The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs have been entertaining already, and we’re just getting started with the first round.
Ever since the announcement of the layout and testing, the ROVAL has sparked fear for the drivers heading to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
If you were watch through just the first two stages, though, it appeared they worked out all of the kinks. Just a few drivers got off the track during those laps, with clean racing throughout the field. It got spread out at times, but there’s no denying that the infield portion and front stretch chicane did not promote passing as drivers moved their way up and down the grid.
Let’s face it – though. The fear probably sparked a calmness, just be clean and solid through there as once we got to the last stage, you could stay the gloves were essentially off. Everything went haywire quickly, beginning with A.J. Allmendinger‘s dives on the restarts. However, it still appeared there’d be a calm ending with everyone wondering whether the leaders had enough fuel as there were small battles for position.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. then changed everything, as he got into the wall and brought out the caution with 10 laps to go. With any road course, we have learned something – the later in the race, the less patience, and that only means one thing – chaos.
Tums Heartburn Turn 1 had sparked a lot of conversation going into the weekend about how tight it would be on restarts, and that showed. Race leader Brad Keselowski, along with the first four cars on the outside, overshot the entry and hit the wall.
“We’d just been there the longest we had been on tires and I guess all of us are just stupid and don’t know where to break for the corner considering what our tires look like and so we just all drove off into a 90-degree wall for something to do because we had nothing else better to do,” Kyle Busch said. “That kind of sucked, but guess it’s a good thing it didn’t matter for us.”
It appeared Martin Truex Jr. inheriting the lead would allow him to get another win this year after getting a good restart with three laps to go. That was until Jimmie Johnson entered the fray. It was shaping up to be a close battle and would’ve been interesting to see them go through the final chicane side-by-side to the line. However, a wheel-hop for the driver of the No. 48 caused him to spin, tagging Truex in the process, sending them both around.
Ryan Blaney, who had quietly kept himself in the top-10 throughout the race and avoided chaos despite being right in the middle through the final laps, got by the pair and scored the victory.
Risk vs. Reward is something that will be discussed for days for Johnson now. If he would’ve finished second, he moves on to the Round of 12 of the playoffs. Instead, the eighth-place finish sees him eliminated in a tie-breaker. It’d be easy to say that he should’ve given up the fight for the win, but we’re looking at a seven-time champion who hasn’t won a race this season. Additionally, his Hendrick Motorsports team hasn’t shown the speed to be right there and contend for the championship with the likes of Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing, and Joe Gibbs Racing. Did desperation take over?
“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 post-race. “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.”
The incident for Johnson turned into the perfect blessing for Kyle Larson, though.
Larson had led 47 laps before he was involved in the crash on the restart with eight laps to go. If Johnson doesn’t make the move, Larson is the one of the four drivers who does not move onto the next round. However, managing to drive a hurt car around the 17-turn course, and make a last lap pass on Jeffrey Earnhardt – who had been wrecked off the final turn by Daniel Hemric, allowed him to finish 25th and advance to the next round.
“We had a lot of right-front damage and we kind of knew the right front would blow if I ran hard,” he 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 hit the wall again. Thankfully, we got the tie-breaker.”
Along with Johnson, the Joe Gibbs Racing teammates of Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin failed to transfer, along with Austin Dillon. Jones and Dillon saw their races end early due to damage, while Hamlin had to make an unscheduled pit stop early and was unable to make up the track position needed.
The unexpected chaos of the ROVAL, combined with close action at Richmond and mayhem as Las Vegas Motor Speedway, it’s safe to say we’re off to an exciting start for this year’s playoffs. So, what can we expect in the Round of 12 with a monster in Dover International Speedway, the craziness of plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway, and a trip to the windy city with Kansas Speedway?
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