Long before the 2021 Ally 400, in 1984, Geoffrey Bodine won the last NASCAR Cup Series race held at the old Nashville Fairgrounds. The .596-mile track, a mainstay on the stock car circuit, had been running into a myriad of financial and structural problems at the time. Leaseholder Warner Hodgdon eventually filed for bankruptcy, forcing the sport to strip its Cup race dates for 1985. Most thought the top stock car series in America would be back in a year or two.
It took 37.
The sport returns to the Music City through 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway, not the Fairgrounds, although work is underway to bring that track back onto the schedule by 2023. Dover Motorsports, Inc. agreed to move one of its Cup dates here from struggling Dover International Speedway when the sport chose a complete overhaul of its schedule for 2021.
The racing this weekend will be the first for this track in a decade; it shut down in 2011 after hosting NASCAR Xfinity and Truck series events. In a little less than a year, they've done a full touch-up renovation while hiring the first African-American track president in Erik Moses to showcase diversity. Expectations are high, with a sold-out crowd of 40,000 expected to travel to nearby Lebanon, Tennessee, for the main event.
Can the track deliver quality racing? The larger Nashville facility was known for quirky finishes, like Michael Waltrip's 2004 Xfinity win when the top four cars crashed out in front of him. Their beautiful guitar trophies were also battle-tested, as Kyle Busch showcased during his guitar-smash attempt after a 2009 NXS victory.
The old Nashville raced like a mini superspeedway: Derek Kraus earned the Camping World Truck Series pole for Friday night's race (won by Cup driver Ryan Preece) at more than 160 miles an hour. But the track offers wide grooves and plenty of racing room, which means side-by-side action could be prevalent up front with the sport's 750-horsepower handling package.
Plenty of drivers cut their teeth on this track through the years, from Kyle Busch to Kevin Harvick. The question is whether they'll have an edge a decade later over red-hot Hendrick Motorsports. Their four-driver youth movement watched those races on TV, only high school students when Carl Edwards won the final race held here in 2011.
Cinderellas should also have their eyes tilted straight in Nashville's direction. A race full of unknowns is the perfect place for an upset, leaving drivers on the playoff bubble like Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Matt DiBenedetto, and Kurt Busch anxious to break through and lock down a postseason bid. Can the middle of the pack stop the cream from rising to the top? After 10 winners in the first 11 races, only reigning champ Chase Elliott has added his name to that list in the past five events.
How the race plays out is crucial for a track that feels like a temporary fix. Speedway Motorsports, Inc. bought into the Fairgrounds, a more central location and has the money needed to deliver on a beautiful short track. Both drivers and NASCAR are willing to have multiple races in this market; however, this place needs to deliver to find a permanent spot on the schedule for years to come.
Date: Sunday, June 20
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Nashville Superspeedway (Lebanon, Tenn.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Larson
What more can you say about Larson that hasn't already been said? He won his third Cup race in a row after outdueling Brad Keselowski in the final laps to win the NASCAR All-Star Race exhibition at Texas Motor Speedway. It was Larson's second $1 million bonus in the last three years, cementing his recent surge to title favorite one year removed from being out of a Cup ride altogether.
A 10.8 average finish for Larson this season is the best of his career; his total of 1,162 laps led is over 400 more than anyone else on the Cup circuit. No one else needs to apply at this point for Comeback Driver of the Year.
Who's at the Back: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Stenhouse, once a dark-horse playoff contender for JTG Daugherty Racing, has simply fallen off the map in 2021. Failing to advance out of the All-Star Open, he's now gone nearly three months without a top-10 finish in a points-paying event (second in the Bristol Dirt Race back in March).
Now down to 19th in points, Stenhouse sits 82 points below the cutoff line and almost certainly needs a win to advance into the postseason. In the second year of his deal with JTG, it's possible an extended slump could push him into the Silly Season rumor mill.
