Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Nashville Improves, Race Control Disappoints in Ally 400

What happened?

Chase Elliott won his second race of the season at Nashville Superspeedway on Monday morning, June 27, by holding off Kurt Busch in a late-race restart with four laps to go after opting to stay out on older tires. Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Ross Chastain ended the night as the rest of the top five.

This win marks Elliott’s second consecutive on a concrete racing surface and now makes him the first playoff seed.

How did it happen?

Elliott pitted from third place with a little less than 100 laps to go for some fresher tires on the upcoming restart. The call took away the No. 9’s track position but gave it the far more crucial strength at Nashville: grip.

Elliott, from 14th, responded with a heroic restart that saw him gain six positions all at once. He quickly rejoined the top three. After a fierce battle between him and the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Martin Truex Jr and Kyle Busch, the Napa Auto Parts Chevrolet saw itself out front for the first time on lap 245.

JGR quickly responded by pitting, which forced Elliott to follow suit. However, during the green flag pit stop scramble, the caution flew again on lap 256.

Kyle Busch had retaken the lead after pitting earlier than Elliott and restarted first with the 2020 series champion alongside. On the restart, the Chevrolet retook the lead, and, despite Rowdy heavily pressuring the No. 9 for several laps, the lead remained in Hendrick Motorsports’ hands.

But that wasn’t without some curveballs.

With less than 10 laps to go, Josh Bilicki‘s engine expired and brought out the race’s final yellow flag. The sudden stoppage left 26 lead lap cars with the decision to either pit for those crucial new tires or stay out for that equally crucial track position.

Elliott and nine other teams decided on the latter. The JGR cars decided to opt for tires.

With only four laps to go, Kyle Busch, Truex, and the rest of the field that had pitted would need a blinding restart to make any attempt at the lead – and maybe even then another caution.

While the Toyota progress was halted during their scrimmage for the front, the caution almost waved one more time when Cole Custer and Brad Keselowski crashed. However, to the confusion of many, NASCAR kept it green. Elliott easily sailed to the victory.

Who stood out?

Joe Gibbs Racing showed speed at Kansas Speedway earlier this year. In fact all of the Toyotas did when all six finished in top 10 then, the only time they’ve done so all year. Of course, running well at a track with a similar configuration, albeit one with a shorter distance, probably shouldn’t surprise anybody.

What should surprise people is their lack of speed so far in 2022, so seeing the short-listed manufacturer dominate the 400-miler at Nashville is a refreshing sight for fans of the car builder. It also leaves something to be said about the car builders’ strength on the “cookie-cutter” D-shaped ovals.

While Truex won both stages, even more impressive was the Toyota parade behind him. In stage one, all six Toyotas in the field finished in the top 10. That includes both Bubba Wallace and Kurt Busch of 23XI Racing.

In stage two, behind the No. 19 were teammates Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch in fifth after all four drivers ran up front for most of stage two – in both day and night.

It seemed nothing was going to stop Toyota from earning its fifth win of the 2022 season, and their performance for most of the race proved the small fleet to stand out above the other two car manufacturers.

Until the last 100 laps.

Who fell flat?

The Toyota dominance was ruined only by superior strategy and, well, honestly, bad luck.

When Kyle Busch and Truex decided to pit before the final restart of the race, they were hoping that a majority of the lead lap field would pit with them, which they did, but it wasn’t enough.

In fact, the final restart saw the two actually lose positions, giving them 21st and 22nd finishing spots, not at all reflective of the dominant performance they had.

The rest of the Toyotas decided to stay out, leaving Kurt Busch to race – unsuccessfully – for the race win and Hamlin to finish sixth. Christopher Bell ended his night in a respectable eighth-place finish as well.

See also
Joe Gibbs Racing's Domination Slips Away at Nashville

Then there’s Wallace.

Originally, this section was going to be about him, or more specifically, his pit crew.

It seems this has become a reoccurring topic of the 2022 season, and it also seems like the No. 23 team is being singled out more often than not in Thinkin’ Out Loud. However, that’s only because they continue to, as the name suggests, fall flat.

After starting deep in the field in 30th, Wallace clawed his way into the top 10 to finish seventh in stage one, similar to his satellite teammate Kyle Busch. It proved the No. 23 Toyota had speed, much like the other five Toyotas on Sunday.

