Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – NASHVILLE, TN – When Kyle Larson came to Nashville Superspeedway last year, he was on a roll.
The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had won the previous two races from the pole, at Charlotte and Sonoma.
In the first-ever NASCAR Cup Series event at the 1.33-mile concrete track, Larson showed no signs of slowing down. He led 264 of the 300 laps and beat runner-up Ross Chastain to the finish line by 4.335 seconds.
At season’s end, Larson returned to Music City to celebrate his first series championship.
The 2022 season hasn’t gone as smoothly for the 29-year-old from Elk Grove, Calif. After winning at Auto Club Speedway in the second race of the year, Larson has been stuck in neutral, relatively speaking.
Though 16 regular-season races, he has posted just six top fives (including the win) and eight top 10s. And though Larson would like to forge a turnaround at Nashville in Sunday’s Ally 400 (5 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), he’ll have to do so without crew chief Cliff Daniels and two of his front-line pit crew members.
Larson lost a right-front tire during the June 12 race at Sonoma, leading to a four-race suspension for Daniels and the crew members. Kevin Meendering takes over crew chief duties at Nashville as Larson tries to reclaim last year’s magic.
To that end, Larson hopes the racing conditions are similar to those he encountered last year.
“It raced really well,” Larson said. “I had only tested there before, and it was always kind of just right around the bottom. Last year, I think they put some resin on the track or something, and we were able to move up the track.
“It was pretty slick, and you could move around. I hope it’s similar to that. I think it should be—and probably even better. It seems like these Next Gen cars slide around even more, so it should be fun.”
All four Hendrick drivers—Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman—have won at least one race this season, but Elliott is the only one of the four who has visited Victory Lane in the last eight Cup events.
Bowman, who boasts the best average finish of the four at 12.06, acknowledges that the Hendrick drivers have lost some of the edge they had earlier in the season.
“I don’t think we’re bad by any means,” Bowman said. “I think we’re just not as great as we were in the beginning of the year. I think some other guys have just caught up, and we’ve got to do our homework to get back ahead of the pack.
“We’re all working on it. There’s a lot of smart people at HMS.”
Bowman finished 14th in last year’s Nashville race. Byron, a two-time winner this season, ran third, as Chevrolet drivers claimed the top three spots and six of the top eight.
Ty Gibbs is looking forward to Nashville Superspeedway debut
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Ty Gibbs has never raced at Nashville Superspeedway, but the same can’t be said of the car he’ll be driving in Saturday’s Tennessee Lottery 250 (3:30 p.m. ET on USA, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Kyle Busch drove the No. 54 JGR Toyota to victory last year in the NASCAR Xfinity Series’ return to Music City for the first time since 2011. That’s the car Gibbs will drive on Saturday, when the series returns to action for the first time since June 11 at Portland International Raceway.
“The two weeks off were nice, but I’m ready get back behind the wheel,” Gibbs said. “I’ve never been to Nashville, and I know it’s a challenge as it’s 1.33 miles and concrete. Kyle and the 54 boys won there last year, and I know we’ll have a strong Monster Energy GR Supra.”
Gibbs will face stiff competition from JR Motorsports and the entire Chevrolet contingent. Chevy drivers have won the last six Xfinity Series races, with JRM drivers accounting for four of those victories.
Justin Allgaier and Josh Berry finished second and fourth, respectively, in last year’s Nashville race, and both should be strong contenders for the win on Saturday, along with JRM teammate Noah Gragson, who ran eighth in 2021.
“I’m really looking forward to getting back to Nashville this weekend,” Allgaier said. “We had a fast car here last season, and I feel extremely confident that we can be just as quick when we unload for practice on Friday with our Hellmann’s Chevrolet.
“It was great to have these two weekends off to recharge, and I know that (crew chief) Jason (Burdett) and everyone on this JR Motorsports team is ready to get back to the track and see what we can do.”
Battle for Playoff spots intensifies as Truck Series heads to Nashville
With three races left in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular season, five drivers have clinched Playoff spots on the basis of race wins—John Hunter Nemechek, Zane Smith, Ben Rhodes, Chandler Smith and Stewart Friesen.
That leaves five berths available, at least two of which will be decided by position in the points standings. Hovering around the cut line for the final spot are Matt Crafton and Derek Kraus, who are 10th and 11th in the standings, respectively.
Crafton, a three-time series champion, currently holds a 27-point lead over Kraus entering Friday night’s Rackley Roofing 200 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Crafton has 14 starts at Nashville, 13 of which came from 2001 through 2011.
The battle for the final five Playoff spots isn’t the only intense competition. At the top of the standings, John Hunter Nemechek, Zane Smith and Ben Rhodes are waging a pitched battle for the Regular Season Championship, a title worth 15 Playoff points to the winner.
Nemechek currently leads Smith by five points and Rhodes by 10. To Nemechek, the key to securing the regular-season title is executing three mistake-free races.
“I think for us, we just need to have consistent runs and not make mistakes,” Nemechek said. “We’ve got to be fast, and we know we have trucks capable of doing that, so (the key is) not dialing ourselves out during practice, putting good races together, finishing up high in the stages and having good results at the end of the race.
“Just have to put everything together, execute, and not beat ourselves and not make any mistakes.”
Friday’s race is the second of three Triple Truck Challenge events on the NCWTS schedule, with a $50,000 bonus available to the winner. Corey Heim won the first Triple Truck Challenge race at World Wide Technology Raceway and can earn a $150,000 bonus for a second victory.