Has there been a more dramatic final lap in recent NASCAR Playoff history than we saw Sunday afternoon at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course?
A pair of champions, Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson battled aggressively side-by-side for the race victory in the final turns of the final lap. Unintended contact between the two spun them both out and 24-year old Ryan Blaney, who had been in third place, blasted by for his first win of the season.
As Blaney crossed the line, Johnson gathered his car and mustered an eighth-place finish. A moment later, Truex recovered to a 14th-place finish. Playoff driver Aric Almirola drove his already-dinged up Ford to a 19th-place finish followed a split second later by Playoff hopeful Kyle Larson, who drove his badly hobbled Chevrolet to a 26th-place finish – bouncing off the wall as headed to the checkered flag.
Almirola’s and Larson’s finishes were – literally – just good enough to earn a three-way tie with Johnson in the championship standings. Only two of the drivers could advance to the next round, however, and a tiebreaker eliminated the seven-time champ Johnson based on Playoff finishes in the previous two races.
The outcome was stunning and dramatic. It was triumphant and heart-breaking too.
This was everything championship racing is about.
“A three way tie?” asked Clint Bowyer, who advanced to the Playoff Round of 12 with his fifth-place finish at Charlotte. “He [Johnson] lost a tie? That’s hard to believe.”
“But you knew something was going to happen at this deal. Everybody knew, everybody dubbed this the wild card race, and I guess I’m lucky that I survived it, but I’m happy for our sport that it lived up to the expectation, up to the hype that you guys all sold.
“You know, let’s go back to business. I knew that this first round was going to be tough.
Johnson’s decision to go for the win will be heartily debated for a long time. But Johnson is a seven-time champion because he wins races. He is in the midst of the longest winless streak (52 races) in his 83-victory career and the chance to earn his first victory of the season was there, one pass and a couple of turns away.
“Took myself out of a shot at the championship and obviously affected their day which I feel bad about,” Johnson said afterward, sighing. “I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive, 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.”
Truex was understandably a bit miffed after the race, having missed out on some valuable Playoff points in addition to a possible race trophy. But he will race on to contend for a second consecutive championship trophy.
Sunday’s race didn’t just provide an exciting and dramatic outcome, it also delivered life lesson reminders – on passionate pursuit and never giving up.
Not only did Johnson’s decision to go for victory reaffirm why we watch the sport, Larson’s amazing rally to finish the race was a lesson in perseverance too.
When the race started, Larson had what could be considered a “solid” 17-point edge over the first cutoff position in the standings. He was ranked seventh with 12 of the 16 drivers advancing to compete in the next Playoff round.
However, as so many expected, the first-time competition on NASCAR’s newest venue was unpredictable and action-packed – particularly in the waning laps as a Playoff cutoff race.
Larson, who led a race high 47 laps and looked like a favorite to decide the race outcome, was caught up in a multi-car accident six laps from the race end that eliminated other Playoff drivers such as Brad Keselowski and championship leader Kyle Busch. Larson’s No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was heavily damaged but with Playoff hopes suddenly jeopardized, he had to continue.
On the last lap, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Daniel Hemric collided and Earnhardt’s car couldn’t continue. In passing that car Larson gained enough points to be a part of the tiebreaker.
“We had a lot of right-front damage and we kind of knew the right front would blow if I ran hard,” Larson said. “But, I ran hard through (Turns) 3 and 4 and blew a right front and got into the fence. I could see the No. 96 (Jeffrey Earnhardt) and I knew I needed that point to get to the tie-breaker and [I] hit the wall again.
“Thankfully, we got the tie-breaker. At the same time, I’m happy to make it to the next round. I’m disappointed we didn’t get the win today. I felt like I had the fastest car.”
Larson’s work Sunday ensured he will have another opportunity to score what would be his first victory in a season where he’s already finished second six times.
More than anything, Sunday’s highly competitive, high-action ROVAL experience is exactly the kind of sendoff NASCAR fans crave as the Playoff’s Round of 12 begins Sunday at a typically close-quarter short track, Dover International Speedway, then continues at Talladega Superspeedway and then at the Kansas Speedway mile-and-a-half oval.
“This weekend was one of those weekends where you have to dig in deep and keep battling, and that’s what we did,” Almirola said. “We battled all day and all weekend, and we were able to get just enough.
“It didn’t even take +1 [in points]. Plus zero was good enough; I can’t believe it.”