Can lightning strike twice at the most unique racetrack on the Cup Series circuit?
It's not an oval. It's not a traditional road course. Instead, the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL has become of the most exciting ideas NASCAR's had in the past decade. The 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit is a challenging layout, a mix of both the track's infield roads and its 1.5-mile oval.
This ROVAL has also earned a quick reputation for tearing up extra sheet metal. Denny Hamli and Parker Kligerman have already been forced to backup cars after hard wrecks during Friday's practice; that list is set to expand long before the green flag drops on Sunday. Last year, 10 drivers failed to finish as the final stage included a video game-like wreck which wiped out a slew of top contenders.
The carnage set up a three-lap dash to the finish between Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. But Johnson, in a last-ditch effort to steal the win, crashed both drivers with a banzai move entering turn 16. They both spun out, clearing the way for a Ryan Blaney upset while, further back, a battered Kyle Larson rode his damaged car along the outside wall to climb a spot inside the Round of 12.
The format was fresh, the race was competitive, and the ending was high NASCAR drama. Charlotte's ROVAL produced one of the few ratings increases on television last season and, more importantly, revitalized interest around an important racetrack (located mere minutes from every Cup team race shop). Other struggling ovals around the country will be looking at ROVAL blueprints as NASCAR prepares its scheduling overhaul for 2021.
Early signs are the magic will recreate itself once again. The battle for the Round of 12 is tight; just 14 points separate ninth through 13th in the standings. Last year's ROVAL winner Blaney is among that group along with Sunday's pole sitter William Byron and fellow front-row starter Alex Bowman. Further back, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones find themselves in potential must-win situations with teams more than capable of doing so.
But keep an eye on drivers outside the playoffs, suffering through disappointing seasons. This race was the closest Johnson has come to ending a winless streak that dates back to Dover in June 2017. Someone like a Matt DiBenedetto or Daniel Suarez could emerge victorious simply by playing a game of survivor.
Bank of America ROVAL 400
Time: Sunday, Sept. 29 at 2:30 p.m. ET
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway (Charlotte, N.C.)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
A failed inspection by Erik Jones (more on that in a minute) robbed JGR of its first 1-2-3-4 finish in team history. But their performance on Richmond Raceway left no doubt their team is the clear championship favorite.
Take your pick among three drivers already through to the Round of 12. You have Martin Truex Jr., recovering from a spin at the hands of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to win Richmond and start the playoffs 2-for-2. There's Kyle Busch, swiping talk of lapped cars aside to run a strong second and reestablish his strength after winning the regular-season championship. And then there's Denny Hamlin, now 5-for-5 this season with short track top-5 finishes after coming home a quiet third at Richmond.
They enter the final race of this round first, third, and fifth in the standings, respectively. But there's no better organization right now positioned to put their cars in the Championship 4.
Who's at the Back: Spire Motorsports
Remember that freak victory in July at Daytona International Speedway that put this new team in the spotlight with Justin Haley? Since then, this rent-a-ride who's in partnership with Premium Motorsports has reminded everyone how tough it's been to recruit new, quality ownership into the sport.
The No. 77 Spire Motorsports group that bought their charter from a now-defunct championship team, Furniture Row Racing, has spent the year running on the cheap. Besides that shocking win, they only have one other top-25 finish, a 23rd at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Reed Sorenson driving. Sorenson's wreck at Richmond was the car's third DNF in seven races as they flounder through a year with used equipment and patchwork sponsorship.
Erik Jones' fourth-place finish at Richmond was quickly derailed when he failed NASCAR post-race inspection. Managing Director Jay Fabian explained the rear wheel alignment failed during a run-through of the OSS system. "Rear wheel steer and alignment is important as a critical factor in downforce," Fabian said. "It's an aero benefit to get more skew in the rear, so we keep those parameters pretty tight so that everybody is racing with the same thing... It's important to keep the playing field level and make sure all the playoff cars are the same."
