The NASCAR Cup Series returns from its lone off weekend with a visit to a track that does not hold one of the 10 NASCAR Playoffs races but could play an essential role in the success teams have once they reach the postseason.
Nashville Superspeedway, the host of this week’s NASCAR action, is a 1.33-mile concrete oval with 14 degrees of banking in the corners. It is not a perfect replica of the five intermediate tracks that populate the playoff schedule, especially with a concrete surface. Still, it is perhaps the last, best chance for teams to race on a track similar in size and shape to what they will face in half of the postseason races.
NASCAR has added several new tracks since 2020
NASCAR has varied its schedule rather dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic-altered slate of 2020. That shift has taken the series away from its traditional schedule that featured the same races at the same tracks, often twice per year, and has put races at new venues at the expense of some of those second dates.
Nashville is one of the tracks NASCAR added to its schedule in 2021, as is Road America, where the series will head next week. The series will also visit New Hampshire, Pocono, and Michigan this summer, and the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is now a 200-mile event on the road course inside the historic venue.
All of that is to say a Cup Series schedule that once featured multiple trips to the same intermediate tracks during the regular season is now assorted enough that teams do not have the luxury of dialing in a similar setup for the cars week after week.
For example, a setup that worked at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway oval in Week 12 of the 2019 season would likely work well as a baseline for at least five of the following 14 regular-season races. The playoffs then had four races on 1.5-mile tracks, and that was after the sanctioning body moved the fall Charlotte Motor Speedway race from the 1.5-mile oval to the infield road-course layout.
Teams still had Kansas and Charlotte back-to-back weeks in May, but Nashville and the 2.0-mile oval at Michigan are the only two intermediate ovals left with 10 races to go in the regular season, now that Atlanta Motor Speedway is a de facto superspeedway race.
This will be a crucial weekend on the NASCAR calendar, even though it is still more than two months before the start of the playoffs.
Hendrick Motorsports dominated at Nashville in 2021
Hendrick Motorsports, and Kyle Larson in particular, was in control of the inaugural race a year ago nearly from start to finish. Larson led 264 of 300 laps to win his third race in a row and fourth of the eventual 10 wins he compiled in his championship-winning campaign.
Teammate William Byron finished third, and Chase Elliott won Stage 1 and led 13 laps en route to a 13th-place result, although he was ultimately disqualified because NASCAR discovered loose lug nuts on his tires during post-race inspection.
Perhaps this is when HMS reasserts itself after just two top-fives combined in the last five races, although Toyota has been the premier manufacturer on the previous two high-banked intermediate tracks. Toyota had five of the top six finishers at Kansas in a race Kurt Busch won for 23XI Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing had three cars in the top five at Charlotte, including winner Denny Hamlin.
Of course, the new Next Gen car continues to be the primary variable of this season. One of the goals NASCAR leaders had for the car was that it would promote parity throughout the field, and 12 different winners through the first 16 races indicates that was a success. The only year with more unique winners through this point in the season was 2003, when 13 different drivers visited Victory Lane.
Perhaps there will be yet another surprise Sunday, and the unpredictable nature of this season continues. But an organization that hits the setup right and fills up the top of the scoring pylon at Nashville might just be the team to watch come playoff time.
Stats courtesy of Racing Reference