The NASCAR Cup Series returns from its final off week 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 held at a variety of track types: short tracks, intermediates, road courses and pack race superspeedways.
Nashville stands in a category somewhat by itself: a 1.33-mile tri-oval that’s a unique length on the circuit. Reintroduced to NASCAR just last year, the renovated facility produced exciting racing despite a dominant winner, Kyle Larson, who cruised out front for 264 of 300 laps.
It’s hard to evaluate a track after just one event, especially when the second time around comes paired with a brand-new car (NASCAR’s Next Gen chassis). Even though most notes are out the window, expect teams to at least take a closer look at their brake package. Exploding rotors took around a half-dozen cars out of the running last June, including Ryan Blaney and Chris Buescher, two drivers in dire need of a win as NASCAR’s playoff race heats up.
Two others needing a victory to make the postseason found themselves inside the top 3 after Friday’s lone practice session: Bubba Wallace (fastest) and Tyler Reddick (third). They hope to capitalize on what’s likely to be a wild card race with such limited track history to draw from.
We’ve seen that unpredictability across the board throughout NASCAR’s 2022 season to date. No driver has more than two wins; 12 different winners have littered the sport’s first 16 races. Among those missing from the list are two drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing (Christopher Bell, Martin Truex, Jr.) and a nine-time winner from just two seasons ago (Kevin Harvick).
And then there’s Larson, whose performance here was part of a red-hot summer that catapulted him to the forefront of title contention. This year, he’ll have to do it with a different crew chief, Kevin Meendering, after Cliff Daniels was suspended four races once a wheel came off at Sonoma Raceway following a green-flag pit stop.
A full house is expected at Nashville despite some summer heat: the temperature at race time is expected to be 95 degrees. We’ll see if the excitement on the racetrack can match their enthusiasm as racing returns to one of NASCAR’s core markets.
Date: Sunday, June 26
Time: 5 p.m. ET
Track: Nashville Superspeedway (Lebanon, Tenn.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Daniel Suarez
Trackhouse Racing Team has had two weeks to celebrate a long-awaited victory for the first driver selected for their team in 2021. Suarez, in his 195th Cup start, finally put together a mistake-free performance, pulling away from Chris Buescher to earn a convincing 3.8-second win at Sonoma Raceway.
It’s a story of resilience for Suarez, bounced around to four teams in four years before finally finding a home at Trackhouse. Often matching the speed of teammate Ross Chastain this year, Suarez has fallen victim to wrecks, pit problems and mechanical issues. Will Sonoma be the turning point to a career that’s had so much unfulfilled potential since Suarez won the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship in 2016?
Who's at the Back: Tyler Reddick
Another promising run for Reddick was derailed at Sonoma after a pit road speeding penalty left him trapped in traffic. Contact with another car left him hobbling home with a damaged Chevrolet, posting his fourth finish in the last seven races of 30th or worse (35th).
It leaves Richard Childress Racing in a weird position. Clearly one of the faster teams with the sport’s Next Gen chassis, their engines are helping propel Trackhouse to the top of the charts. Another satellite outfit, Petty GMS Motorsports, is overachieving with Erik Jones.
But all their efforts could be for naught with Reddick, who sits winless despite 249 laps led this season (seventh-most laps among Cup drivers). He now sits 42 points out of a postseason spot with a bubble that’s sure to tighten up with more unexpected winners over the next couple of weeks.
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 Racing’s No. 19 Toyota next season, solving the first Silly Season piece of the puzzle. Truex, coming off a Championship 4 appearance, was contemplating moving on at age 41 due to the rigorous demands of the nine-month Cup schedule. In the end, he decided to stay put, continuing a career that’s produced 31 victories (a dozen of which have come with JGR).
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. also made contract news this week, announcing a multi-year extension to stay with JTG Daugherty Racing. Stenhouse, whose contract was up at the end of 2022, has caught fire recently in the No. 47 car, posting four top-5 finishes last month in a stretch that included a runner-up performance at Dover Motor Speedway. The move also quells speculation this team was considering selling their charter for the 2023 Cup season as new owners look 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 promised he’d help the four-time Indy 500 winner land a ride for the sport’s most prestigious race with a victory and, reportedly, several teams are interested. Trackhouse’s new No. 91 third car, geared toward international drivers, would seem to make the most sense for a one-race deal or even a limited schedule for the 47-year-old next season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Margin of victory for Daniel Suarez at Sonoma, the largest for any race this season.
Laps completed by Aric Almirola through 16 races, the most for any Cup driver this season. Almirola has completed all but five laps so far.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson is the obvious pick here despite the crew chief change. Fourth fastest in Friday’s final practice, he’s maintained the speed that brought him the victory during a sizzling stretch in the summer of 2021 that included six straight top-2 finishes. He’s the most likely candidate to succeed from Hendrick Motorsports although William Byron, third here last summer, has also been strong here since he unloaded.
Welcome Ross Chastain to the top tier as he’s developed into a true title contender, sitting second in the standings (just 16 points behind leader Chase Elliott). Nashville was a place he succeeded with Chip Ganassi Racing, running second here last June, and Trackhouse has been a team flashing speed at all track types.
Can Nashville be the remedy for Stewart-Haas Racing? Chase Briscoe was a top-five contender here in 2021 before losing his brakes. Aric Almirola and Kevin Harvick had similar speed, running fourth and fifth, respectively, during difficult seasons. Those struggles have continued into 2022, leaving both firmly entrenched on the sport’s playoff bubble. Can a win here nudge either driver off it?
Christopher Bell has been under the radar lately as he hasn’t been producing winning speed. But where Bell has been succeeding is consistency, putting together five top-10 finishes in the last six races while looking to solidify his spot in the standings. Add in a top-10 finish last summer in Nashville (ninth) and the No. 20 Toyota is a sneaky pick for a better finish.
Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. had one of his better runs at Nashville last season, sixth with a car that could have easily finished as high as second. Considering the strong runs this program has put together lately, he’s worth taking a flyer on once again despite only producing middling results (22nd) in Friday’s lone practice session.
Michael McDowell is coming off a third-place finish at Sonoma, his career-best sixth top-10 result this season. Sitting a surprise 20th in points, expect the momentum to continue at a track where the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports team finished a respectable 16th last summer.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com puts its Ally 400 odds on Kyle Larson (+450) with Kyle Busch (+750) a distant second. 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 (+10000), the fastest during Friday’s lone practice session. 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’m going to go with Tyler Reddick to get the monkey off his back, finally scoring his first Cup victory in a race where a dozen drivers or more could easily get to the front.
— 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.