The failure puts Jones in a win-or-bust situation. He was disqualified and given a last-place finish, falling 45 points below the cutline.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is out of a ride in a surprise move by Roush Fenway Racing. Instead, Chris Buescher will drive the No. 17 car in 2020. The JTG Daugherty Racing driver used to run under the RFR banner and the team discovered they still had a little-known contractual option they could trigger to bring him back in the fold. When talks with JTG Daugherty stalled for 2020, Buescher got together with RFR and both sides agreed to make the move. That leaves Stenhouse on the outside looking in, released late in the game with a contract that ran through 2021 but appears to have a performance-related out clause.
A press conference with RFR Friday seemed to indicate Stenhouse's DNF rate was part of the reason they let him go. Sitting 23rd in the standings, he's crashed out four times this season and was at the epicenter of last weekend’s Richmond wreck with leader Truex.
"I look forward to having cars that are more similar for both drivers [including teammate Ryan Newman] that we can develop from race to race by not having so many wrecks," owner Jack Roush said. "Chris has got a history [of keeping his nose clean], so we're gonna work on our cars to make them faster and to not be repairing them when they're damaged."
Buescher is in the midst of a strong year with JTG Daugherty, earning four top-10 finishes and sitting 20th in the standings driving their No. 37 Chevrolet. His only wrecks this season came on the superspeedway tracks of Daytona and Talladega.
Garrett Smithley is looking to run both the Cup and Xfinity Series full-time in 2020. The veteran of JD Motorsports in Xfinity is exploring a full-time opportunity with Rick Ware Racing as he looks to advance his career.
"I've run four years in Xfinity, and albeit I haven't been in top-level equipment money-wise, I feel like I've done a pretty good job," Smithley said. "I think I've proved myself. I feel like I'm ready. I said a long time ago that I wanted to make it full-time in the Cup Series by the time I was 30 [years old]."
Smithley has one Xfinity top-5 finish in 126 career starts. He's never made the postseason in that division and sits 18th in the 2019 standings.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career Cup wins for Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 248 career starts with Roush Fenway Racing. They both came at superspeedway tracks: Daytona and Talladega.
Career Cup wins for a retiring David Ragan in 462 career starts. They both came at superspeedway tracks: Daytona and Talladega. He spent 182 starts with Roush Fenway Racing, winning once before moving on to Front Row.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
There's limited history to go on when trying to pick your roster for the ROVAL. So look for drivers who have good road course track records when setting your lineup. Martin Truex Jr. has top-2 finishes in five of the last six road course events. Last year's ROVAL, where he led until the last two turns, is the lone exception.
Tired of picking someone JGR? Stewart-Haas Racing's Kevin Harvick and Team Penske's Brad Keselowski bring some road course consistency to the table.
Jimmie Johnson was runner-up here last season, starts fourth and has confidence with new crew chief Cliff Daniels. If Johnson is going to end that winless streak, it'll be here or next Sunday when the series heads to Dover International Speedway. But there's a risk to starting Johnson; he has no points to worry about. A win-or-bust move doesn’t wreck his season but destroys your own fantasy roster.
Last year's winner, Ryan Blaney, is sitting close to the playoff cutline and in need of a quality performance. Blaney does have five top-10 finishes (including the ROVAL win) in nine career NASCAR Cup road course starts.
Matt DiBenedetto has top-10 finishes this season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. He'll look to make it 3-for-3 with a No. 95 Leavine Family Racing team that is capable of winning here under the right circumstances.
Bubba Wallace isn't particularly strong on road courses and qualified a ho-hum 25th. So why pick him? The No. 43 team has momentum these days in the form of three top-15 finishes the last five races.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. leads the way at Charlotte with 11/4 odds to win the ROVAL. Kyle Busch is next at 5/1 odds with a slew of drivers just behind at 8/1.
Jimmie Johnson as a longshot isn't a bad bet. He sits at 30/1.
What I Think
I'll go with Martin Truex Jr. to earn his third straight and pull a first-round playoff sweep. But expect this race to be wild; it wouldn't surprise me if someone like DiBenedetto came out on top.
(Top photo courtesy of @CLTMotorSpdwy)