It may only be the fourth edition of the Bank of America ROVAL 400 but this race is already circled in red as one of the best NASCAR playoff races on the calendar. Its debut in 2018 changed the trajectory of Charlotte Motor Speedway, a wild race that felt like a video game come to life. Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson crashed out while battling for the win, handing the trophy to Ryan Blaney inside the final two turns while putting the 2.28-mile road course on the map.
Suddenly, fans who had stopped buying tickets for a tired tradition on the oval, the Coca-Cola 600 were lining up in droves for the ROVAL. NASCAR’s hometown track for race teams was a crown jewel once again, sparking the sport to shift its thinking toward a record seven road courses on the schedule in 2021.
The last two years have been slightly less dramatic, both won by Chase Elliott as he’s continued to dominate on this track type. A third straight win on Sunday would be just what the doctor ordered for Elliott and his Hendrick Motorsports program. The sport’s best regular-season team is stumbling through the playoffs, winning just once while two of their four drivers face almost certain elimination.
William Byron and Alex Bowman sit over 40 points behind the cutline, meaning each needs a first career road course victory to advance. More than likely, HMS will focus on protecting Elliott, nine points above the cutline, and regular-season points champion Kyle Larson instead (+22). Larson knows what a wild card this ROVAL can be, wrecking hard from the lead in 2018 before riding the wall on the final lap, limping his damaged race car home to pick up just one more position and advance in the playoffs.
Danger lurks at every turn here for championship contenders, a race that averages over 30 cars finishing on the lead lap. A spin can lead to a multi-car pileup quickly, costing you precious track position with no guarantee the caution’s coming out for a reset. When they do happen, restarts are wild, a hard braking zone into turn 1 leaving everyone scrambling to pick off as many positions as possible.
The last time we visited a ROVAL, AJ Allmendinger shocked the world and snookered the Cup regulars with an upset victory at Indianapolis. He’s back with Kaulig’s Racing No. 16, one of several drivers who could spoil the playoff party like Bubba Wallace’s surprise victory last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. Rookie Chase Briscoe came a restart away from winning Indianapolis himself; the new father earned his first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory here back in 2018.
But this race should boil down to a handful of title contenders and who can join Denny Hamlin in the Round of 8. Ninth place Kevin Harvick sits just nine points behind the cutline; 10th place Christopher Bell (-28) has already won at this type of road course this year (Daytona). A good run by either of them would knock out another heavyweight, a list that includes Cup champions Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. Not everyone can make it to the semifinal round in a year where there’s so much parity at the top.
Will the ROVAL produce another coronation for Elliott, the reigning NASCAR champ? Or will we see another upset deeper in the playoff field as the desperation to reach the Championship 4 ratchets up?
Bank of America ROVAL 400
Date: Sunday, Oct. 10
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Track: Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Bubba Wallace
It was right place, right time for Wallace as a phenomenal drive took him to the front at Talladega right as a multi-car wreck happened behind him. Moments later, the rains came, forcing a red flag 71 laps short of its scheduled distance. When Mother Nature didn’t let up, that gave Wallace his first Cup win in his 143rd career start.
History was made with Wallace the first African-American driver at NASCAR’s top level to win since Wendell Scott way back in December 1963. It was also the first trophy for the NBA’s Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin as car owners of the fledgling first-year team at 23XI Racing. Sponsor McDonald’s completed the trifecta, ending a stock car curse that’s lasted for decades. The longtime primary sponsor visited victory lane for the first time since Jimmy Spencer drove for them way back in 1994.
Who’s at the Back: Justin Allgaier
This NASCAR Xfinity Series star has been pedestrian whenever he returns to Cup. Allgaier got caught in a wreck with the Spire Motorsports No. 77 at Talladega, his third DNF in four Cup starts since 2016. That list includes a one-race deal turned disaster with Hendrick Motorsports, crashing out while subbing in the No. 48 car last summer at Indianapolis.
A special guest will be helping Martin Truex Jr. wind his way around the Charlotte ROVAL this weekend. Former championship crew chief Cole Pearn, who paired with Truex to win the title in 2017, will come out of retirement to be an additional spotter for his friend down in Charlotte.
Big Machine Racing Team has announced a partnership with Richard Childress Racing for 2022. The independent NASCAR Xfinity Series team looks to step up its performance with better equipment after a disappointing first full-time season with driver Jade Buford. The No. 48 has one top-10 finish through 28 races while Buford sits just 23rd in driver points, falling well short of playoff contention.
GMS Racing will live stream their 2022 Cup Series driver announcement on Sunday, Oct. 10 at 10 am. ET on NASCAR.com. GMS has one of the few full-time openings left available at the Cup level for 2022.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Bubba Wallace became the third first-time winner at the Cup level this season. The other two (Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell) reached victory lane in the year’s first two races.
Total lead changes in the two Cup races held at Talladega this season. Even with a rain-shortened race in the mix, that’s by far a season best for any track with two dates on the schedule.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Two straight wins make it hard to ignore Chase Elliott at the top of your lineup. Six races into the road course schedule, Elliott has been the fastest driver overall, scoring two wins, two runner-up finishes, and a fourth at Indianapolis. At minimum, he’ll rack up a ton of bonus points for leading laps and fastest laps, collecting stage points along the way.
Good friend Ryan Blaney started the year leading the exhibition Busch Clash before Elliott spun him out in the final two turns. Doesn’t it feel like this track type owes him one? Team Penske has had an underwhelming playoff but put itself in position to advance all three cars by avoiding any carnage at Talladega. Blaney has the best chance among the three to sneak in another victory before the Round of 8.
AJ Allmendinger moves up a notch despite a limited schedule and no points on the line with Kaulig Racing. How can you ignore the Indianapolis winner with the amount of position differential points he’ll earn starting 33rd? The only caveat I have is the ‘Dinger will come into this race holding a boom-or-bust mentality. Bringing it home on a wrecker means little to this team, building up their Cup program for 2022, but it’ll crash your chances to cash in on daily fantasy.
I’ve really liked the way Tyler Reddick and the Richard Childress Racing program has performed during the playoffs. While failing to advance into the Round of 12, Reddick posted a sixth-place finish two weeks ago at Las Vegas before getting caught up in a Talladega crash. Three road course top 10s in six starts this season bode well for a track where he ran a respectable 12th last fall.
Cole Custer has been invisible most of the year, a sophomore slump for the ages with Stewart-Haas Racing. But while many will pick rookie teammate Briscoe to put on a repeat performance, don’t sleep on the No. 41 to sneak away with some kind of a solid finish. Custer was ninth here last October and has quietly posted four top-20 results on road courses this season.
Erik Jones finally figured the Charlotte ROVAL out last year, surging to a third-place finish after runs of 30th and 40th earlier in his Cup career. The No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team knows they can excel in these types of races where driver skill means just as much as equipment.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com lists Chase Elliott as an overwhelming favorite, sitting with +220 odds to win the Charlotte ROVAL. Kyle Larson is next up at +450 followed by Martin Truex Jr. at +700.
Thinking the ‘Dinger can pull off back-to-back Cup victories? AJ Allmendinger is your best longshot at +1800.
What I Think
Three times is the charm for Chase Elliott, advancing with ease into the Round of 8. Teammate Kyle Larson should finish right behind him as Hendrick’s title hopes consolidate into their top two drivers.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.