Are Road Courses Even Wildcard Races Anymore?
I think when the schedule came out and we had seven road courses, most felt like this was seven more chances for underdog winners to stamp their names into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. These seven in addition to the four superspeedway’s, three of which taking place in the regular season would shake things up.
Instead, as we sit here coming to the seventh and final road course of the 2021 season, it’s proving to be anything but.
Just look at the winners on road courses this year. Christopher Bell (Daytona), Kyle Larson (Sonoma, Watkins Glen), Chase Elliott (COTA, Road America) and AJ Allmendinger (Indianapolis).
One could say Bell and Allmendinger were surprise winners, but if you dig a bit deeper, they’re really not. Bell, has been great on road courses this season and Allmendinger is a road racing ace. The rest were won by Hendrick drivers.
Hendrick Motorsports is the top dog on these tracks now in general and going to be tough to supplant on pure speed. They’ve won 8 of the last 10 overall road course races including four of the last five overall.
Elliott, has won six of the eight including each of the last two years on the Charlotte ROVAL. The only ones that he didn’t win was this past February in Daytona when he led the most laps but was screwed for a caution being displayed for rain in which he was going to cruise to an easy victory. The other was a runner-up finishes in Sonoma and in Watkins Glen and a fourth place result at Indy which was only because of some late race fluky cautions. He had a top two car if not for that.
Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate in Kyle Larson also should be a factor. He was runner-up to Elliott in COTA, won in both Sonoma and Watkins Glen and if not for late race contract with Alex Bowman in Road America, he was going to finish in the top three or four that day as well. He was also third in Indy but for the same reasons as Elliott, the late race carnage hurt his strategy for an easy victory.
Elliott and Larson have finished 1-2 four times already this year with three of them being on road courses and if Indy went right, would be four.
Counting Joe Gibbs Racing, them and HMS have combined to win each of the last 10 road course races and went 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 in Watkins Glen and were 1-2-3-4-5-6 in Indy before the late race cautions.
Throw in Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) who was aligned with JGR, these three teams have won 13 of the last 15 road course races. The only ones they didn’t win was when Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) was victorious in 2018 on the Charlotte ROVAL when Truex was crashed in the final turn on the final lap and AJ Allmendinger at Indy when Denny Hamlin was spun out of the way by Chase Briscoe and that comes after the two HMS cars saw the strategy flipped or else it would be 15 straight.
That’s why I say road courses aren’t so wild with you already knowing that between the eight cars at HMS and JGR, these are the ones to beat at the moment.
Will The New Car Close The Gap To HMS?
Hendrick Motorsports has a stranglehold on the competition in terms of road courses lately. Chase Elliott won both road course races in 2020, he won the final two of 2019 and should have won the Daytona road course back in February. He would win the second road course race of the season in COTA for what should have been his sixth straight win on these tracks. Kyle Larson beat Elliott in Sonoma while Elliott beat him in COTA. In Watkins Glen it was another 1-2 result for the duo except it being Larson beating Elliott. Same for the Indy road course in what should have been another Larson-Elliott 1-2 result for a second straight week.
The last time they’ve been beaten on pure pace was arguably 2019 in Sonoma. You’d have to go back to Sonoma in 2018 too as the only instances they’ve look inferior and in those races, Joe Gibbs Racing was the superior team.
With that said, they’ll likely be untouchable in the final road course race this season, so with a new car coming out in 2022, is that going to be the equalizer?
This current car isn’t designed to run on this many road courses. It was build for ovals. This new car will be better adapted to road racing which could negate HMS’ advantage.
But, will it?
Option Tire Needed For NASCAR Races?
Formula 1 has it. They’ve got like three options for tires during the course for a race weekend. The NTT IndyCar Series has it to. They have a Black tire (primary) and Red tire (alternate). The options for both series are for alternate tires to be faster in speed but fall off faster too. The primary tires are slower, but they last longer.
It calls for strategy options. Is it time for NASCAR to find one?
I mean, it couldn’t hurt and with a new car coming out, this may be the time to try it. It could help shake up the field with varying strategies and help add another layer to help road courses out some.
It could create some drama that keeps you in turn from the start to the finish. I mean, the INDYCAR races that I cover are wild due to this. Pit strategy and tire options are a real thing and help play the race out differently than it normally would be.
I mean, with stages now, it’s completely altered the way road racing has evolved. In the past, you could go off strategy on road courses and create some new ways to the front. Now, everyone knows when at least two of the cautions are coming and plan accordingly.
