LEBANON, Tenn. – New track, same old names atop the leaderboard.
William Byron, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott paced the first ever Cup Series practice at Nashville Superspeedway in yet another display of how dominant Hendrick Motorsports is right now.
Hendrick drivers have won five straight headed into Sunday's race, the first for Cup at a speedway that sat dormant the last decade and first for the series in the Nashville area in 37 years.
Asked what it will take to beat a Hendrick driver, Ryan Blaney of Team Penske had only one idea: “Wreck ’em, I guess."
Denny Hamlin, points leader this season but still searching for his first win, gave Byron a playful shove as he walked past following Saturday's 55-minute practice session. Hamlin was eighth-fastest in practice but the Toyotas struggled around Nashville and its other four drivers were 20th or lower on the speed chart.
“We’re a little worried,” admitted Martin Truex Jr. “We’re about to do some wholesale changes. It feels really slow, really greasy, just really slick and hard to find any grip.”
Hamlin said nobody has the same speed as the Chevrolets, particularly the Hendrick group.
“We are off a ways for sure. If I can’t run with them, I can’t run with them,” Hamlin said. "If there are four cars in particular that are faster than us, then it’s my job to finish fifth.”
Nashville opened in 2001 and hosted 21 Xfinity Series races and 13 Truck Series events before it closed in 2011 when it couldn't get a coveted Cup date. Dover Motorsports owns the track and moved one of its weekends from its Delaware facility to Nashville to re-open the speedway and at last host a Cup race.
NASCAR awarded the track a four-year sanctioning agreement.
Only 14 drivers in Sunday's field had raced the 1.33-mile D-shaped oval before this weekend, and only Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon and Joey Logano won lower series races before Nashville closed. Ryan Preece, Kyle Busch and Ross Chastain all entered Friday night's Truck Series race and Preece won in his first career start in a truck.
“It felt easy for me lap one just because I was in the truck race," said Byron. “I had some experience around cars, had some track time.”
Not a day goes by that Justin Marks doesn't think about how to obtain the charter needed to solidify Trackhouse Racing's future in NASCAR. When two flew off the market Friday, Marks said he learned about the sale on Twitter.
Spire Motorsports sold two of its three charters to Kaulig Racing for Kaulig's move from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series next season, and 36 charters guarantee a spot in the 40-car field each week. Spire's sale price was confidential but garage insiders believe the current asking price among team owners willing to part with a charter is now north of $10 million.
“If it is (the price), then we made a hell of an investment last year,” said Hamlin, who purchased a charter from a team that closed to start 23XI Racing.
Spire in 2018 paid $6 million for its first charter as the only interested buyer when Furniture Row Racing closed. A bidding frenzy among three new teams last year didn't drive the price up, but interest has skyrocketed as NASCAR prepares to introduce a lower-cost new car next season.
Marks has said he lost out on three different charters last year, which forced him to lease one of Spire's charters to launch Trackhouse. The rules don't allow a team to lease the same charter two consecutive seasons so Marks has been following the market as he attempts to get one.
“It's an interesting time in the history of the sport with this charter economy,” Marks said. “We're working very hard every day to secure our future. Two came off the board yesterday, but there's still a lot out there and I'm confident we're going to get something down.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Larson is the 13-5 favorite to win Sunday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.... Larson is seeking his third straight points-paying race to become just the fifth different active driver to accomplish the feat. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have previously won three straight.
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