Another race, another commanding performance by Kyle Larson. The first Nashville NASCAR Cup Series race in 37 years was just another excuse for Larson's No. 5 to crush the field. Not even a fuel mileage race could hold him up down the stretch, leading 263 of 300 laps to emerge with a 4.335-second victory over Ross Chastain in Sunday's Ally 400.
The Music City Miracle? No, this was more like a Smashville Sprint to the finish line for Larson, a driver who has won every Cup race since Memorial Day Weekend. New career highs in wins (four plus the All-Star Race) along with laps led (1,426) have established Larson as the overwhelming 2021 title favorite.
"I can't pinpoint like one thing that's a weakness," Larson said after the win. "If we can continue to get every area better, we'll be really hard to beat. We're winning and we're happy, but we're never content."
With Larson's dominance old news, let's look further back within a race at a 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway that was highly competitive. The back of the playoff picture was completely shaken up. Now, a nine-race slugfest for the final few spots is set.
Chris Buescher blew the bubble door wide open after running over a busted brake rotor from Justin Haley. A 37th-place finish saw his 63-point stranglehold on the playoff cutline shrink to just 24.
"It's one of those luck things," Buescher said. "It's not like we did something wrong to cause our own DNF."
Another bubble driver, Tyler Reddick, wishes he could say the same. An early spin while on the pit road access lane ruined a potential top-10 run (he wound up scrambling to run 19th.) It left Reddick only 25 points ahead of Buescher, who both occupy the final two spots on NASCAR's 16-driver playoff grid.
There's a hungry group of wheelmen behind them:
- Kurt Busch sits just 24 points off Buescher, winning a stage Sunday once Chase Elliott got disqualified for five loose lugnuts
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was right behind him, running second to Larson much of the day before sliding to sixth for his best finish since the Bristol Dirt Race in March.
- The driver best positioned to make a run might be Ross Chastain
Chastain, a Chip Ganassi Racing driver, has caught fire over the past month, winning the All-Star Open and collecting finishes of second, fourth and seventh. The former watermelon farmer, who spent years in underfunded rides, sits just 50 points behind Buescher and is gaining confidence at the Cup level.
"I'm racing with my heroes," he said Sunday. "I want to compete with them and I want to beat them."
Who gets the final spots? Two weeks ago, I would say Reddick and Buescher in a landslide. Now? Busch and Chastain have the speed and the opening to make it close.
Green: Aric Almirola -- A dark year for the Stewart-Haas Racing veteran finally found some light in Nashville. Winning the pole on speed, the third of his career, Almirola was a mainstay up front and ended the race in fourth. His best run in 11 months gives faint hope to a last-ditch bid for an upset at, say, Daytona International Speedway in August.
Yellow: Denny Hamlin -- On paper, Hamlin's still the point leader, built on the strength of eight top-five finishes in the season's first nine races. He just hasn't acted like it over Larson's recent win streak, posting no top 5s during that span and a disappointing 21st-place run at Nashville. "We're just in big trouble," Hamlin said at one point during the race and there's truth to that.
Red: Ryan Blaney -- Blaney was the first of several drivers at Nashville to have their brake rotor snap in two. You can guess what happened next as a hard hit to the outside wall ended his day. A 37th-place finish leaves Blaney with as many DNFs this season as top-5 finishes (two).
Speeding Ticket: NASCAR's call on Martin Truex Jr. -- Truex, who's been mired in a slump, saw his race go from bad to worse when NASCAR penalized him for not entering pit road in a single-file line. Say what? Are we in first grade? As our Steven Taranto explains, this seldom enforced rule is to ensure drivers can see their pit stalls without a rival blocking their view. And it would be one thing if Truex was playing games, keeping a competitor from entering the pits cleanly.
He wasn't. NBC's replay showed Truex blocking no one in a rather confusing few seconds where analysts tried to figure out what the violation actually was. It was a ticky-tack penalty for a rule that shouldn't even be on the books. I've said this many times: when you officiate for the sake of officiating, that never ends well -- in any sport.
NASCAR's return to Nashville produced the first sold-out crowd since the 2020 Daytona 500. Over 40,000 fans packed the stands as sporting events return to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic.
But not everyone left smiling. Traffic issues stretched on for hours and caused NASCAR to delay the start of the race. One Cup driver's wife left the racetrack in tears. And cash parking led to further delays when the year 2021 should provide better options.
Time will tell how much these issues will keep fans from coming back. A decade ago, the sport's Cup debut at Kentucky Speedway led to hours of traffic so bad that some fans gave up and turned back after waiting for hours. Many never gave them a second chance.