Unpredictability the theme of what should be a wild race
As a NASCAR writer for more than 10 years, I’m supposed to give some sort of expert opinion entering this weekend’s inaugural race on the new Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. Instead, I offer with a smile one word this sport needs to inject some genuine interest back into stock car racing.
I could have cut this preview short by inserting a GIF of someone throwing their hands up in the air. Who knows, really, how it will all play out on this 2.28-mile, 17-turn custom made road course. It’s a reaction to NASCAR fans and teams alike tiring of a decade-plus of sleepy competition on the 1.5-mile oval. Charlotte is supposed to be home base for NASCAR teams but several dominating performances on an aero dependent 1.5-mile track had most fans doing exactly that: staying home.
So to boost attendance in a city where it should top the charts, CMS President Marcus Smith developed the idea of this ROVAL. And give the executives credit; in a series where change runs at the pace of a snail crossing the road, they’re finally trying something. Stock cars have performed best on this track type in recent years; the hype of a “new” configuration could at least bring casual fans by for a look. They’re doing it on a week where the city’s NFL team, the Panthers, have a bye; NASCAR is once again the only game in town.
Drivers, most notably title contender Kevin Harvick, have responded to the configuration with a combination of nervousness and fear. Testing sessions this summer equated to a bit of a demolition derby; everyone from young talent Ryan Blaney to journeyman J.J. Yeley has destroyed a race car here. Drivers looking to sneak inside the next round of the playoffs are equating Sunday to a Survivor-style event where simply making it to the finish will push them through.
And you know what? That’s fantastic news. The sport should want drivers feeling on edge. They should put a racetrack on the schedule no one has figured out, to the point fans need to actually tune in to see what might happen instead of assuming the Big Three of Harvick, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr. would spank the field.
And no, the wrecks don’t make the racing. But to have just one caution flag other than stage breaks, which is what we saw at the typically action-packed Richmond short track last week is not enough. Just one DNF last week, for brake failure from a backmarker, doesn’t cut it. Instead, we need the unpredictability of a new track people are struggling to navigate where, at any moment, the drivers could lose control.
The occasional spin does more than bring out the yellow flag. It showcases a difference in driver skill and reminds you not just anyone can sit behind the wheel and drive these cars. Plus, the shifting and braking at road courses bring mechanical problems (minimized in recent years) back into play. Who can forget AJ Allmendinger missing a shift at Sonoma earlier this year, killing his chances for victory in a moment that might have been the turning point for his future with JTG-Daugherty Racing?
So no, I can’t honestly tell you what will happen this weekend. Yes, Kurt Busch started off strong by winning the pole after using a simulator program to learn the track. Rookie Daniel Hemric qualified inside the top 12 and looks to be a wild card in a part-time Richard Childress Racing entry. (He’ll run full-time for them in Cup next season). A series of incidents in practice indicate Sunday’s race at the ROVAL could be a roller-coaster of unpredictability.
That’ll all play out in front of a national audience, NBC moving the race to its main network in one of the smarter broadcast moves this year. No one knows what in the world will happen.
Bank of America ROVAL 400
Time: 2:00 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Big Three
After a couple of weeks where Brad Keselowski stole their spotlight, the sport’s Big Three of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. fought back to the front. The trio finished 1-2-3 (Busch winning) for the first time this season in a sign their speed will translate into the 10-race playoff. They combined to lead 295 of 400 laps and have all assured themselves a spot in the next round. (Harvick, 57 points ahead, technically has not clinched but would need a one-in-a-million scenario to happen in order to drop out.)
For Busch, his seventh win this season also marked his 50th overall at the Cup Series level. He’s got 193 combined victories in NASCAR’s top three national series and should surpass King Richard Petty’s total of 200 sometime next season. But Harvick and Truex look equally strong in terms of their ability to bounce back from adversity. Harvick ran second at one of his worst tracks after wrecking out of the Las Vegas race the week prior. Truex, who took control of Richmond’s first half, fought back to third after a pit penalty derailed him after the second stage. Add in Keselowski, whose three straight wins vaulted him into the title conversation, and the challenge is steep for someone to break past this group into NASCAR’s Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
Who’s at the Back: Ty Dillon
When a spot opened up on grandfather Richard Childress’ team for 2019, many observers assumed the younger Dillon would take the spot. After all, it’s been a miserable sophomore season for him driving for single-car outfit Germain Racing. But Dillon openly stuck by his beleaguered program despite what’s been the worst stretch of his Cup career. Since a sixth-place run at Daytona in July, his best career finish, the No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet hasn’t cracked the top 20.
Overall, Dillon’s average finish of 25.0 is four positions worse than last season and he’s a dismal 29th in the point standings. Kasey Kahne, despite missing three races with health-related issues, remains four points ahead.