With two different tire options for a race, it could shake that up some in the middle of these stages I feel.
Can JGR Turn ROVAL Struggles Around?
Over the last couple of season, JGR is the second best team in terms of road course performance. The thing is, the Charlotte ROVAL has been a thorn in their side. Can they turn those struggles around this weekend?
Martin Truex Jr. has been the best on the ROVAL with what should have been a win in the inaugural race of 2018 and a top 10 last year, but on the season, he’s had just two top five finishes in six road course races.
Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the complete opposite. Hamlin has four top eights in six tries this year himself in what should be five if the ending at Indy goes differently. On the ROVAL, his finishes are 12th, 19th and 15th respectively.
Same for Busch. In Charlotte, Busch has finished a dismal 32nd, 37h and 30th respectively. On road courses this season, he’s been 10th, fifth, third, fourth and 20th respectively and the only reason he was 20th in Indy was due to getting collected in that big late race crash when the curbing broke. He was in the top five at that point too. So, which is it? Past stats at Charlotte or current stats on the season?
Christopher Bell has one ROVAL start but has been solid on road courses this year with a win in Daytona, a runner-up in Road America and what should have been top fives in both Watkins Glen and Indy.
Can they turn this into success this weekend? If not, what are they missing to the Hendrick camp?
Who Advances To The Round of 8?
Five of the last seven years have seen someone new bump their ways back in on the final race of the second round. It didn’t happen last year. Will it on Sunday?
The largest margin someone made up without winning though was 19 points. So, for someone new to make it back in, it would have to be historic since only Kevin Harvick (-9) is below the cut line and within striking distance.
Plus, you have to go through Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing to win Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN). The last time someone had more speed than HMS was in Sonoma of 2019. In fact, the 2018 and 2019 Sonoma races as well as the 2018 one on this ROVAL were the only times in the last 14 races that anyone had more pure speed than HMS drivers on road courses and in those three races, JGR was the top dog.
The 2017 Watkins Glen race was a JGR alliance team as the top team that day so really it’s 15 straight races these have been the most dominating programs with this package.
So, if you’re someone like who are likely needing to win this weekend, there’s a tall task ahead.
Plus if you are to bump your way in, you’re going to have to do so against the last two Cup champions.
Kyle Busch won the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series championship. Chase Elliott won the title a year later. Now, both are in danger of at least one of them not making it to the Round of 8 this time around. Both escaped Talladega but each also won the final two spots into the third round as well with just one race remaining in the Round of 12.
Busch, was only 27th when the checkered flag was displayed over the red on Monday. He lost a ton of points in the process in going from +35 to +9 heading into the Charlotte ROVAL. That has him in a tie for Elliott for seventh. Is he in danger of not making it on to the third round for the second straight year? He was 27th in this race last year with five of his last six Fall Talladega races being 26th or worse.
Elliott, went three straight years into the Round of 8 before his title last November. Will he get eliminated? He was only 18th on Monday and now has three of his final playoff finishes being 18th or worse.
But, Elliott unlike Busch, is probably looking forward to the ROVAL on Sunday. He’s won each of the last two years there and has six road course wins in the last 10 tries on them. In the races he didn’t win, he dominated at Daytona but a fluke caution for rain in the closing laps ruined his chances while leading back in February. He was second in Sonoma, second in Watkins Glen and fourth in Indy.
Busch meanwhile, has never finished better than 30th in three ROVAL starts. On road courses this year, he was 35th, 10th, 5th, 3rd, 4th and 20th though, so if he can stay out of trouble, he has a good chance of holding the four outside looking in off.
That’s because three of them really are facing must wins. Christopher Bell is -28, William Byron is -44 and Alex Bowman -52. The thing is, all three are more than capable of winning at Charlotte.
Bell, won in Daytona, was runner-up in Road America and had a top three car in Watkins Glen. Byron, has a pair of sixth place finishes in his last two ROVAL starts while Bowman was fourth, second and eighth there respectively himself.
Harvick (-9) is the only other driver who can make something happen and while he’s been ninth, third and 11th respectively at the ROVAL, he’s the only winless driver on the season left as he’s not won in over a year (38 races) to go along with being sixth, 37th, 22nd, 27th, 8th and 14th respectively on road courses this season.
The only driver able to really catch Busch or Elliott on points is Harvick and he’s not likely to do so. Harvick, has two finishes better than fourth all year.
I feel like the eight with how we stand now will remain that way when it’s all said and done on Sunday.