However, slow stop after slow stop relegated them back to where they nearly started more often than not, leaving the driver angry. Silent treatment angry.

Yet Wallace continued to move through the field in an act of damage control, and after staying out on the final restart, he found himself right on the edge of the top 10 one last time, finishing 12th.

It’s certainly not the finish they wanted nor one they deserved, but it is a testament to their ability to run up front. However, if a team cannot execute properly when they need to, they’ll never finish where they deserve to.

What did this race prove?

It’s no secret that NASCAR race control has jumped the gun on caution flags in the past.

On Sunday at Nashville, however, the opposite occurred, and it didn’t make it any better.

After the final restart and with three laps to go, Custer and Keselowski tangled into one another to hit the outside wall in turn 4. Custer continued while Keselowski was left limping on the apron. Everybody held their breath to see if the No. 6 would continue on with no caution flag or additional restart necessary.

Then Keselowski did continue. Kind of.

The orange Ford limped its way onto the apron and slowly made its way onto the backstretch while Elliott continued. The broadcast decided to focus on the No. 9 as it was only moments away from winning, but in the foreground on the penultimate lap viewers saw Keselowski trudging through the infield grass at a crawling pace. No caution was thrown.

There are plenty of arguments to be made here on both sides.

On one hand, Keselowski was in a dangerous position as he was nowhere near racing speed in those final two laps. If a car had spun and crashed into the near stationary vehicle, somebody could have gotten hurt.

On the other, how many times have we seen fans scream about keeping it green and not “pulling the trigger” on throwing the caution flag?

You can see why the sanctioning body would be hesitant to do so. After all, the All-Star Race was a nightmare of social media backlash after race control waved the yellow for a minor incident with leader Blaney mere feet from the white flag.

This time feels a little different, however. It is a little suspicious that officials opted to keep the race going as the series’ most popular driver was leading his way to a win. Plus, it was already Monday morning, and it’s easy to think that everybody was ready to get out of Nashville after what had been a long Sunday evening.

Yet, at the expense of safety, it doesn’t really seem justified.

Better than last time?

With seven leaders, 14 lead changes and nine unscheduled cautions in 2021, last year’s version of this race mirrored this year’s statistically. Sunday saw seven leaders, 18 lead changes, and eight unscheduled cautions throughout its 300 laps and seven hours of competition.

Yet out of all 300 laps of last year’s event, race winner Larson led 264 of them. This year, the most laps led by a driver was 114 by Hamlin.

It continues the common trend of 2022 being that of parity among race teams. Yes, as mentioned before, the Toyotas put on a whooping for most of the race, but in the end, it was still a Chevrolet winning.

One can argue that clean air and track position were potential keys to winning at Nashville, and that would be a valid argument. After all, Elliott took the lead via a restart over Kyle Busch, and even after a strong showing from the No. 18, it seemed the HMS Chevrolet had the clean air advantage, which was a reoccurring theme for most of the day.

Even if track position racing isn’t your thing, it’s still better than watching one driver lead 88% of the event like what happened one year ago.

There’s also the fact that NASCAR’s base is continuing to grow in the city of Nashville, so while NSS hasn’t put on the most thrilling of performances of most Cup Series circuits, it still deserves a spot on the calendar if not for the community alone.

Or at least it does until Nashville Fairgrounds is approved for a race.

Paint scheme of the race

It’s one thing when you have a good-looking sponsor on your race car, it’s another when you have it in its backyard.

Suarez has raced the lavender-colored Tootsies Orchid Lounge car multiple times already this season and last, but with it being featured on the No. 99 when the series traveled again to the Music City gave it some new meaning.

Seeing the club’s same iconic lavender color on a race car at a speedway mere miles away gives the relationship between team and sponsor new meaning, and it says something more when it’s for a newer team such as Trackhouse Racing Team.

We have seen local sponsor activation like this in the past, but with NASCAR increasing its presence in the city of Nashville, one has to imagine this simple paint scheme helps merge the two groups together even further.

What’s next?

The Cup Series heads to its longest track on the calendar.

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Road America for the series’ third-ever visit to the four-mile road course. Cup qualifying for the Kwik Trip 250 begins on Saturday, July 2 at 12:20 p.m. ET. with the 62-lap main event being televised live on USA on Sunday, July 3 at 3 p.m. ET.

