Elliott in, Blaney hoping for a calmer cut race heading to the Charlotte ROVAL on Sunday

Chase Elliott has won 2 of the last 3 races on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. He enters Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN) as the latest winner in the NASCAR Cup Series at that and is the only playoff driver to have won a postseason race so far. With a stage win in Talladega too, he now has 46 playoff points and aiming for at least 5 more on Sunday.

Can he pull it off?

“At Talladega, we just wanted to have a solid day and try to get as many points as we could,” Elliott said. “Honestly, after that second stage, I was super happy with our day. Regardless of what happened from there, I thought we had done a really good job.

“We had gained some good stage points, and that was going to keep us in a position (where) we had hedged our bet to have a pretty solid points day regardless of how the finish ended up. To have the win on top of that was just icing on the cake.

“Now we can try to have a good weekend here at the ROVAL. Gives us an opportunity to short those stages and not have to go for stage points, and hopefully we have enough pace to fight for the win.”

Elliott may be winless in 5 road course races run this season, but it’s not like he hasn’t been close either. He was on the front row for the final restart at Road America. Tyler Reddick beat him. He was on the front row on the 2nd to last restart at Indy. He spun in Turn 1. He was on the front row again on the final restart at Watkins Glen. He was pushed off track by teammate Kyle Larson.

Can he restart on the front row for the final restart this weekend finally hold the field off? He’s due.

No matter what happens though, he’s into the Round of 8. Who will join him? Do we see another playoff driver clinch his way in via a trip to victory lane on the North Carolina road course?

The last two ROVAL race winners have gone on to win the championship with Six-times the winner of the sixth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs having go on to win the championship later that same season – once at Kansas Speedway, three-times at Martinsville Speedway and twice at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course: 

One championship eligible driver that won’t be is Alex Bowman. He saw a doctor on Tuesday who urged him not to get behind the wheel this Sunday. Bowman will heed the advise and skip Sundays elimination race which as a result ends his playoff run early.

As far as eligible drivers still, you have to start with the bowties as the favorites. Chevrolet has won each of the 5 road course races this season and the final 6 of 2021 for 11 straight wins on these tracks. Factor in the 2019 race at Watkins Glen (2 races in 2019) and the 2 races (Daytona, Charlotte) in 2020 and you get Chevy scoring 15 wins in the last 16 road course races in general.

Can they end up on top on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte?

Since the introduction of the ‘elimination style’ format of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2014, several drivers have raced their way into the Round of 8 in the sixth and final cutoff race of the Round of 12.

2014: Heading to Talladega (sixth race of the Playoffs) in 2014, Matt Kenseth was ranked ninth in the Playoff standings, one point back from the Round of 8 cutoff and Brad Keselowski was ranked 10th in the Playoff standings, 19 points behind the Round of 8 cutoff. Brad Keselowski won the race at Talladega and automatically advanced to the next round. Matt Kenseth finished second at Talladega and advanced on points to the Round of 8 knocking Kasey Kahne (12th-place finish at Talladega) and Kyle Busch (40th-place finish at Talladega) out of the Playoffs. Heading into the elimination race, Kyle Busch was second in the Playoff standings 26 points above the cutline and Kasey Kahne was eighth in the Playoff standings just one point above the Round of 8 cutoff.

2015: Heading to Talladega (sixth race of the Playoffs) in 2015, Kyle Busch was ranked ninth in the Playoff standings just six points back from the Round of 8 cutoff. Kyle Busch finished 11th at Talladega and advanced on points knocking his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (37th-place finish at Talladega due to an incident) out of the Playoffs. Heading into the elimination race, Denny Hamlin was second in the Playoff standings, 18 points above the Round of 8 cutoff.

2016: Heading to Talladega (sixth race of the Playoffs) in 2016, Denny Hamlin was ranked 10th in the Playoff standings, six points back from the Round of 8 cutoff. Hamlin went on to finish third at Talladega and advanced on points knocking Martin Truex Jr. (40th-place finish at Talladega due to an engine failure) out of the Playoffs. Heading into the elimination race, Martin Truex Jr. was sixth in the Playoff standings, 13 points above the Round of 8 cutoff.

