New tracks are equalizers. When Nashville Superspeedway was added to the schedule last year, none of the drivers had any experience on it in the senior division. Quite a few ran there in the Xfinity and Truck series, but it’s just not the same. Still, with a couple of Xfinity wins under their belts, Kevin Harvick (2006, 2010) and Brad Keselowski (2008, 2010) had a little added confidence.
Kyle Busch won there in 2009 in Xfinity – also in 2010 and 2011 in Trucks. He took the checkers in the second series support race last year as well. Austin Dillon has a Truck win from 2011 on this track, so it was not a complete unknown.
Since this was a new track last year, NASCAR added practice and qualification sessions to the weekend and that contributed to some of the drivers having a solid race. On the heels of wins at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Sonoma Raceway, Kyle Larson was on a roll and led six times for a total of 264 of the 300 laps, including the last 78, but several of the drivers lined up behind him were pleasant surprises, including second-place Ross Chastain, fourth-place Aric Almirola, sixth-place Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and seventh-place Daniel Suarez. This year could be a wide-open affair.
Chase Elliott (+900) is coming off his worst string of races since the end of 2019 when he scored three consecutive 30-something finishes at Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway, and Phoenix Raceway. His recent results at Kansas Speedway, Charlotte, and World Wide Technology Raceway were all outside the top 20 and he thought he would get the opportunity to turn his luck around at Sonoma. A mistake in the pits during the Save Mart 350k sent him to the back and mired him in traffic for most of that race, but it was nothing compared to what he experienced at Nashville last year.
Last week, the team tried to fix their mistake before Elliott got back on track. They stopped him before he left the pits and as a result, he did not incur NASCAR’s harshest penalty, but they did not wait until he was all the way back in his box before providing service. Last year in this race, they had loose lugnuts that caused him to be disqualified and credited with a last-place finish.
Elliott has something to prove, which can be a double edged sword sometimes, but Elliott has been strong on rough-surfaced tracks in 2022 with his first, and so far only, win coming at Dover Motor Speedway as well as a top-five at Darlington Raceway.
Best Bets for a top five
Chastain (+850) was humbled by his experience at Gateway. He addressed the media at Sonoma, took responsibility for driving over his head the previous week, and acknowledged that he probably deserves the retaliation that is coming his way. He also finished seventh in a race that had a lot of comers and goers. That was his fifth top-10 in the last seven races as he is determinedly establishing himself among the leaders. So far in the first 16 races of 2022, his top-10 percentage is .625 with a top-five average of .438.
Defending winner Larson (+600) opens this week as the favorite for Nashville, but he has not had the same kind of dominant performance in 2022 as he did in 2021 and will be racing without Chad Knaus for a while. Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) has a deep roster and Kevin Meendering will do a great job over the next four races, but with the difference between winning and the top five being as slim as tenths of a second, he is racing with a slight deficit.
It is no coincidence that last week when the top four was made up of drivers seeking their first 2022 win that Harvick (+2200) was in the mix. With a winless streak that now stands at 59 races, this will continue to be a story until it is no longer a story – i.e., when he next wins. Harvick’s fourth-place finish in the Save Mart 350k is not an isolated event. In the last five races, he’s finished in the top five three times, including a fourth-place finish on the rough-surfaced track of Darlington. Because it has been so long since he won, he is an absolute gem at 22/1. That line is destined to plummet after practice and qualification, so jump on him now. Harvick has the longest current streak of rough-track top-10s at 11.
William Byron (+1200) snapped a seven-race streak of finishes outside the top 10 last week in Sonoma. From Bristol through Gateway, his average finish of 19.29 says about as much as anyone needs to hear about how he lost his early season momentum, and he needs to regain it before the final regular season races devolve into a frantic rush to be among the Playoff 16. He’s one of just four drivers officially locked in, but he cannot allow that to diminish his level of aggression.
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Best Bets for a top 10
The entire Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) roster gambled and lost at Sonoma. The only hope they had to win was by pitting one more time than the field in hope that a late race caution would drag the leaders in. That snapped a three-race streak of top-three finishes for Kyle Busch (+800) and was the second time in the last 10 races that he failed to score a top-10. The reason we have not handicapped him higher this week is because the other poor finish came at Darlington when he crashed on Lap 167 of 393.
Whether there are 16 or more unique winners in the first 26 races of 2022 is a little bit beside the point. The pressure of 12 berths already being claimed – with four of them being first-time winners – is changing how we collectively look at the drivers outside that mark. Christopher Bell (+1800) is currently two positions above the cutline and 28 points ahead of Harvick, who is also intensely challenging for one of the 16 positions in the playoffs. Rough-surfaced tracks have not been uniformly kind to Bell. He scored only one top-10 in each of the last two seasons in 12 attempts. This year, he already has two strong results with a fourth at Dover and sixth at Darlington.
Alex Bowman (+1800) showed a lot of consistency between the two road course races. He finished eighth at Richmond Raceway and was 13th or better in seven of the next eight. Like Busch mentioned above, his handicap takes a bit of a hit because the one poor performance came on the similarly rough track of Darlington, but it bears noting that those two were not the only drivers to get into trouble in a race that ended with 36 percent attrition.
Frankly, we are getting on the cusp of dark horse territory for the last two picks this week. Occasionally a driver’s first win opens a floodgate; most often it doesn’t, but Daniel Suarez (+3000) has a couple of other things to recommend him this week. He’s been running strong on a variety of track types all season long, but just couldn't get the right breaks. Secondly, his top-10 finish last year at Nashville was not a fluke and it’s well within reason that he will challenge for another.
The pressure felt by Harvick and Bell is radiating higher up the points standings. For now, Ryan Blaney (+1100) is the driver with the most points among winless drivers and it is not out of the question that he could mount a charge and overtake the leaders even without visiting Victory Lane. He can’t afford to think about anything except a win, however; and that means he will start to take risks to find a successful strategy. We believe it’s quite likely that a 13th different winner of 2022 will be crowned this week.
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