“Breath deep the gathering gloom”. That seemed to be the theme Saturday night at Richmond. In fact, it seemed to be theme the entire weekend in Virginia.
That’s because the next race on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule is at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Unlike years past however, instead of the normal 1.5-mile oval, the speedway has been transformed into a road course using a combination of the big track and infield.
For years fans have clamored for a road course in the playoffs. Now they are going to get it.
The 17 turn 2.28-mile configuration shoehorned into the confines of the speedway has never been raced on by NASCAR before. Despite extensive testing and a few changes along the way, the “ROVAL” as it is called, and been trademarked by Speedway Motorsports Inc., is still a great unknown.
The testing that has occurred there has led to some bent fenders and destroyed cars.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen more talk about something than the Roval, really,” team owner Joe Gibbs said only half -jokingly perhaps. “We’ve been talking about this thing. And I will say this: I think we wrecked four cars, didn’t we, in practice getting ready for it? I finally said, nobody else goes over there. I’m tired of wrecking stuff.”
As if it wasn’t going to be tough enough, the ROVAL is the final race in the Round of 16, meaning that after Sunday four drivers in the current 16-driver field will be eliminated from Playoff contention.
“Nobody is going to sleep this week,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “If Kevin Harvick says that he is worried, the rest of these guys are really going to be nervous.”
Harvick finished second Saturday night, but even one of the Playoff favorites isn’t immune from elimination. Fourth in the Playoff standings, 57 points above the cutoff line, a disaster at Charlotte could leave even Harvick teetering on the edge.
“We needed to do a great job with all the unknowns going into next week,” he said Saturday night. “It will be a fun weekend, but it will be kind of trial and error.”
That the trial and error comes during the Playoffs is a concern to many. Had this race been in the regular season, there would still be a chance to recover. Not so now. It means drivers like seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson have no Mulligans left. He’s 14th in the standings despite a top-10 finish Saturday night and facing elimination. Johnson said he will be thinking about what he needs to do during the week leading up to the race.
“Crash all those guys in front of me, is that a good option?” he said laughing. Turning serious he added: “I think surviving is just the biggest thing. We will just go there and give 100 percent and do what we can. It’s been one of those years, but we are going to go down swinging to the bitter end.”
At least three drivers have no worries about the ROVAL. Saturday night’s winner Kyle Busch and Vega winner Brad Keselowski are safe no matter what happens. The third driver is Martin Truex Jr. who locked himself into the next round on points by sweeping the two stages Saturday night at Richmond and finishing third.
“Yippee! Here we go,” Truex said. “It’s going to be fun. I mean, I feel really bad for the guys that are going to go in there and have to do something. I think everybody is scared to death of that place.”
Sunday’s event will result in either a memorable race or an utter disaster swept under the rug and never seen again.
Either way NASCAR’s grand experiment will become reality in just a few short days.