The NASCAR Cup Series returns from its final week off ready to roll in the Music City. The Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway kicks off a summer sprint to the finish, 10 races to end the regular season that take place on a variety of track types: short, intermediate, road and pack race superspeedways.
Nashville is in a class of its own: a 1.33-mile tri-oval that is a unique length on the circuit. Reintroduced to NASCAR last year, the revamped facility produced thrilling races despite a towering winner, Kyle Larson, who raced out front for 264 of the 300 laps.
It’s hard to rate a track after just one event, especially when the second time is associated with a brand new car (NASCAR’s Next Gen chassis). Even though most of the ratings are out the window, expect teams to at least take a closer look at their brake package. Exploding rotors knocked out half a dozen cars last June, including Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher, two drivers desperate for a win as the NASCAR playoff race heats up.
Two others who needed a win to make the playoffs found themselves in the top three after Friday’s only practice session: Bubba Wallace (fastest) and Tyler Reddick (third). They are hoping to capitalize on what is likely to be wild card racing with such limited track history.
We’ve seen this unpredictability on every level throughout NASCAR’s 2022 season to date. No pilot has more than two victories; 12 different winners have littered the sport’s first 16 races. Missing from the list are two Joe Gibbs Racing drivers (Christopher Bell, Martin Truex, Jr.) and a nine-time winner just two seasons ago (Kevin Harvick).
And then there’s Larson, whose performance here was part of a scorching summer that catapulted him to the forefront of title contention. This year he will have to do it with a different crew chief, Kevin Meendering, after Cliff Daniels was suspended four races after a wheel came off at Sonoma Raceway after a green flag pit stop.
A packed house is expected in Nashville despite some summer heat: the temperature at the time of the race should be 95 degrees. We’ll see if the excitement on the circuit can match their excitement as racing returns to one of NASCAR’s major markets.
Date: Sunday June 26
Time: 5 p.m. ET
Track: Nashville Superspeedway (Lebanon, Tennessee)
Radio: DRM, SIRIUS XM channel 90
Who is at the front: Daniel Suarez
The Trackhouse Racing team had two weeks to celebrate a long-awaited victory for the first driver selected for their team in 2021. Suarez, on his 195th Cup start, finally put in an error-free performance, moving away from Chris Buescher to win a convincing 3.8 second victory at Sonoma Raceway.
It’s a story of resilience for Suarez, who bounced around four teams in four years before finally finding a home at Trackhouse. Often matching the speed of teammate Ross Chastain this year, Suarez has been plagued with wrecks, pit issues and mechanical issues. Will Sonoma be the turning point in a career of unfulfilled potential since Suarez won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in 2016?
Who’s in the back: Tyler Reddick
Another promising run for Reddick was derailed in Sonoma after a pit road speeding penalty left him trapped in traffic. Contact with another car left him hobbling home with a damaged Chevrolet, securing his fourth finish in the last seven races of 30e or worse (35e).
This leaves Richard Childress Racing in an odd position. Clearly one of the fastest teams with the Next Gen chassis in the sport, their engines help propel Trackhouse to the top of the charts. Another satellite team, Petty GMS Motorsports, exceeds expectations with Erik Jones.
But all their efforts could be wasted with Reddick, who remains winless despite leading 249 laps this season (seventh most laps among Cup drivers). He now sits 42 points away from a playoff berth with a bubble that is sure to tighten with more unexpected winners over the next two weeks.
News in brief
Martin Truex, Jr. had a simple way to answer the retirement question at Nashville Superspeedway: “I’m coming back.” With that, the 2017 Cup champion announced his return to Joe Gibbs Race‘s No. 19 Toyota next season, solving the first piece of the Silly Season puzzle. Truex, fresh off a Championship 4 appearance, was considering a move at 41 due to the rigorous demands of the nine-month Cup schedule. In the end, he decided to stay put, continuing a career that produced 31 wins (including a dozen with JGR).
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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also made contract news this week, announcing a multi-year extension to stay with JTG Daugherty Racing. Stenhouse, whose contract was at the end of 2022, recently caught fire in the No. 47 car, posting four top-5 finishes last month in a streak that included a runner-up performance at Dover Motor Speedway. The move also quells speculation that this team was considering selling its charter for the 2023 Cup season as new owners seek to break into the sport.
Helio Castroneves is in the market for a Daytona 500 ride after a win in the SRX season opener at Five Flags Speedway. SRX CEO Don Hawk has promised he will help the four-time Indy 500 winner enter the sport’s most prestigious race with a victory and, it seems, several teams are interested. Trackhouse’s new No. 91 third car, aimed at international drivers, would seem the most logical for a one-race deal or even a limited schedule for the 47-year-old driver next season.
NASCAR in numbers
Margin of victory for Daniel Suarez at Sonoma, the biggest of any race this season.
Laps completed by Aric Almirola across 16 races, the most for a Cup driver this season. Almirola has completed all but five laps so far.
Play the odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson is the obvious choice here despite the change of team leader. Fastest fourth in Friday’s final practice, he maintained the speed that won him victory in a torrid streak in the summer of 2021 that included six straight top-2 finishes. He is the most likely candidate to succeed Hendrick Motorsports although William Byronthird here last summer, also been strong here since unloading.
Welcome Ross Chestnut at the highest level as he became a real contender for the title, occupying second place in the standings (just 16 points behind leader Chase Elliott). Nashville was a place where he had success with Chip Ganassi Racing, second here last June, and Trackhouse has been a team that flashes speed on all types of tracks.
Related: Best Nashville Superspeedway drivers for DraftKings
Can Nashville be the cure for Stewart-Haas Racing? Chasing Briscoe was a top five contender here in 2021 before losing his brakes. Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick had a similar speed, running fourth and fifth, respectively, during tough seasons. Those struggles continued into 2022, leaving the two firmly entrenched in the sport’s playoff bubble. Can a victory here push either driver out of this?
Christopher Bell has been under the radar lately as he hasn’t produced winning speed. But where Bell has has nailed his consistency, picking up five top-10 finishes over the past six races while looking to solidify his place in the standings. Add to that a top 10 finish last summer in Nashville (ninth) and the No. 20 Toyota is a sneaky choice for a better finish.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. had one of his best races in Nashville last season, sixth in a car that could easily have finished second. Considering the good results that this program has been putting in lately, it is worth picking up a flyer even if it has produced only mediocre results (22n/a) in Friday’s only training session.
Michael McDowell is coming off a third-place finish at Sonoma, his career-best sixth-top-10 finish this season. Sitting a Surprise 20e in points, expect the momentum to continue at a track where the #34 Front Row Motorsports team finished a respectable 16e last summer.
What Vegas thinks
Vegasinsider.com places its Ally 400 rating on Kyle Larson (+450) with Kyle Busch (+750) far behind. Chase Elliott (+800) and Ross Chastain (+800) are next on the list with two-time winner this season Denny Hamlin sitting at +1000.
Looking for a longshot? Look no further than Bubba Wallace (+10,000), fastest in Friday’s practice session alone. Is this the weekend he puts it all together after a frustrating 2022?
What I think
Nashville is a bit of a wild card, indeed. I will go with Tyler Red Dick to get rid of the monkey, finally earning his first Cup victory in a race where a dozen or more drivers could easily get ahead.
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