A lookback on Nashville with a look ahead to Road America

Chase Elliott outsmarted the field while the main competition in Sunday’s rain marred Ally 400 at the Nashville Superspeedway outsmarted themselves. Elliott and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates were out of lunch during the day time hours around the 1.33-mile concrete oval. William Byron pulled behind the wall with a mechanical failure and one lap later Alex Bowman was crashing. The other two drivers (Elliott, Kyle Larson) were fading and doing so quickly.

However, two lighting and rain delays promoted a return to racing under the lights. The temps were cooler and track changed as a result. That quite frankly helped Elliott and Larson’s rise. From being outside the top 10 at the time of the red flag to well inside of it by the end of the second stage, the Toyota’s were starting to take notice.

Elliott took the lead over late in the race. Kyle Busch was riding shotgun behind Elliott but due to the dirty air, couldn’t pass him. Then came that yellow with 9 laps remaining for Josh Bilicki. Elliott didn’t overthink it. He stayed out on track. The other 4 drivers in the top 5 instead pit.

They overthought it on a track that was rewarding track position all day/night. Tires weren’t a factor so no matter new or not, they weren’t going to help.

Kyle Busch was going to do whatever the opposite Elliott was going to do. Denny Hamlin was going for 4 tires. Martin Truex Jr. was supposed to stay out on his crews advise but he chose himself to come down instead. Ross Chastain followed suit.

It was the wrong call. Kurt Busch who was 6th at the time stayed out and would restart 2nd. The others outside the top 10.

Busch was overthinking the restart and by his admission was too nice to Elliott. That allowed Elliott to cruise to his 15th career NASCAR Cup Series victory making Hendrick Motorsports a perfect 2-for-2 at Nashville. He led 42 laps all race, 39 of which coming at the end.

Busch would finish 2nd in his No. 45 Toyota. Ryan Blaney rebounded from a spin on Lap 204 to finish 3rd.

LEBANON, TENNESSEE – JUNE 26: Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 26, 2022 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Concrete Elliott?

Elliott has now won 2 races in 2022. Both were on concrete racing surfaces. Throw in his All-Star race win at Bristol in 2020 and that’s 4 wins on these types of tracks. Are these his best surfaces now?

If you factor in his road course victories too, 10 out of Elliott’s 15 trips to victory lane have either come on a road course or a concrete track.

Can Toyota Rebound?

It was a rough finish for what was an otherwise solid night from the Toyota camp. They had 3 cars in the top 4 at the final caution. Combined they had led 253 of the 291 laps up until that point of the race. However, they only went 2nd (KuBusch), 6th (Hamlin), 8th (Christopher Bell), 12th (Bubba Wallace), 21st (KyBusch) and 22nd (Truex Jr.).

That leaves a sour taste in their mouth heading towards Road America, a place I’m not expecting much out of them. They only went 18-26-27-30-31-36 on the last road course a few weeks ago in Sonoma.

Kurt Busch Quietly Coming Along

Kurt Busch was frustrated with himself after a runner-up on Sunday night but in all reality, he’s getting the most out of his No. 45 Toyota. Busch has 3 top 3 finishes in the last 5 races on the year and heading to some strong tracks coming up. While Road America could be troublesome, he won the summer Atlanta race last year and was 3rd in the spring.

Bubba Wallace’s Pit Crew Troubles

It’s a weekly occurrence now, Bubba Wallace will run good, then have his pit crew take him out of race winning contention. The frustrations are starting to boil over. Wallace now sits 24th in points and over 100 back of a wildcard spot. While the road courses haven’t been kind to him this year (38th, 36th), Atlanta is a place that could be. He should have at least finished runner-up in March (was 2nd crossing the white flag) for what would have been his 3rd top 2 in his last 4 superspeedway tries.

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 12: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Maytag Ford, prepares to qualify for the Ruoff Mortgage 500 at Phoenix Raceway on March 12, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney’s Comeback/New Found Momentum

I wondered when Ryan Blaney would finally come along as a legitimate championship contender on a consistent basis. He has always shown flashes but never fully emerged on the scene. Then he rattled off 5 top 5’s in a 6 race span entering the playoffs including 3 straight top 2’s to close out the regular season. Blaney easily marched through the opening round of the playoffs and advanced all the way to the Round of 8 before being eliminated. Was this the start of what we all expected?

