CONCORD, NC — The same eight drivers that came into Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 on the good side of the cutline in terms of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs leave with their championship aspirations still in tact. But, the Round of 12 cutrace at the Charlotte Motor Speedway was as entertaining as advertised.
Chase Elliott was in, then out and back in. Kevin Harvick was the opposite. Christopher Bell, William Byron and Alex Bowman had to win. One of them nearly did. Instead, it was the same eight moving onto the third round of the Cup playoffs with dreams of hoisting a trophy in four weeks in the Arizona desert.
For Bell, his day was pretty much over before it began. The box score says he finished eighth, but it was far from a clean day in his No. 20 Toyota. The Oklahoma native was speeding on pit road on Lap 8. He went off course in Turn 6. His car just never had enough as he had no stage points in Sunday’s race despite three top eight finishes in six playoff races run, he’s eliminated in the second round.
“Two words, rear grip. I don’t know we just couldn’t quite hit it,” Bell said. “We were struggled and I made a lot of mistakes driving too, but ultimately we weren’t fast enough to go up there and compete for the win. Came away with an eighth place finish, which is a lot better than it was looking like we were going to have today.”
Bowman, also had a day that needed a rebound. After a 14th place finish in Stage 1, he had voltage issues early on in the second segment. The Hendrick Motorsports driver came down pit road under caution on Lap 33 to hope to change out batteries and rectify the problem at hand. It didn’t solve much. He’d have to battle that issue all race but still remarkably came away with a top 10 in his No. 48 Chevrolet when it was all said and done.
“Pretty early, I would assume,” Bowman said. “I probably don’t catch that until it’s been a bit, right? I’m not sitting thee staying at the volt gauge. But there pretty early, we knew we had a volt issue. It acted like it threw the belt, So, we came down and put a belt on it and it didn’t. Don’t know what we had going on, but it’s unfortunate. It’s tough to make a car live long here without any brake fans and tire cooling, but Greg (Ives, crew chief) and all the guys on the No. 48 Ally team did such a good job letting me know what I needed to do to get it to the finish line and what I could and couldn’t do with fans; and we put a battery in it at one point and kind of went from there. I hate it. I’m glad we got a top 10. I’m exhausted.
“I’m just mentally drained after the roller coaster that was. But it’s good to get a top 10. I wish we had more.”
It was an unfortunate early exit for the driver as he had hopes of making a deep playoff push. Bowman, had three wins by time we reached the midway mark of the season with five top fives in the first 18 races. Over the next 13, he had just two. With results of 22nd and 38th in this round prior to his top 10 on Sunday, that was enough to eliminate him.
Same for Byron. He started the year off with a win in the third event of the season to go along with 14 top 10’s in the opening 18 races of the season. The only times he didn’t get a top 10 was at Daytona on the superspeedway and road course, Sonoma and COTA. Take the wildcard races out, his No. 24 Chevrolet was a top 10 machine.
That’s why it was ironic that the North Carolina native needed a win on a road course to keep his championship hopes alive. The reason he was even in this position was due to over the last 13 races entering Sunday, he had just a pair of top fives and only three top 10’s.
That’s why he dropped so hard in the playoff standings.
Still, Byron had the car to beat on Sunday. He led a race-high 30 laps and if not for how the ending transpired, maybe he could have won and stamped his name into the Round of 8 for the first time of his career.
“It was great. We had a really good car in two of the three races in this Round and today we had an amazing car, probably capable of winning, but just didn’t have things go our way there,” he said. “At that point when I got up to third, my tires were shot, and there were only two laps to go. I wasn’t going to win, and made a mistake to not finish third, but at that point I was just mad.”
The reason he was even put in a compromising position in the end was due to the drama surrounding Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick. The two tangled in Bristol in which Harvick cut down Elliott’s tire due to late race contact and Elliott took it upon himself to take away Harvick’s line while trying to also allow his teammate Kyle Larson to close in at the end. It worked. Harvick took offense.
Harvick, got revenge on Lap 54 by purposely running over Elliott and sending him into the Turn 8 wall as a result. Elliott, had a badly damaged rear end of his No. 9 Chevrolet. Despite pitting multiple times to get it correct, the bumper would dangle for several laps.
NASCAR never black flagged him to come down and fix it and that bumper eventually fell off causing the seventh caution of the day on Lap 86. With Byron having last pit on Lap 75 and still having 21 laps remaining, he and most everyone elected to hit pit lane on Lap 87 to ensure they had better Goodyear tires for the ending.
Denny Hamlin, Matt DiBenedetto and Anthony Alfredo stayed out. Kurt Busch and Tyler Reddick beat Byron off pit road. So, instead of leading and having this race and his championship hopes still in his control, he was now chasing again.
He quickly moved up. A couple of laps into the run, he was second. Then, Reddick pushed him too hard entering the backstretch chicane which forced his car to overshoot the corner entry. He lost several spots in the process.
Meanwhile, Harvick crashed on his own doing on Lap 98. That gave Byron a mulligan. He used it to his advantage and cruised up to third again. While pushing too hard in the closing laps, he got off course with two-to-go and his day and championship aspirations were dashed.
Now, it’s down to the final eight. Four races remain in the season.