Music City takes center stage as the race for the Playoffs heats up in Nashville

LEBANON, TENNESSEE - JUNE 26: Austin Cindric, driver of the #2 Menards/Duracell Ford, Corey LaJoie, driver of the #7 Schluter Systems Chevrolet, Ty Dillon, driver of the #42 Black Rifle Coffee Company Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Pedigree Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 26, 2022 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Nashville has become a fixture on the Cup Series schedule. Sunday night’s Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the third race on the 1.33-mile concrete track since NASCAR returned and brought the Cup Series.

And it comes at a time in the schedule when Playoff pressure heats up.

With Nashville, there are just ten regular-season races to go before the Playoffs begin. Ten drivers have already won in the first sixteen races, meaning six points positions remain open.

Leading the drivers in as it stands on points is Ross Chastain, who sits fourth in the standings, ahead of Kevin Harvick who also hasn’t won yet this season.

Though Chastain doesn’t have a win, earning his position from consistent finishes, he doesn’t intend to hedge his bets and prioritize stage wins over race wins, instead preferring to let the stages work themselves out.

“Ultimately everything is built for the end of the race for our strategy,” Chastain said. “But when we run good we get more stage points and that’s why we’ve been able to rack up regular season points. We haven’t really been biased to get more stage points and give up the end result of a win because its about the end for us.”

Teammate Daniel Suarez also doesn’t have a win, but he’s in a much more precarious position, currently sitting 17th in points, three points below the Playoff bubble. But he says he’s not overly concerned.

“I try not to even think about those things,” he said. “My belief is if you focus on today, not tomorrow or next week or next year, then everything will take care of itself. If we run good Sunday and follow it up with more good runs, then we will be fine Playoff and points-wise.”

The other drivers currently in the top sixteen without a win are Chris Buescher, Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace and Alex Bowman.

Points leader Martin Truex has moved to the other side of the equation after getting all-too-familiar with the Playoff bubble last season, when he missed out on the only postseason points position in the final race.

Truex now has two wins this season, with a dominating performance at Sonoma adding to his total.

“It is definitely easier when you’ve won a race, especially in today’s format with getting locked into the playoffs,” Truex said. “You don’t have to worry about that. You can kind of relax, go race and do your thing.”

As for the difference this year following a winless season last year, Truex said that understanding the Next Gen car, both by him and his team, is the biggest improvement.

“I think just better cars, in general,” he said. “Better cars, better understanding of what we need on the racetracks. Last year was a big learning curve… Just all of that learning process and figuring things out has been a big factor for us.”

The track itself is a unique facility to play host to this action.

Although Nashville might call itself a superspeedway, Ryan Preece thinks it plays more to his style. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver dominated early at Martinsville earlier in the season, with his entire team performing well at the short track in the middle of an otherwise-lackluster season.

“Nashville races are similar to a short track, which is right up my alley because short tracks are what I’ve done my entire career,” said Preece. “But it’s also a mile-and-a-half track, so it’s a little bit bigger and it’s kind of got that little bit of an in-between. There’s a lot of shifting and different lanes, so that makes it an interesting track to race on.”

Preece’s Stewart-Haas teammate Kevin Harvick has the most experience of any driver, on the other hand. Though the Cup Series had never run on the track until 2021, it was heavily-used a test facility. Harvick, then, has logged the most laps on the track of any driver in the field.

He said the tests, up to 20 or 25 a year, gave him a gauge for the track that held true when he started racing at the facility.

“The track really hadn’t changed,” Harvick said. “I think a couple of the bumps were a little bit worse than probably what they were before, but nothing drastic. I think the stuff they sprayed on the racetrack added a little bit of grip to the higher lanes in practice, and then for the race it was really back down to the bottom and more traditional like it had been before.”

Last year’s winner Chase Elliott is one driver who doesn’t have a win at all this year, and sits thoroughly outside the Playoff bubble, having been sidelined by an injury and suspension throughout the season.

Practice for the Ally 400 is scheduled for Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET (USA Network), with Busch Light Pole Qualifying Saturday at 1 p.m. ET (USA Network).

Xfinity Series points lead battle heats up

The Xfinity Series returned to Nashville alongside the Cup Series after a ten year hiatus. Saturday’s Tennessee Lottery 250 (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the third race since the series’ return.