Kaulig Racing announced on Friday they'd purchased two charters to run full-time in the NASCAR Cup Series beginning next season. NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Justin Haley will run one car with AJ Allmendinger part-time in the second. The charters were purchased from Spire Motorsports, who announced they'll continue to field the No. 7 next season with Corey LaJoie as their full-time driver.
Kaulig's news leaves Trackhouse Racing and the No. 99 teamwithout a charter for next season. Owner Justin Marks will be seeking one while announcing this week he's looking to move the team to Nashville long-term. Most racing teams are based in the Charlotte area, where Trackhouse is now, but Marks wants to take a different path with driver Daniel Suarez.
"We don't want to build something the way they exist in Charlotte," Marks said. "We want something in downtown Nashville that is a public business open to the public every day that is a racing-themed attraction. We want to incorporate entertainment, music, everything that is synonymous with Nashville but with that Americana-racing theme."
GMS Racing joined a busy news week announcing they'll be headed to the Cup Series next season. Drivers and schedule were not announced for the multi-truck organization that boasts reigning series champion Sheldon Creed on its current roster.
Alex Bowman, as expected, signed a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports this week. The two-time winner this season will partner up with primary sponsor Ally through the end of 2023.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Straight stages Kyle Larson has won in points-paying Cup competition. The last driver to win a stage or a race not named Larson was Chase Elliott at Circuit of the Americas on May 23.
Cup races run since the last time Nashville hosted a race in NASCAR's top division.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's been a decade since NASCAR raced at this track but there's more experience at the top levels than you think. Kyle Busch, in particular, has an Xfinity win here from 2009 and earned top-3 finishes in his last four NXS starts at the track. Add in two Truck Series victories and Busch might find a return to this superspeedway right in his wheelhouse. Remember, he's the only one capable of mixing it up with Hendrick Motorsports in recent weeks.
Another non-Hendrick guy I'm considering is Kevin Harvick. Harvick has two former Nashville wins in the Xfinity Series although both of them didn't come with his current team at Stewart-Haas Racing. After a nine-win 2020, Harvick's team has been snake-bit with tough luck and surprisingly poor handling throughout most of 2021. Can this weekend be the one he and crew chief Rodney Childers finally find their magic formula once again?
To not pick a Hendrick driver is foolish, so I'm sneaking in Kyle Larson on this tier. It's hard to ignore such a dominant performance at this point until there's a letdown.
Chris Buescher is driving for a Roush Fenway Racing program that used to have a ton of Nashville success. It's a stretch to think their 2011 data will carry over all the way into 2021. But Buescher needs a solid run to entrench his place on the playoff bubble and a top-10 finish would work wonders to fend off Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch and others underneath him.
Tyler Reddick has a habit of succeeding on these intermediate-style, mini-superspeedway tracks. Half his eight top-10 finishes this season are on speedways one to two miles in length and Nashville offers the type of multi-groove, tire-wearing blueprint that could serve him well.
Despite his recent struggles, I'm actually on the Ricky Stenhouse Jr. train due to his past Nashville experience. Two top-5 finishes with Roush Fenway Racing in 2011 give him a slight edge in this category.
It's been a big week for Justin Haley with the announcement he'll be a full-time Cup driver next season. While Haley is running underfunded equipment over at Spire Motorsports, running the NXS race the day before should help coax maximum speed and a potential top-20 finish out of his No. 77.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson remains the favorite based on his recent success, posting odds as low as 11/4 on vegasinsider.com. Three-time winner Martin Truex Jr. sits second, posting 13/2 odds while Chase Elliott is a distant third at 7/1.
A wild-card race like this one lends itself to longshot picks. If you're feeling feisty, Chris Buescher is sitting there at 125/1. Crazier things have happened...
What I Think
Kyle Larson's got to lose again at some point, right? I think Kyle Busch is primed to use his past Nashville knowledge and romp toward a second Cup win in 2021.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.