2017: Heading to Kansas (sixth race of the Playoffs) in 2017, Kyle Busch was ranked ninth in the Playoff standings, seven points back from the Round of 8 cutoff. Busch went on to finish 10th at Kansas and advanced on points knocking Kyle Larson (39th-place finish at Kansas due to an engine failure) out of the Playoffs. Heading into the elimination race, Kyle Larson was third in the Playoff standings, 29 points above the Round of 8 cutoff.

2018: The four drivers below the Round of 8 cutline heading into the sixth race of the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at Kansas Speedway – Brad Keselowski (-1 point from cutoff), Ryan Blaney (-5), Kyle Larson (-19) and Alex Bowman (-51) – all failed to advance to the Round of 8 and were eliminated from the Playoffs following the Kansas race. At Kansas, Larson finished third, Keselowski finished sixth, Blaney finished seventh and Bowman finished ninth.

2019: Heading to Kansas Speedway (sixth race of the Playoffs) in 2019, Chase Elliott was ranked 10th in the Playoff standings, 15 points back from the Round of 8 cutoff. Elliott went on to finish second at Kansas and advanced on points knocking Brad Keselowski (19th-place finish at Kansas) out of the Playoffs. Heading into the elimination race, Keselowski was fifth in the Playoff standings, nine points above the Round of 8 cutoff.

2020: Heading to the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course (sixth race of the Playoffs) in 2020, Kurt Busch was ranked 10th in the Playoff standings, five points back from the Round of 8 cutoff. Kurt Busch went on to finish fourth in the Charlotte Road Course race and advanced on points knocking Austin Dillon (19th-place finish at the Charlotte ROVAL) out of the Playoffs. Heading into the elimination race, Dillon was eighth in the Playoff standings tied with Kyle Busch (ninth) on points (3,053 each) along the Round of 8 cutline.

2021: The four drivers below the Round of 8 cutline heading into the sixth race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course – Kevin Harvick (-9 points from cutoff), Christopher Bell (-28), William Byron (-44) and Alex Bowman (-52) – all failed to advance to the Round of 8 and were eliminated from the Playoffs following the Charlotte ROVAL race. At the Charlotte Road Course, Harvick finished 33rd, Bell finished eighth, Byron finished 11th and Bowman finished 10th.

Elliott is a favorite. Larson is too. He’s the defending race winner here and won the last road course race at Watkins Glen. So is the Trackhouse Racing duo of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. They’ve combined to have won 2 of the 5 road course races this year and both are primed to win again this weekend.

Chastain has 3 top 7 finishes in the last 4 weeks while Suarez has a pair of top 10’s in that span. Suarez won Sonoma, led every lap of the 1st stage in COTA, was 5th in Road America and lined up 5th on the final restart in Indy and finished 5th in Watkins Glen. Chastain was 1st in COTA this year, 7th in Sonoma and 4th in Road America. He crossed the finish line 2nd at Indy before his penalty was levied and only 21st in Watkins Glen. I still like him on these tracks.

By virtue of Byron getting his points back, Suarez is bumped from 7th to 8th as the last driver in. Can he stay above the cutline?

I think he can.

That’s 4 drivers right there that could take half of the 8 spots into the 3rd round. Who takes the other 4?

Ryan Blaney is hoping for a much calmer cut race. He had to sweat it out with damaged race cars in each of the last 2 go or go home races. He was caught up in a crash early on in Daytona for the regular season finale and took the 16th and final playoff spot. In Bristol, he dealt with cut tires and even though he was in the garage for over 100 laps, he narrowly escaped by. Blaney now has a top 5 in both Round of 12 races and sits +32 right now. His teammate Joey Logano went from the points lead to 5th (+18). Blaney has a top 10 in all 4 of his ROVAL starts and has a pair of 6th place finishes on road courses this season as well. Logano has had a top 10 in all four ROVAL starts including a runner-up in 2020. He was 6th in Indy and 3rd in Watkins Glen too.