He began the 2022 season with a 4th place run in the Daytona 500. Blaney jumped out to 6 top 7 results in the opening 9 races to the year. Then the slump came. Over the next 5 points paying race, he had no top 10’s with 3 of the 5 outside of the top 15 at that.

However, he’s since gaining steam again. Blaney was 4th in Gateway, 6th in Sonoma and now 3rd in Nashville heading to Road America to where he has a pair of 6th placed finishes on road courses this season. Then it’s to Atlanta to where he won a race there last year and is one of the best speedway racers in the game today.

Blaney is set for a nice run here.

He spun on Lap 204, was 9th before the final caution and still managed to finish 3rd.

Still Concerned About HMS?

I wondered heading into last weekend if we should be concerned about Hendrick Motorsports. Despite Elliott winning, I still sort of am. It took some rain delays and lights to get he and Kyle Larson going. Larson still only has 2 top 5’s over his last 7 races. Elliott has 3 over the last 11 but 2 of those are wins.

Alex Bowman and William Byron are sliding backwards. Bowman has 1 top 5 in his last 11 including recent finishes of 13th, 16th and 36th respectively. Byron hasn’t scored a top 5 since his Martinsville win (9 races) with 4 out of his last 5 finishes being outside the top 15.

I feel like Elliott and Larson are close but Byron and Bowman have some work to do.

LEBANON, TENNESSEE – JUNE 26: A general view of racing during the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 26, 2022 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Top 16 In Standings Starting To Separate Themselves

This weekend starts the month of July and the midway mark of 2022. Right now we have 12 drivers locked into the postseason or so they think unless we get more than 4 more winners in the next 9 weeks.

I’m starting to wonder if we may have some drivers sweating things out now as the last guy in points that has a win.

So far, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th in points have won a race this year but 20th is Hamlin who’s won twice. 19th is Suarez who’s 1 point behind Briscoe who’s also 3 points back for being the last guy in points as a winner. The race between these 3 to stay off 16th will be a wild one.

So is the wildcard race. In fact, we’re starting to see some distance made between guys on the good side and guys on the wrong side.

Ryan Blaney (+112), Martin Truex Jr. (+73), Christopher Bell (+37) and Kevin Harvick (+9) hold the final 4 wildcard spots into the postseason. Aric Almirola (-9), Tyler Reddick (-52), Austin Dillon (-53), Erik Jones (-58), Michael McDowell (-97), Chris Buescher (-127), Justin Haley (-128), Bubba Wallace (-139), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-143), Ty Dillon (-176), Cole Custer (-179), Harrison Burton (-199), Todd Gilliland (-200) and Brad Keselowski (-217) are all on the outside looking in.

So does anyone new bump their ways in?

Among the 14 below the cutline, 10 of which have reached victory lane on the Cup level before. However, a lot of the 14 are going in the wrong direction.

Almirola has 1 top 10 in the last 9 starts on the year and hasn’t won in his last 31 starts.

Reddick has 3 top 10’s (2 are runner-ups) in his last 11. 6 of his last 8 have seen him finish 16th or worse.

Austin Dillon has 1 top 10 in his last 7.

Jones has 1 top 10 in his last 6.

Buescher has been 16th or worse in 4 out of his last 5.

Haley, Wallace and Ty Dillon each have 1 top 10 all season. Custer, Burton and Gilliland have none.

The best chances could reside from someone like Keselowski, Stenhouse Jr. or McDowell but 2 of the 3 have a combined 3 wins in their careers.

On the flipside, the guys on the good side of the bubble are starting to heat up. Blaney has 3 straight top 6 results. Bell has 6 top 10’s in his last 7. Harvick has 6 in the last 8. Truex has cooled some but the speed is there despite the finishes not being so.

I can see these 4 separating themselves more and more over the next month which leads me to believe most of those below the cutline may be forced to win because at this rate, even if the 4 winless do win, that’s still 16 winners.