AJ Allmendinger has been released from his No. 47 ride for 2019. The driver was bought out of his contract, which went through the 2020 season, after a miserable stretch with JTG-Daugherty Racing. He’s been ineffective on road courses after a 2014 victory at Watkins Glen International that’s his only one to date. This year, an average finish of 23.0 is his worst since 2015 as Allmendinger was never seriously in playoff contention. The 36-year-old, who’s finishing up his third stint with a full-time team, becomes a free agent and may leave the sport completely in 2019.
Allmendinger will be replaced by young NASCAR talent Ryan Preece. Preece, who’s been driving a part-time schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing in the NASCAR XFINITY Series now gets his chance at a full-time Cup ride. The 2019 rookie, just 27 years old, is a former champ in the sport’s modified ranks (2013) and has two career XFINITY wins.
Daniel Hemric has been named to the No. 31 ride vacated by Ryan Newman next season. Hemric, who has run in the XFINITY Series the last two years for RCR, has 20 top-five finishes in 60 career starts. While still winless, he’s a top contender for the championship this year in that division, sitting second in the standings on the strength of ten top-three finishes. Sponsorship for the 27-year-old was not announced although Caterpillar is expected to continue on with the organization.
Finally this week, Justin Marks announced his NASCAR retirement following this weekend’s race at Charlotte. Marks has driven in all three NASCAR national series for a variety of programs, transitioning into the role of road course specialist the last few seasons. The 37-year-old has one career win, at Mid-Ohio in the XFINITY Series and will drive in the Cup race for Premium Motorsports on Sunday.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The last time a new track debuted on the NASCAR series schedule (Kentucky Speedway). Technically, this race is being held on a racetrack that’s been a part of the NASCAR schedule since 1960 but the road course layout at Charlotte has never been used.
Playoff drivers who finished inside the top 12 Saturday at Richmond. Only eight made the cut a week prior during a crash-filled event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
On paper, it’s hard to pick against the sport’s Big Three entering an unpredictable weekend. But I’d stay away from Kevin Harvick, who has shown more hesitation than most heading into this event. Kyle Busch is also a boom-or-bust proposition; having clinched a spot in the next round, his aggression could mean the No. 18 also ends Sunday sitting against a concrete wall somewhere.
So if I had to go with one top-tier driver among the trio Sunday, I’d go with Martin Truex Jr. People don’t consider him to be a true road course expert but Truex has an average finish of 1.3 in the last three road course events (two wins). The No. 78 team in particular has found its footing at right-turn tracks in recent years and Truex is focused on the consistency he feels this team needs to earn a second championship. Playing it safe for a top-five run is likely here.
Pole sitter Kurt Busch is another great top-tier option. He won’t earn any position differential points for daily fantasy but Busch has always flexed his muscle on these types of tracks. The No. 41 team already has one win this season (Bristol) and is looking for a momentum-building playoff performance as he seeks a 2019 ride.
You could go a number of different directions here. I’d say in a race where there’s several variables the veteran experience of Jimmie Johnson should make a difference. Johnson likely needs a top-five finish in order to advance to the next round and qualified inside the top 10 this weekend. That’ll keep the No. 48 near the front to start and out of trouble for what’s likely to be a wild beginning to the race. While not known as a road course racer, Johnson was 11th at Sonoma back in June and can be counted on to bring the car to the finish in one piece. That might be all you need to run fifth here.
Other veterans with road course expertise, like Clint Bowyer, would be solid picks. But if you’re looking young? Chase Elliott won Watkins Glen in August for his first career NASCAR victory. He showed some speed at Richmond last weekend, leading 34 laps and needs a strong run to advance. Expect him to get aggressive early for stage points, too.
Just days ago, AJ Allmendinger was released from his 2019 ride art JTG-Daugherty Racing. This road course offers perhaps his last, best chance at an audition to stay in the sport. A strong front-row qualifying effort needs to pay off on Sunday with the type of performance that earned him an unlikely victory four years ago at Watkins Glen.
Looking for a cheaper option? Michael McDowell has developed into a road course ace for underdog programs and has run well this season in his first year with Front Row Motorsports. He’s a solid top-15 possibility as long as he can keep his car on the track.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch tops all drivers with 3/1 odds for Sunday’s race. Martin Truex Jr. is next up at 7/2 followed by a cluster at 8/1, including Chase Elliott.
What I Think
In an unpredictable weekend, I’m going to go with a major surprise. Allmendinger bucks the trend of playoff drivers sweeping the postseason and bursts through with his first victory in over four years. I also predict Johnson makes it through to the next playoff round while Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon become the four drivers who fail to advance.