Weekend Preview: Nashville Superspeedway
NASCAR Cup Series debuts at Nashville Superspeedway this weekend
The NASCAR Cup Series is hosting its second track debut weekend of the season with Ally 400 Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Nashville Superspeedway.
Only five drivers in the current series have ever won on the 1.333 mile track – Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski each won a pair of NASCAR Xfinity Series races when that series competed in Nashville from 2001 to 2011. Joey Logano also won a previous victory in the Xfinity series. Austin Dillon won the last NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race in Nashville in 2011 and Kyle Busch had two truck wins and one Xfinity Series victory.
Certainly the big name entering this week’s 300 laps, however, is No.5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet driver Kyle Larson. He’s won the last three races in Nashville – the Charlotte 600-miler, the road course in Sonoma, Calif., And then last Sunday, the NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway.
If Larson won at Nashville, he would become only the fifth active driver to win three consecutive points races, which matches the work of Harvick, Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Logano.
“I’ve tested it before – a few times in an Xfinity car and I think once in a Cup car,” Larson said of Nashville. “It’s a track where very few riders have experience.
“We will have practice and qualifying before 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 mid-type tracks this year, so hopefully we can still finish strong with the Chevrolet Valvoline. “
His team leader, Cliff Daniels, expects the weekend to be a big learning curve for most teams.
“The most relevant things to take away from my previous experience there and Kyle’s testing experience there are the nuances of the track,” Daniels said. “It’s a really unique track geometry. It goes through the first corner but then tightens in the second corner.”
“We know the track will be temperature sensitive. Knowing it will help us, but we don’t have a pure setup from a racing strategy standpoint. We have no data points to mine. “
In fact, only 14 drivers entered this weekend have experience in Nashville and as Larson noted, there will be practice and qualifying to give competitors track time before Sunday’s green flag.
Championship leader Denny Hamlin is among those who have competed in Nashville before. He holds the distinction of leading the NASCAR Cup Series points standings for most of the season, but he’s yet to win a race. His eighth-place job at Sonoma two weeks ago is his 12th top-10 out of 16 races – a record mark he shares with William Byron. He also holds a record nine top-five in the series with the Toyota No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing, including five second or third places.
2014 Series champion Kevin Harvick was also kicked out of Victory Lane. The No.4 Ford Stewart-Haas Racing driver finished 11 in the top 10, but only four of them resulted in top-five results. His best result in 2021 is second in Kansas. However, Harvick is a two-time Xfinity Series winner on the Nashville track and is more motivated than ever to lift a trophy.
Even without a win, Harvick’s ninth place in the points standings looks worthy of the playoffs. But with just 10 races remaining to define the 16-driver playoff field, the intensity is starting to increase.
There have been 11 race winners in the first 16 races, leaving just five playoff positions available – for now – 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 in below the Playoff Cut Line. A victory in those last 10 races of the regular season is increasingly becoming their only ticket to the Playoffs.
THE XFINITY SERIES COMES TO MUSIC CITY
There is understandable excitement as NASCAR visits new venues and this week’s Nashville Superspeedway is a track many NASCAR Xfinity Series drivers have long circled on the schedule.
Not only is the 1.33 mile concrete oval a new test for most terrains, Nashville has a habit of crowning the early winners of the Xfinity Series race. Half of the 14 previous race winners – including names such as Greg Biffle, Jason Leffler, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski – hoisted their first trophy of the series in Nashville.
The Tennessee Lottery 250 (Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) could add to that legacy even further. There are certainly some big names set to make their first trip to Victory Lane in 2021. Five of the 10 drivers currently inside the Playoffs bubble are still looking for their first win of the season.
In Daniel Hemric’s case, he’s aiming for his first career victory in one of NASCAR’s three National Series. So Nashville’s tendency to celebrate new winners must be particularly encouraging for No. 18 Toyota driver Joe Gibbs Racing. He just finished fourth in Texas last week – his first top 10 in four races. He led 105 laps, a season-high, in Charlotte three weeks ago, before crashing and finishing 28th.
