones (25th), Cole Custer (27th) and Aric Almirola (28th) – are all below the Playoff cutline. A victory in these last 10 regular season races is increasingly becoming their only ticket to the Playoffs.
XFINITY SERIES HEADS TO MUSIC CITY
There is an understandable excitement as NASCAR visits new venues and this week’s Nashville Superspeedway is a track that many NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers have long had circled on the schedule.
Not only is the 1.33-mile concrete oval a new test for most of the field, Nashville has a history of crowning first-time race winners in the Xfinity Series. Half of the 14 previous race winners – including names such as Greg Biffle, Jason Leffler, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski – hoisted their first series trophy in Nashville.
The Tennessee Lottery 250 (Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) may again add to that legacy. There are certainly some big names ready to make their first trip to Victory Lane in 2021. Five of the 10 drivers currently inside the Playoff bubble are still looking for their first win of the season.
In Daniel Hemric’s case, he’s looking for his first career win in any of NASCAR’s three national series. So, Nashville’s tendency to celebrate new winners must be especially encouraging for the driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He’s coming off a fourth-place finish at Texas last week – his first top-10 in a four-race period. He led a season high 105 laps at Charlotte three weeks ago only to crash and finish 28th.
He did have a top-five run at the 1.366-mile Darlington (S.C.) Raceway in May – a track of nearly the same length as this week’s Nashville track.
JR Motorsports driver Justin Allgaier won at Darlington this May in an epic battle between himself and teammate Josh Berry in the closing laps. And Allgaier is one of eight drivers entered this week who has competed at Nashville previously. He has three top-five finishes in six Nashville starts, including a fourth place in the last race held there in 2011.
One of his JR Motorsports teammates, Noah Gragson would certainly love to notch his first victory in what’s been an extremely frustrating season. The driver of the No. 9 JRM Chevrolet, rebounded last week from a tough Spring stretch – scoring a seventh-place finish at Texas. It was the perennial championship contender’s first top-10 in a five-week span that included three DNFs.
The last time Gragson led a race was at Darlington – his 40 laps out front were a race high on the day. He finished fourth and these kind of numbers are surely encouraging for this week’s stop.
“I’ve never raced at the superspeedway but we’ve spent some time in the SIM and luckily, we get a little bit of practice this weekend to learn the track and to make the right adjustments for the race,” Gragson said. “A part of me wishes we went straight into the race, but I know [crew chief] Dave [Elenz] and this entire No. 9 team will bring a fast Camaro and hopefully we can compete for the win.”
Allgaier and Gragson can certainly expect a challenge from another teammate. Berry is a Tennessee native and would love to earn a victory at Nashville this week. The same is true for championship leader Austin Cindric, who boasts a series best 10 top-10 finishes and more than 100-point advantage over second place A.J. Allmendinger in the standings, but who had his worst finish of the year (30th) on the similarly-sized Darlington track in May.
And then there’s the big picture storyline: Kyle Busch’s chance at earning a historic 100th NASCAR Xfinity Series victory. The two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion scored win No. 99 last weekend in Texas and is easily the most successful driver at the Nashville track for this weekend’s event.
He won the 2009 Xfinity race from pole position leading 173 of the 225 laps. And he won from pole position in both of his NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career starts there (2010 and 2011). He led 131 of the 150 laps for the 2010 victory and led a dominating 140 of the 150 laps in his win the following the year.
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES RETURNS TO NASHVILE
Nashville Superspeedway is a familiar venue for the Camping World Truck Series, the track having hosted 14 races between 2001-2011. But Friday night’s Rackley Roofing 200 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be a new ballgame for most of the drivers in the field.
There will be a practice and qualifying session on Friday prior to the green flag. There are no defending winners entered and only six Truck Series regulars have competed previously at the 1.33-mile track – Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Norm Benning, Parker Kligerman and Clay Greenfield.
Among those with some Nashville laps, Sauter boasts an impressive resume – four top-10 finishes in five series starts. His runner-up work in the 2011 race – the last time the series competed at the track – is tops among those with previous starts.
Sauter could certainly use that promising past this week. The former series champion sits in 11th in the series driver standings – one position outside the Playoff cutoff. He trails 10th place Chandler Smith by eight points.
Four-time winner John Hunter Nemechek continues to lead the points. The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver holds a commanding 78-point advantage on two-race winner Ben Rhodes. Austin Hill is third, followed by Todd Gilliland, Zane Smith and 2020 series champion Sheldon Creed. Gilliland and Creed are the only other drivers with a win this season to guarantee their Playoff run.
None of these championship frontrunners has ever raced at Nashville previously.
Even so, Nemechek has to be considered a favorite this weekend. The driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota has won the last two races – at Charlotte and Texas – and led double digit laps in nine of the 11 races to date. A win at Nashville would make him only the eighth driver in series history to win three consecutive races.
Nemechek finished eighth at Darlington, S.C. last month, but led a race best 65 of the 147 laps – significant in that Darlington is a 1.366-mile oval and Nashville is a 1.333-miler.
Creed, driver of the No. 2 GMS Racing Chevrolet, could use a boost this weekend. His only victory this year came at Darlington, which is encouraging for the team. However, he has finished 32nd or worse in three of the last five races – including DNFs in the last two.
Rhodes, driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Racing Toyota, was runner-up to Creed at Darlington and is another looking to rebound from a poor performance last week in the Lone Star State. His 26th-place finish at Texas was his worst showing of the season.
Also entered in this weekend’s Truck race, eager to get some competitive laps, are Cup regulars William Byron and Ryan Preece as well as 2021 Xfinity Series race winner Josh Berry.