Both should be safe.

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA – APRIL 03: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway on April 03, 2022 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Denny Hamlin is +21 and needs all of those points to sneak in. He knows road courses aren’t his strength with this new car. Hamlin was 18th, 31st, 17th, 14th and 20th on road races this season. He was also 12th, 19th, 15th and 5th in his 4 ROVAL races too. The thing is, it would be historic for him to get bumped out.

The largest margin someone from behind has come back from to get into the Round of 8 was 19. Hamlin is +21 above the cut.

That puts it down to 4 drivers for 1 spot.

1 of the 4 is a must-win. Christopher Bell is -45.

Bell was 3rd, 27th, 18th, 12th and 8th on road courses this season. He did win the Daytona ROVAL a year ago, and on the Charlotte ROVAL, he was eighth.

Can he pick up the win?

From there it’s down to Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and William Byron. Each are separated by 14 points with Cindric and Briscoe tied for the first spot out.

Briscoe hasn’t had great stats on road courses this season but he’s a good road racer. Cindric was 8th, 5th, 7th, 2nd and 13th on 5 road courses in 2022. Ryan Blaney is a previous winner here and has finished 8th, 5th and 9th respectively since. Byron was sixth, sixth and 11th in his last three ROVAL starts. The only thing is, he’s not had a top 5 in any of the five road course races this season with a best result of 9th. So while he can be solid, no top 5’s here and no top 5’s on road courses in general in 2022 leave him questionable list.

“Stay out of trouble,” Briscoe said. “There can be a lot of chaos at the ROVAL, just like we see at superspeedways and some of the bigger tracks. You can lose a ton of positions on restarts and certain turns. If you miss a turn, it can put you behind. 

“We just need to run a good race and stay out of trouble. We’re not in a terrible position to be able to advance, but we also can’t have a bad day. It’s tough to gain points, but all it takes is us not getting stage points and one of the guys in the bottom spots winning to knock us out.” 

5 of the last 8 years have seen someone new bump their ways back in on the final race of the second round. It didn’t happen however the last 2 years though. Will it on Sunday?

The largest margin someone made up without winning though was 19 points. 2 of the 4 drivers below the cutline are within that margin.

There’s also the possibility of a non-playoff driver winner again.

4 of the 5 races run so far in the postseason haven’t been won by a championship eligible either. 3 non-Playoff drivers have won the sixth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs:

  • Jeff Gordon (2005) won the Playoff race at Martinsville Speedway he was ranked 15th in the series standings at the time of the win.
  • Clint Bowyer (2011) won the Playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway he was ranked 13th in the series standings at the time of the win.
  • Jamie McMurray (2013) won the Playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway he was ranked 14th in the series standings at the time of the win.

As you can see, it hasn’t happened since the new format was adopted in 2014 and none of the previous four were at Charlotte on the ROVAL. So, does that likely means the winner on Sunday will be among the 12 drivers left in the playoff field?

AJ Allmendinger won Indy last year, was in the top 3 on the final lap in COTA, was in the top 10 late in the race at Sonoma, finished 9th in Road America, 7th at Indy again in July and runner-up at Watkins Glen. On top of that, he has 3 straight Xfinity Series wins on this track as well.

Chris Buescher’s last 4 road course finishes read: 2nd (Sonoma), 6th (Road America), 10th (Indianapolis) and 9th (Watkins Glen). He finished 3rd a year ago.

Tyler Reddick has won 2 of the last 3 road course races and was runner-up here in 2021.

Michael McDowell is a road racer by nature and has 4 top 10’s on them this season including a 3rd in Sonoma and 6th the last time out in Watkins Glen. He has 5 top 11 finishes in his last 7 starts on the season including a 3rd place effort last Sunday in Talladega.

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