Cup Series Kyle Busch won the first race at the track in 2021. Ty Dillon, A.J. Allmendinger, and Ty Gibbs are all moonlighting this year from the Cup Series to try to repeat. Plus, Truck Series Zane Smith and Carson Hocevar are entered.

However, defending winner Justin Allgaier wants to keep a series regular in victory lane, and he has the best record of anyone at the track, with a runner-up finish and a win in his two races at the track.

“I really enjoy racing at Nashville, it’s always been one of my favorite places and it’s great going into this weekend as the race winner,” Allgaier said. “We’ve had the momentum on our side here lately and hopefully we can keep that going on Saturday.”

Though he’s won this season and locked himself into the Playoffs, Allgaier’s in third and 25 points out from points leader John Hunter Nemechek. Far closer is second place Austin Hill, who sits just four points out. However, though the two drivers have five wins combined, neither has won in seven races.

It’s a difficult track for any driver to get that win, requiring precision driving.

“Nashville is a hard track. It’s a very disconnected racetrack, so you really have to be disciplined,” said Cole Custer. “Just like Sonoma, it’s a very easy track to overdrive and get yourself in some trouble. You really have to make sure as a driver that you’re hitting your marks. It’s definitely a unique track with how it’s shaped and how you have to drive it.”

As for the Playoff picture, Custer sits fourth with a win in hand and is looking to build momentum heading into the postseason.

“This is the point in the season where we really have to put the gas pedal down and we have to start taking advantage of the momentum,” he said.

Headlining the Xfinity Series drivers this week is Josh Berry, who has been selected to replace Kevin Harvick in the famous Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 car in the Cup Series. A win would put a cherry on his week, especially since he hasn’t found victory lane in the Xfinity Series yet this year. He still sits comfortably fifth in points, though.

Practice is scheduled for Friday at 5:35 p.m. ET (USA Network), with qualifying at noon on Saturday (USA Network) before the green flag waves at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Truck Series has big Triple Truck Challenge money on the line

The Truck Series is returning to Nashville for a third time, but there’s no defending winner in the field. Ryan Preece won both times the series headed to Nashville, but he’ll be competing in the Cup Series this weekend. Instead, Friday night’s Rackley Roofing 200 (8 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be won by a Truck Series regular.

It’s Corey Heim who comes in with the points lead, but only by one point over Ty Majeski. Zane Smith, who finished second at Nashville last year, is also just nine points behind Heim.

Zane Smith and Stewart Friesen are the only drivers to have only finished in the top five since the Truck Series returned to Nashville.

Grant Enfinger, currently fourth in the standings, is the most recent winner, having won his second race of the season at World Wide Technology Raceway. That earned him the $50,000 Triple Truck Challenge bonus. Enfinger has the chance to make it a $150,000 bonus.

However, he’ll have to watch out for the rest of the field, hungry for the money, and Ben Rhodes especially. Rhodes can also earn the big money bonus, having won the first leg of the Challenge at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Nashville is the final race of the Challenge and the last chance for Truck Series drivers to earn the money.

The Truck Series will take to the 1.33-mile track at 4 p.m. ET on Friday, June 23 for practice with Cometic Gasket Pole Qualifying following at 4:30 p.m. and the race at 8 p.m. All on-track activity will be televised on FS1.

Practice is scheduled for Friday at 4 p.m. ET (FS1), with Cometic Gasket Pole Qualifying following at 4:30 (FS1) before the race at 8 p.m.

LEBANON, TENNESSEE – JUNE 26: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, lead the field on a pace lap prior to the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 26, 2022 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Ally 400
The Place: Nashville Superspeedway
The Date: Sunday, June 25
The Time: 7 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,516,134
TV: NBC, 7 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 399 miles (300 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 90),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 185), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 300)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Tennessee Lottery 250
The Place: Nashville Superspeedway
The Date: Saturday, June 24
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,616,383
TV: USA, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250.04 miles (188 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 188)

Next Race: Rackley Roofing 200
The Place: Nashville Superspeedway
The Date: Friday, June 23
The Time: 8 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 7:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 199.5 miles (150 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 95), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 150)

Owen Johnson