By Cole Cusumano
The NASCAR Cup Series’ debut at Nashville Superspeedway will be a homecoming of sorts for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Hailing from Mississippi, this was the track his family and friends would attend when he was competing in the Nationwide Series (now NASCAR Xfinity Series), and the support will be plentiful yet again for the No. 47 team in Tennessee.
Stenhouse has experienced the equivalent of a competitive roller coaster in Nashville. In the final race held at the track in 2011, he bested the likes of guys like Brad Keselowski, Austin Dillon and Aric Almirola en route to a runner-up. He also failed to qualify there just one-year prior to that impressive performance.
As NASCAR makes its long awaited return to the Music City, Stenhouse is playing the tune of enthuse, as his contentedness level is right where it needs to be in the middle of the playoff hunt at a place where a majority of the field doesn’t have experience.
“I’m definitely going to be comfortable and that’s something that’s always beneficial,” Stenhouse told NEWS FROM THE PITS. “I wouldn’t say it’s a big advantage. Us drivers figure out a race track in a few laps, so when the race comes I think everyone will be on the same playing field.”
Teams will be given the luxury of practice at Nashville, due to it’s fresh introduction to the Cup Series and 10-year hiatus in the developmental series. There are also numerous drivers who’ve raced at this track over a decade ago, along with some who will be getting extra track time in the other divisions throughout the weekend. Not to mention, the practice of simulators to prepare for the Ally 400.
Even with the additional track time and technological preparation, Stenhouse believes his Nashville experience in the past is crucial. Having a concrete tri-oval that’s 1.333 miles is unique and vastly different compared to the other venues drivers are accustomed to competing at on the Cup circuit with the same surface, and it presents many challenges.
“Turn 4 is really tight and it’s quite the opposite off of Turn 2 — it’s really wide and has a lot of room,” Stenhouse shared. “There’s different areas into Turn 1, off of 2, into 3 and off of 4 that are really different parts of the race track that you really gotta get your car to handle through.”
Although Stenhouse has an idea of how to get around Nashville, the biggest concern throughout the garage is the surface itself. The track has succumbed to weathering after sitting for over 10 years and is expected to have an abrasive effect on tires — which present another variable in itself.
Goodyear is allotting teams with two different tires for the Ally 400. The left-sides will be the same ones used at Kansas Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway, while the rights will be using more durably compounded rubbers driven at Dover International Speedway the past two years.
“We’re all anxious to get there and see what this tire does with this package and these cars, how it lays rubber and the tires wear,” Stenhouse said. “Fortunately for the Cup guys, we’re not going to get on track until after Xfinity and Truck practice and the Truck race, so there will be some decent rubber on the race track for when we get on, and I think that’ll give us an idea of what will come for our race.”
In an unconventional twist, NASCAR will be implementing its widely praised 750-horsepower, low-downforce package at Nashville — something teams are not used to seeing at intermediate tracks.
“I think driver-wise and for us competitors, we like the decision to run this package,” Stenhouse said. “We should be able to slide around a lot more with that horsepower, we’re going to have to use brakes more than what we would with the 550 package. With the temperatures the way they’re going to be, hopefully we’ll be able to move around a lot, slide around and have some fun.”
Luckily for Stenhouse and JTG-Daugherty Racing, this is a combination that should breed success in Nashville. The two-time Xfinity Series Champion expressed optimism in his team’s intermediate program, while he feels his teammate Ryan Preece has done an even better job at the 750 tracks.
During the organization’s weekly team meeting, it was very much a collaborative process between the two drivers in comparing notes and leaning on each other to fill in certain gaps. Stenhouse is also eager to pick Preece’s brain about his experience competing in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event on Friday, June 18.
In terms of how Stenhouse himself will approach Nashville, it’s been different from recent weeks. From a team perspective, they used the All-Star Race as a reset to get back to the place they were when the season began. Sitting 19th in the standings only 46 points out, the No. 47 team is firmly in the playoff picture and has an opportunity to gain ground in the Ally 400.
“We’re trying to improve our cars from where we started the season, because we started really consistent and happy with our cars, but you’re always trying to make them better and I feel like we got off a little bit,” Stenhouse said. “We’re looking to get back on track and using the practice session this weekend to science some of those things that we feel like we’ve been missing. We continue to work on our car and made some big swings in recent weeks that I feel like pointed us in the direction we needed to go.”
Heading to a place of familiarity, Stenhouse is confident in the state of his team and the potential for NASCAR’s growth. He believes moving the awards banquet to Nashville was a step in the right direction, and it’s been well received by those in the industry and the fans.
“It’s always good to get back to a market you haven’t been to in a while that also fits your demographic of race fans,” Stenhouse said. “We all love the city of Nashville and I feel like country music and racing in general really go together. With Nashville being one of the fastest growing cities, I’m sure there’s a lot of people moving there that probably haven’t gone to NASCAR races. The more that we can do in the city, with everything kind of opening back up, it’ll be nice to eventually merge that all together.
“It’s a really good time for motorsports and merging it together with Nashville.”