If that’s the case, do you trust anyone below the cutline to win?

July is the month to do so. Among the 10 who’ve won, 5 of them have seen their last win come in the month of July.

Almirola and Austin Dillon each only have 3 career wins a piece with Almirola last coming in July of last year and Dillon’s last coming in July of 2020 (Texas). Jones’ last win came 100 races ago. Buescher’s only win came 212 races ago. McDowell was 1-for-463 after his Daytona 500 win but 0-for-52 again since. Haley’s 1 and only Cup win came at Daytona in July of 2019. Custer’s lone win came in July 2020 at Kentucky (72 races ago). Keselowski hasn’t won in his last 43 races but the team he’s driving for hasn’t reached victory lane in the last 180 races (July 2017) which is the last time Stenhouse Jr. won.

Reddick, Ty Dillon and the 2 rookies are winless.

Overall Points Lead

This is something we’re ironically not talking much about. I mean how can we? No one has really gotten hot enough to look like a legitimate championship favorite. Right now, Chase Elliott leads the points standings by 30 over Ross Chastain. Ryan Blaney is winless in 2022 but 3rd (-31) with Kyle Busch (-47) and Joey Logano (-52) rounding out the top five.

The question remains, who will be on top leaving Daytona in August and not only taking a guaranteed playoff berth with 15 playoff points with them for winning the regular season title?

Can Chastain realistically do it? He has 6 top 8 finishes over the last 8 races including 4 in the last 5. Blaney has 3 straight top 6’s. Busch has 3 top 3’s over the last 5 but his last 2 being outside the top 30. Logano has 2 top 5’s since late April, both being wins.

LEBANON, TENNESSEE – JUNE 25: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Pedigree Toyota, spins after an on-track incident during qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway on June 25, 2022 in Lebanon, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

Silly Season

Following a week off on Fathers Day weekend, the NASCAR Cup Series season started a 20 week stretch to the finish line beginning last Friday in Nashville. While it was the first time on track since Sonoma, the off track news was bigger today than the action on the 1.33-mile concrete oval to start the weekend off with.

JTG Daugherty Racing announced prior to the 1st practice session that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would be returning to their car on a new multi-year deal. The announcement thought didn’t specify if JTG’s No. 47 car would remain a Chevrolet powered entry or move to Ford or Toyota power. There’s been rumors of the team changing manufacturer alliances.

After practice, Martin Truex Jr. confirmed that he’d be returning to his No. 19 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2023. This news didn’t specify the number of years rather than the fact that Truex Jr. is indeed returning.

So, what’s left?

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – APRIL 17: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Mars Crunchy Cookie Toyota, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series Food City Dirt Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

The top domino resides at JGR with Kyle Busch. They lost sponsorship for his No. 18 Toyota and still don’t have the only multi-time Cup champion in the garage today under contract for 2023 and beyond.

The next domino is at Stewart-Haas Racing for the seat of the departing Aric Almirola who will retire at seasons end. The No. 10 Ford is available for the taking with rumors of Ryan Preece being groomed to take over that ride.

Past that, there’s really not much left in terms of big teams.

Hendrick Motorsports signed Chase Elliott on the morning of the Daytona 500 to a new deal and then signed William Byron a month ago. Both Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman signed new contracts last season.

Team Penske isn’t going to expand to 4 cars and has Ryan Blaney, Joey Logano and Austin Cindric locked up for the future. They also have Harrison Burton assigned to the Wood Brothers again so they’re set.

SHR has Kevin Harvick and Chase Briscoe signed and I don’t see Cole Custer moving on leaving the 10 car as the top ride outside of the 18 at JGR.

23XI Racing has Kurt Busch and Bubba Wallace signed for 2023 while Trackhouse is close to announcing Daniel Suarez on a new contract which will lock in him and Ross Chastain for the future.

Richard Childress Racing isn’t going to cut ties with his own grandson (Austin Dillon) and without a top ride available, I don’t see Tyler Reddick leaving.

That leaves the next batch down to Spire’s 2nd entry, Kaulig’s 2nd entry and if Niece Motorsports or The Money Team can secure charters.

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