What matters at Nashville: Tire wear, Joey Logano’s strength are focal points

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What matters in today’s NASCAR Cup Series race and how might a dynamic with heavy tire wear but minimal lap-time degradation affect pit strategy? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

What we know and what we think we know about Nashville’s tire wear

NASCAR returns to Nashville Superspeedway after a 10-year hiatus, and for the Cup Series specifically, this is an inaugural event. In the preparation has come uncertainty over tire wear. From teams, there are mixed thoughts about how Goodyear’s hard tire combination — the left sides last used at Charlotte, the right sides last used at Dover — will handle loads heavier than in 2011, a chief reason why the compounds for today’s race err on the side of safety.

From NASCAR, there was reason to believe the track wouldn’t take rubber. Lap times from tire tests at Nashville saw little degradation over long runs. If tires physically wear without significant lap-time falloff, it’d make for a peculiar dynamic, though not one without precedence: Texas’ race last summer, won by Austin Dillon, saw heavy wear and practically no falloff, allowing for a two-tire stop under caution, leapfrogging him from seventh to second, and an overtake for the lead thanks to three restarts inside the final 25 laps.

Precautions and performance enhancers — resin and a tire dragon among other potential aids — have been applied to the concrete surface in hopes of creating a safer, more competitive environment, but even with Saturday’s practice session in the can, questions surround the building of pit strategy around Nashville’s tire wear.

If Chase Briscoe’s reaction following his participation in the tire test is any indication, track position will come at a premium.

“I was surprised, honestly, with how much brake we were using and just how much speed we carried,” Briscoe said this week. “That kind of caught me off guard. I think passing is gonna be a little challenging, but I think the good cars are definitely gonna rise to the front at a place like this just because handling is gonna be quite a bit of an issue.”

If Nashville’s tire wear is a factor physically but not mathematically, it opens the door for all strategies under caution-flag conditions and under green:

  • Under caution-flag conditions, calls for four tires will be common, especially if the “look” of the wear is bad, but two-tire stops could shift track position fortunes. Given the lack of degradation, defending an upgraded running spot in clean air is feasible.
  • Under green, short-pitting and long-pitting are both viable, made more advantageous with clean laps at speed before and after the stop. To wit, Kyle Larson’s unfettered laps at Las Vegas nullified the delta created by Brad Keselowski’s faster pit sequences, proving pit cycles are impacted by more than just the stop itself.
  • Long-pitting provides an additional bet on a caution flag with relatively minimal risk due to the lack of lap-time falloff.

While long-pitting doesn’t always lead to the intended outcome, it does provide large single-race positional gains if a timely caution is called, a high-risk, high-reward strategy, in theory. Had NASCAR deemed Tyler Reddick’s runaway tire an immediate caution at Kansas, a track where degradation was minimal, four teams were in position to land a combined 52 spots courtesy of their long-pitting efforts. Two of those teams — belonging to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suárez — secured net gains anyway, a testament to their execution of the pit sequences.

Stars aligning for Logano?

On the surface, there aren’t many similarities between the Bristol dirt race, the Circuit of the Americas road course and Nashville. But all three are new to NASCAR for 2021 and contained practice sessions beforehand.

A driver who benefited from Bristol’s dirt race and the first Cup race at COTA was Joey Logano, who scored his only win to this point in the season on the dirt. He also led over a quarter of the rain-shortened road race. In addition to being an early adopter to new venues, his strength this season on 750-horsepower tracks bears few rivals.

His Team Penske No. 22 car ranks second in average median lap on 750-horsepower tracks this season and Logano specifically ranks first in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his contribution, across the nine races utilizing the rules package:

Additionally, no driver is performing better in crash-filled contests. His 6.687 PEER in events with higher-than-usual caution volumes, greater than two per 100 miles, ranks first. It’s certainly not a given that Nashville will see a large quantity of caution flags — there won’t be a competition caution during the first stage, as a sufficient amount of practice time occurred Saturday — but in the instance the race breaks chaotic, it’s another statistical advantage in his back pocket.

An integral part of one of the 10 best short-run teams this season, Logano’s restarts have been key in influencing outcomes in races filled with them. He ranks eighth in average positional net on preferred-groove attempts (+0.75 spots) and is tied for third on non-preferred groove attempts (-0.71 spots). He’s one of just five full-time drivers averaging a positive positional net on restarts from inside the first seven rows.

A final oval-track vestige for Joe Gibbs Racing?

The layout of races on the recent schedule — Dover, COTA, Charlotte, Sonoma and Texas (for the All-Star Race) — have catered to Hendrick Motorsports, which claimed victory in all five events. This has muddied the narrative a bit, deemphasizing Joe Gibbs Racing, the organization that’s widely dominated 750-horsepower tracks this season.

Denny Hamlin, whose No. 11 car ranks first in average median lap on 750-horsepower tracks, and Martin Truex Jr., whose three wins each came on tracks utilizing this rules package that are also present on the playoff schedule, appear poised to fare well at Nashville, one of the last two 750-horsepower oval races of the regular season.

But Hamlin is skeptical after a Saturday practice session which saw his Toyota Camry place eighth on the speed chart, the fastest non-Chevrolet vehicle.

“We are off a ways for sure,” Hamlin said. “My objective is to just get my car as good as I can get it. If I can’t run with (the Chevrolets), I can’t run with them. If there are four cars in particular that are faster than us, then it’s my job to finish fifth.”

For the season, Hamlin hasn’t ranked worse than fifth in average median lap time in a 750-horsepower oval race, which came earlier this month at Dover.

For Christopher Bell, whose speed (ranked ninth in average median lap) and production rating (ranked ninth) skews towards 750-horsepower tracks, this is, on paper, his best chance to secure a good day before the playoffs starts. Among all track types, 750s are the only one in which Bell has registered a positive surplus passing value this season and he was one of three drivers to take part in the Goodyear tire tests, along with Briscoe and Kurt Busch during the event’s buildup.

Bell had the 20th-fastest lap in practice and ranked 17th in average lap time.