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021 after writing for IMSA. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and graduated with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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Bill B

I’d have to say that this race was pretty good. There was lots of side by side racing for position and often for a few laps before the battle was settled and, get this, NBC was willing to show those battles that weren’t always for the lead. There were even a few lead changes that occurred on longer runs well after the previous caution.

As for “It is a little suspicious that officials opted to keep the race going as the series’ most popular driver was leading his way to a win. Plus, it was already Monday morning, and it’s easy to think that everybody was ready to get out of Nashville after what had been a long Sunday evening.”, I feel it was the latter but I know those who dislike Elliott would think it was the former. I thought NASCAR made the right decision to let the race end naturally but it would be nice if they were consistent and made the same decision when the race is down to the last couple of laps.

John

I don’t really care about which way it ends as long as they do it the same for all and do their best to communicate with the driver to assess the safety risk. It appears that their race directors don’t have any desire to maintain consistency for the sake of the integrity of the sport.
Another hidden issue (hidden underneath a thick layer of “Chocolate” on the radio, at least) is the long list on continual problems with this poorly designed steering system in the ‘Next Gen.’ The complaints are from all manufacturers (as they should be with generic parts) and most camps. I think Nascar has hit the mark they were trying to hit with the new car, but some of their component sourcing reeks of amateurism in specifying, designing, validating and procuring parts. “Supply Chain” is not an acceptable reply when you are allowing a system that effects safety (I think steering fits that criteria) to have issues like loss of assist, sudden increases in effort, etc continue. In addition, only a couple of parts have met their cost targets. And the air gun manufacturer has solutions to the wheels falling off cars (and yes, I said ‘wheels’, not tires which is what the entire announce team defines as the problem. The tires are not falling off the car…the wheels are.)

jdquick

Question, what the hell has happened to Brad Keselowski? He has completely disappeared from any racing discussions or even a top 10 driver….

Bill B

He went from Penske to Roush, a team that hasn’t been a contender for damn near a decade.

jdquick

Bill, even as an part owner, he can’t be happy with the performance of his team let alone the whole shop. You are right, they have stunk for a very long time. Jack has to accept a big part of this because its his team and he used to have one of the best teams in the sport. I guess time and age has passed him by and he doesn’t want to let go….

Bill B

It’s amazing how far the Roush team has fallen. They were “THE” Ford team for the 90’s and 00’s and then they fell off a cliff. I’ve always surmised that it was because Jack wasn’t willing to ante up when the numbers got larger and, as you alluded, because he didn’t want to give up control.

Kevin in SoCal

The 100 point penalty for an illegally modified part also dropped him far back in the standings as well. He needs a win to make it in.

Christopher

It was like a tale of two races. Excruciatingly boring parade during the day, much better at night. As for Keselowski and the caution that never was, NASCAR couldn’t win no matter what they did. Personally I was glad they did not throw a caution.

Echo

Remember, Chase was pulling away from Kyle when that last caution flew. He chased Kyle down slowly and passed him easily. So no, the Toyota’s didn’t have bad luck. Besides, those 3 Toyotas decided to pit on their own, nobody made them. Poor bubba, he was running 23rd when that last caution came out. He stayed out and finished 12th.

John

The criteria for caution flags should be explained to fans and teams alike. Since I’ve heard defensively for years…nothing is more important than safety, but the asterisk of *as long as there isn’t a close race to the finish* has been a recent addition. A discussion with teams concerning the last two laps differing criteria should be defined to keep drivers from purposely being sitting ducks. The radio transmission from/to Brad K is something that a true journalist would seek out. That would tell you far more than speculation.

Tom B

True Journalist is an oxymoron.

WJW Motorsports

The criteria doesn’t really need to be explained, because it is the same criteria used for penalties in the NFL/NHL, fouls in the NBA, and balls/strikes (and close plays) in MLB…

Bill B

100% agree. I don’t spend time on other sports’ websites but I am sure you hear the same complaining and conspiracy theories when judgement calls are made. As a fan, all you can hope for is that the judgement calls aren’t blatantly wrong (see New Orleans Saints vs Los Angeles Rams 2019.. just google “saints vs rams bad call” if you don’t know what I am alluding to).
In the end judgement calls are a necessary evil when competing in any contest or sport.

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