Wild finish highlights the Roval’s Cup Series debut
By Rick Minter/ Andrews McMeel Syndication
For many a NASCAR fan, the fall race on the 1.5-mile oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway had become just another race on a “cookie cutter” racetrack, as several of the Monster Energy Cup Series events are run on tracks very similar to Charlotte.
With at-track attendance and interest on the decline, Marcus Smith, the track’s president, and others in his company — with the blessing of NASCAR officials — decided to step way out of the box and create a track that was part road course and part of the aforementioned oval.
The 17-turn, 2.28-mile Roval track uses parts of the 1.5-mile oval at Charlotte and a radically redesigned infield road course.
For the first 103 laps of Sunday’s Roval experiment, the race was different, but not the kind of event that would have people talking NASCAR at water coolers across the country on Monday.
But the last six laps delivered the kind of drama that Roval backers were hoping for when they transformed the infield of the 59-year-old track.
On a restart with six laps remaining, Brad Keselowski, who had led the previous 29 circuits, drove off the track and into the Turn One barrier, taking five other contenders for the win with him.
After a red-flag period for clean-up, the green flag flew for a three-lap dash to the checkered flag with two former champions — Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. — leading the way.
Truex held the lead until the duo were within sight of the checkered flag, but Johnson made a desperate move into the final turn, lost control of his car and bounced into Truex, knocking them both around.
That opened the door for third-running Ryan Blaney to scoot by and get his first win of the season over Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch.
But the drama didn’t end with the Johnson/Truex spin. With the Roval race being the cutoff event for the first round of the playoffs, four drivers faced elimination, and it wasn’t until all the cars had crossed the finish line that the four losers were determined.
Among them was Johnson, who fell to eighth place and wound up tied for the 12th and final transfer spot with Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola. Johnson wound up the odd man out due to the tiebreaker of best finishes in the opening playoff round. Also eliminated were Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin and Austin Dillon.
Larson, who led a race-high 47 laps before being swept up in the 15-car crash on Lap 105, made the most dramatic run to the finish as he was able to overtake the spinning Jeffrey Earnhardt despite heavy damage to his own car. Almirola also had to gain spots in the final three laps in his banged-up No. 10 Ford.
Truex blamed Johnson for making a move that he said had no chance of succeeding.
“[Johnson] just over-drove it and was never going to make it and used me as brakes and turned us both around,” Truex said. “It sucks. We could have raced side-by-side off the last corner for a win, and that would have been cool. The fans would have been digging it, but instead we finished 14th and he’s locked out of the playoffs.
“I guess that’s what he gets.”
Johnson said a playoff berth wasn’t on his mind when he attempted to wrestle the lead from Truex.
“I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive,” he said. “But we had such a good car and just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me.”
Blaney acknowledged that he wouldn’t have won had Truex and Johnson not wrecked.
“They were so far ahead I wasn’t even really trying, and then I saw them kind of close to each other through the oval track in [Turns] Three and Four and I was like, ‘Oh, something might happen here,’” he said in his winner’s interview. “They touched just trying to win the race, and I was lucky to sneak through there.
“That’s not how you really want to win them. I’d rather go out and dominate the race and win by a lap, but you’ve got to take them how you can get them nowadays.”
For Smith, the track president, the last-lap drama exceeded his expectations for the Roval.
“I think it was incredibly exciting,” he said. “The roar from the fans was all I needed to know that that was the moment that everybody will remember for a long time.”