LEBANON, Tenn. — New track, same old names atop the leaderboard.
William Byron, Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott paced the first Cup Series practice ever held at Nashville Superspeedway in yet another display of how dominant Hendrick Motorsports is right now.
Hendrick drivers have five straight wins headed into Sunday's race, the first for NASCAR's top series at a track that sat dormant the past decade and the first for the series in the Nashville area in 37 years.
Asked what it will take to beat a Hendrick driver, Team Penske's Ryan Blaney had only one idea: "Wreck them, I guess."
Denny Hamlin, the points leader this season but still searching for his first win, gave Byron a playful shove as he walked past after Saturday's 55-minute practice session. Hamlin was the eighth-fastest driver in practice, but the Toyotas struggled overall at the 1.3-mile, D-shaped concrete oval, with the other four drivers 20th or lower on the speed chart.
"We're a little worried," admitted Martin Truex Jr., one of Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammates. "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."
Larson is the 13-5 favorite to win Sunday, according to FanDuel Sportsbook. He is seeking his third straight win in a points race to become just the fifth active driver to accomplish the feat. Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have previously won three straight.
Larson even won last Sunday's NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway, where there were no points at stake but Hendrick continued to show its dominance. Speaking earlier this week, Larson didn't deny the current state of affairs, but with months ahead until the playoffs, he's not interested in dwelling on it either.
"The races are hard to win, and championships are even harder to win," said the 28-year-old Larson, who's in his first season at Hendrick after driving previously for Chip Ganassi Racing. "This is definitely the best opportunity I've ever had to win the championship.
"But there's still a long season left, and other cars and teams are going to get better, and so will we. Just got to keep working hard, and hopefully we can have ourselves in position come October or November."
Nashville opened in 2001 and hosted 21 Xfinity Series races and 13 Truck Series events — as well as eight IndyCar dates — before it closed in 2011 when it couldn't get a coveted Cup Series stop. Dover Motorsports owns the track and moved one of its weekends from its Delaware venue to Nashville to reopen the speedway and at last host a race on the top circuit. NASCAR awarded the track a four-year sanctioning agreement.
Only 14 drivers in Sunday's field had raced at the track before this weekend, and from that group only Busch, Austin Dillon, Harvick, Keselowski and Logano won lower-tier series races at Nashville before it closed. Cup Series regulars Byron, Ross Chastain and Ryan Preece all competed in Friday night's Truck Series race. Preece won in his first start on the third-tier circuit, while Chastain was 22nd and Byron's engine failed in the closing stretch of the second stage for an early exit.
Busch raced to his 100th career Xfinity Series victory Saturday at Nashville, where he won a NASCAR race for the fourth time. He won in the Xfinity Series in 2009 and the Truck Series in 2010 and 2011.
Busch led seven times for 123 laps and beat Justin Allgaier in overtime for his third victory in three races this season on the second-tier circuit. The 36-year-old's 100th win in his 360th career start is a nearly 28% winning percentage.
"I remember growing up as a kid watching Mark Martin win every week and wondering, 'Can anybody beat this guy?' And that was 49 wins," Busch said. "So I just can't fathom, right now myself, what 100 really means. It's certainly something I will look back on once all is said and done and I'm in a rocking chair somewhere."
It might be all said and done after two more Xfinity Series races. Busch, who won the Cup Series season title in 2015 and 2019, doesn't think Joe Gibbs Racing has sold any Xfinity races yet for him in 2022, and so this year could be his last running his allowed five events a season.
"Why? Did you hear the crowd? Nobody likes me," Busch said. "I get beat up, whether it is the fans or (media), like 'Why am I doing it? What am I doing it for? Why am I beating on the little guys?' I love winning. If I can't win on the Cup side, hell, I may quit that and come back and run Xfinity full time."
NASCAR only allows Cup drivers to compete in five Xfinity and five Truck races a year, and Busch uses all his starts. NASCAR first set the limit at 10 races in 2017, cut it to seven in 2018 and then five last year.
Busch won the second-tier series season championship in 2009. He holds the record for most combined NASCAR national series victories, with 58 Cup and 61 Truck triumphs on top of his 100 Xfinity wins.