He placed in the top five on the 1.366-mile Darlington (SC) circuit in May – a track almost the same length as this week’s Nashville track.
JR Motorsports rider Justin Allgaier won at Darlington last May in an epic battle between himself and teammate Josh Berry in the final laps. And Allgaier is one of eight drivers entered this week who has already raced in Nashville. He has finished in the top five three times in six starts at Nashville, including a fourth place finish in the last race held there in 2011.
One of his JR Motorsports teammates, Noah Gragson would certainly love to clinch his first victory in an extremely frustrating season. The No. 9 Chevrolet JRM rider rebounded last week from a tough spring streak, scoring a seventh place in Texas. It was the eternal championship contender’s first top 10 in five weeks which included three withdrawals.
The last time Gragson led a race was at Darlington – his 40 laps in the lead was a race record that day. He was fourth and those kinds of numbers are surely encouraging for this week’s stop.
“I have never raced on the superspeedway but we spent some time in the SIM and luckily we have a little practice this weekend to learn the track and make the right settings for the race,” said Gragson . “Part of me wishes we would go straight into the race, but I know [crew chief] Dave [Elenz] and this whole 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 from Tennessee and would love to claim a victory in Nashville this week. The same goes for championship leader Austin Cindric, who has the top 10 rankings in the series and more than 100 points ahead of second place AJ Allmendinger in the standings, but who had his worst result of the year. (30th) on the similarly sized Darlington track in May.
And then there’s the big story: Kyle Busch’s chance to claim a historic 100th NASCAR Xfinity Series victory. The two-time NASCAR Cup Series champion claimed the No.99 victory last weekend in Texas and is by far the most successful driver on the Nashville track for this weekend’s event.
He won the 2009 Xfinity race from pole position, leading 173 of 225 laps. And he won pole position in his two career debuts in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series (2010 and 2011). He led 131 of 150 laps for the 2010 victory and dominated 140 of 150 laps for his victory the following year.
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES BACK TO NASHVILE
Nashville Superspeedway is a familiar location 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 ball game for most drivers on the field.
There will be a practice and qualifying session on Friday before the green flag. There are no reigning winners listed and only six Truck Series regulars have ever competed on the 1.33 mile track – Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Norm Benning, Parker Kligerman and Clay Greenfield.
Among those who have done a few laps in Nashville, Sauter has an impressive resume – four top 10s in five series starts. His work as a finalist in the 2011 race – the last time the series competed on the track – leads those who have already taken the start.
Sauter could certainly use that bright past this week. The former Series Champion sits 11th in the Series Driver Rankings – a position outside of the playoff line. He is eight points behind 10th place Chandler Smith.
Four-time winner John Hunter Nemechek continues to lead the points. Driver Kyle Busch Motorsports has a considerable advantage of 78 points over 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 secure their playoff run.
None of these championship leaders have ever raced in Nashville before.
Even so, Nemechek must be considered a favorite this weekend. # 4 Toyota driver Kyle Busch Motorsports has won the last two races – in Charlotte and Texas – and has led double-digit laps in nine of 11 races to date. A victory in Nashville would make him the eighth driver in series history to win three consecutive races.
Nemechek finished eighth in Darlington, SC last month, but led the race best 65 of 147 laps – which is significant in that Darlington is a 1.366-mile oval and Nashville is a 1.333-mile.
Creed, driver of the No. 2 Chevrolet GMS Racing, could get a boost this weekend. His only win this year came at Darlington, which is encouraging for the team. However, he’s finished 32nd or worse in three of the last five races – including retirements in the last two.
Rhodes, driver of the No.99 Toyota ThorSport Racing, finished second to Creed at Darlington and is another looking to bounce back from a poor performance last week in the Lone Star State. His 26th place in Texas was his worst performance of the season.
Cup regulars William Byron and Ryan Preece as well as 2021 Xfinity Series race winner Josh Berry are also entered in this weekend’s truck race, eager to make some competitive laps.