When Kyle Larson came to Nashville Superspeedway last year, he was on a roll.
The driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had won the previous two races from the pole, at Charlotte and Sonoma.
In the first-ever NASCAR Cup Series event at the 1.33-mile concrete track, Larson showed no signs of slowing. He led 264 of the 300 laps and beat runner-up Ross Chastain to the finish line by 4.335 seconds.
At season’s end, Larson returned to the Music City to celebrate his first series championship.
The 2022 season hasn’t gone as smoothly for the 29-year-old from Elk Grove, Calif. After winning at Auto Club Speedway in the second race of the year, Larson has been stuck in neutral, relatively speaking.
Though 16 regular-season races, he has just six top fives (including the win) and eight top 10s. And though Larson would like to forge a turnaround at Nashville in Sunday’s Ally 400 (5 p.m. Eastern Time on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), he’ll have to do so without crew chief Cliff Daniels and two of his front-line pit crew members.
Larson lost a right-front tire during the June 12 race at Sonoma, leading to a four-race suspension for Daniels and the crew members. Kevin Meendering takes over crew chief duties at Nashville as Larson tries to reclaim last year’s magic.
To that end, Larson hopes the racing conditions are similar to those he encountered last year.
“It raced really well,” Larson said. “I had only tested there before, and it was always kind of just right around the bottom. Last year, I think they put some resin on the track or something, and we were able to move up the track.
“It was pretty slick, and you could move around. I hope it’s similar to that. I think it should be — and probably even better. It seems like these Next Gen cars slide around even more, so it should be fun.”
All four Hendrick drivers — Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman — have won at least one race this season, but Elliott is the only one of the four who has won in the past eight Cup events.
Larson is the pre-race favorite at +500 at BetMGM, followed by Kyle Busch (+700), Ross Chastain (+800) and Elliott (+900).
Kurt Busch is the sportsbook’s biggest liability as he has drawn 19.1 percent of the race handle and is third in the field with 5.2 percent of the total bets. Larson is second with 11.9 percent of the handle and leads with 6.9 percent of the bets backing him.
Bowman, who boasts the best average finish of the four at 12.06, acknowledges that the Hendrick drivers have lost some of the edge they had earlier in the season.
“I don’t think we’re bad by any means,” Bowman said. “I think we’re just not as great as we were in the beginning of the year. I think some other guys have just caught up, and we’ve got to do our homework to get back ahead of the pack.
“We’re all working on it. There’s a lot of smart people at HMS.”
Bowman finished 14th in last year’s Nashville race. Byron, a two-time winner this season, ran third as Chevrolet drivers claimed the top three spots and six of the top eight.
Bowman has held steady at +1800 at BetMGM, where he has drawn only a modest amount of action with 2.5 percent of the bets and 1.4 percent of the handle.
That’s behind the likes of Chris Buescher, who is the sportsbook’s second-biggest liability in being supported by 3.7 percent of both the total bets and handle as a +12500 longshot. Third is Harrison Burton, who has drawn 2.1 percent of the bets and 0.9 percent of the handle at +50000.
NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Ally 400
The Place: Nashville Superspeedway
The Date: Sunday, June 26
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
TV: NBC, 5 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 399 miles (300 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 90),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 185), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 300)
–Field Level Media (NASCAR Wire Service contributed to this story)