Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LEBANON, TN – Defending Nashville Superspeedway winner Elliott arrives in Tennessee eager to defend his victory for sentimental reasons, but also needing to take the trophy for his season’s NASCAR Cup Series Playoff hopes.
The 2020 series champion is currently ranked 27th in the championship standings, having missed seven races this season – six for injury and one for penalty.
With only 10 races left to set the 16-driver Playoff field, the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet likely needs to win a race to earn that automatic bid into the formal championship hunt. But the 27-year old arrived in Nashville confident in his team’s approach for this playoff push.
“I think just being in that nice sweet spot of pushing but not pushing too far, and pushing yourself and your team, but not pushing them too far,’’ Elliott said of his mindset. “I think there is a balance there where I feel like we’ve done the best and had the best results and I think that’s just where we need to stay, personally.
“When we do our jobs at that level and to the best of our abilities, I feel like it’s been plenty good enough to go and contend. We just have to fall into that rhythm and just do our thing.’’
Truex rides Victory Lane momentum through off week
With his victory in the series’ last race – at Sonoma, Calif. – two weeks ago, Martin Truex Jr. has taken over the NASCAR Cup Series championship lead for the first time since 2021. He’s earned a pair of regular season wins in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota (at Dover, Del. and Sonoma) and also won the exhibition Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum to kick off the season in February.
“Honestly, just feeling really great about the team and what we’ve been able to do this year,’’ Truex said. “I feel like we’re back. Two wins and a lot of time running up front and leading laps, that’s where we need to be and deserve to be. After last year, it’s a good feeling to be back.’’
Truex has finished Top-10 in half the season’s 16 races, including five of the last six. He’s finished Top-3 in the previous three races. And only two drivers – William Byron and Kyle Larson – have led more laps (434). His five Top-5s already exceeds the total (four) from 2022.
It’s an upswing Truex is enjoying. And expectations are high – including this weekend. Last year at Nashville, he won both stages and led 82 laps, but finished 22nd.
“Everybody in the garage wants to be there, that’s where we want to be and anytime any team is in the position you feel like you’re doing great things,’’ Truex said. “This is a really difficult sport. It’s hard to win these races. It’s hard to be consistent at all these different race tracks. My team’s doing a great job. I’m just trying to be smart about things, and do what I know how to do which is be consistent, be smart, get our wins when we can and be in position.
“So far, so good.’
RFK Racing pushes to put both cars in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs
With cars ranked 11th (Chris Buescher) and 12th (Brad Keselowski) in the championship standings, Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team co-owner Keselowski said he was optimistic about the pair’s chances of qualifying for the 2023 Playoffs. But he acknowledges it’s a big step for the team.
Although both drivers and their teams are still looking for that first trophy of 2023, they have combined for six Top-5s (three each) and 13 Top-10 finishes (Buescher, seven and Keselowski six) – a huge improvement over last season leading up to this 10-race push to the Playoffs.
Keselowski has already equalled his Top-10 total of a year ago – with 20 races remaining. And his three Top-5s exceeds the lone Top-5 he posted in 2022. Similarly, Buescher’s three Top-5 finishes equals his 2022 season total and his seven Top-10s is well within the 10 Top-10 total he had a year ago.
“We’ve got some good vibes going,’’ said the 2012 series champion Keselowski, who will start Sunday’s race 24th. “Chris is on a really big hot streak. He’s run really well here the last three or four races and been in contention to win. He won a stage in the Coke 600, won part of the All Star Race and ran really good at Sonoma, just really good energy there making their way up in the points. A lot of excitement there.
“Been up and down with my car, the 6-car and felt like we were really strong at Charlotte and not as good as I’d like to be a couple other places. But either way, it’s better to be in than to be out, looking in. But we’re not as comfortable as we’d like to be. We’d like to have wins. That’s really what the sport is about.
“We’ve done a great job elevating ourselves from irrelevant to relevant, but I don’t want to stop there. We’ve got another step to take.’’