The only certain thing was uncertainty. That was the theme heading into Sunday’s inaugural Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on the new 2.88 hybrid road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
At the end of the day it delivered a gut punch to some drivers, elation for others, and quite a show for everyone else.
Saturday, we had a taste of what the Cup guys would do when the Xfinity series ran its first Roval race. Sunday it was the Cup drivers turn.
Instead of a wreck fest as some predicted, the racing was instead tight close and compelling.
For most of the race that is.
On a restart with 6 laps to go all bets were off.
The field had a mix of pit strategies with some electing to pit and take tires after a late race debris caution; still others like leaders Brad Keselowski and Kyle Larson, elected to stay out.
Heading into the first turn, affectionally named “Heartburn Turn” complete with appropriate sponsorship, Keselowski on his old tires locked up his Ford and headed straight into the wall. A total of 15 cars were swept up in the ensuing melee including Larson and Kyle Busch, both of whom had been in contention for the win.
“The whole field went down into turn one it looked like and we all went straight,” a contrite Keselowski said. “I don’t know. Maybe we all overdrove it. Maybe the track had something on it. I don’t know. I got in the corner. I didn’t feel like I got in it, I got in hard, but not like ridiculously hard and it just locked up. I couldn’t get the tire to unlock, so I felt really, really dumb when I hit the wall and then I got back in the care center and saw the replay and saw everybody kind of did the same thing.”
He and Busch were done for the day, although they could take some solace in the fact that they didn’t face elimination both having wins in the Round of 16 that guarantees them spots in the next round.
“I guess all of us are just stupid and don’t know where to break for the corner considering what our tires look like,” Busch said sarcastically. “So we just all drove off into a 90-degree wall for something to do because we had nothing else better to do. That kind of sucked, but guess it’s a good thing it didn’t matter for us.”
Larson was able to continue but with heavy damage was out of contention for the win.
A red flag ensued;14 minutes later it was lifted, and the field set up for a dash to the end. Martin Truex Jr. already locked in the next round on points was leading, Jimmie Johnson, still winless after 51 races and just above the cutline was second.
On the white flag lap, Truex was leading with Johnson in close pursuit. Exiting the final corners Johnson made his move, overdrove the final chicane and spun sweeping up Truex in the process. A somewhat surprised Ryan Blaney shot by for the win. It was a moment reminiscent of the 1979 Daytona 500 when Cale Yarbrough and Donnie Allison got together on the last lap and crashed allowing third place Richard Petty to score his 6th Daytona 500. Allison and Yarbrough would be seen on live TV fighting after it was over in a scene that has become NASCAR legend.
There was no fighting Sunday at Charlotte, although Truex did spin Johnson out on the cool down lap.
“It sucks, we could have raced side-by-side off the last corner for a win and that would have been cool.’” Truex said. “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 recovered in time to finish 8th and indeed was eliminated from the Playoffs. It was thanks in part to Larson who was nursing a badly damaged Chevy around bouncing off walls and passing Jeffery Earnhardt on the final corners to gain one more spot. It put him into the next round and Johnson out.
“I couldn’t even drive my car, it was so bad destroyed,” Larson said. “But then they said they were all crashed and they were coming to the checkered. I was over here getting on the oval, and they said they were starting to crash, so I ran hard. We had, I guess, so much camber and tow in our car they said if I ran fast I would blow a right front. But I was like, you’ve got to go.”
After it was over, and the dust settled most were in agreement that the Roval experiment was a rousing success.
“This is something new,” third place finisher Clint Bowyer said. “It went down pretty well, I think. It was a lot of fun to be able to compete. Nerve‑racking as hell on our part, but nonetheless, it was a lot of fun, challenge. The challenge of competing that racetrack, that backstretch chicane, it’s pretty fast. I think if there was an area to fix the race, we could look at that, doing something back there. But heartburn, that was a heartburn, ended up being a heartburn on a lot of people’s parts.”
SMI President Marcus Smith, who originated the idea of the Roval, was obviously pleased as well.
“It was really an amazing day,” he said. “A three‑year journey to get here, and everything just kind of culminated today and throughout this week. I think everything that we saw on track, the competition was really phenomenal. The track was very raceable, and we saw cars go two wide, three wide on a couple of occasions where there’s a lot of concern about the width of the track and being able to race without a lot of red flags.
“I think this was another one of those amazing, memorable moments for ‑‑ certainly for me and I think for NASCAR.”
Indeed, there were many memorable moments, and heartbreak for some. But in the end the Roval kept fans on the edge of their seats, drivers on top of the wheel and delivered just what NASCAR needed, and hopefully will continue to do for years to come.