CONCORD, North Carolina — Kyle Larson is a marketing sign away from being a member of the third round in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. That sign is the reason as to why Christopher Bell is still dancing. Take that moment away, Chase Elliott has 5 more playoff points to his total, Larson is the 3rd Hendrick Motorsports car in the Round of 8 and Daniel Suarez is the story of the day with his power steering as the reason to why Chase Briscoe made up 12 points on him to advance to the second to last round.
On Lap 103 of the scheduled 109 lap elimination race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, Elliott was well ahead enough to beat AJ Allmendinger for his 2nd straight win in the round and 3rd here in the last 4 years. That would have tied him with Tony Stewart for 8 road course wins which would rank 2nd, only behind Jeff Gordon (9) for most ever.
However, that marketing sign…
“Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) called a great race,” Elliott said. “Our No. 9 Chevy wasn’t great, but it was plenty good enough to win. Our team called a perfect race to get us the lead, and our pit stops were really good to not to have any mistakes and get us a really nice cushion. We had a lot of laps on our tires, but I could maintain my pace out there with having a nice gap. We’ll try again next week.”
Some drivers say it was there for a while. Some say they’re not sure when it popped up. Nevertheless, a sign without any lettering on that side, a sign of bad luck to whoever’s company was supposed to be on it, was arguably as bad luck for them as it was for Larson and others.
If that sign isn’t on the track, the race is arguably going the distance without a caution. We made it that far with the only 2 stoppages being for stage breaks. It took a fluke for the race to get completely turned on its head.
If that sign doesn’t happen to be on the track, even with being 5 laps down, Larson advances. That sign allowed a change in the direction of how this race was run.
Bell, who was running 6th, pit for new tires. He was now in 11th. It allowed Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe to now have cars around them to make up ground quicker than they would have if the final 6 laps went the distance without a yellow interruption.
The restart saw Allmendinger drive it in deep. Kevin Harvick followed. Elliott was pushed wide. Harvick snuck by both. Tyler Reddick who was 4th moved into 3rd ahead of Allmendinger and Elliott forced his way back to 2nd behind Harvick.
Reddick made an overzealous move but spun Elliott.
“I thought I had a pretty good launch (on the second-to-last restart) and thought I got through (turns) 1 and 2 good,” Elliott said. “I thought I gave AJ (Allmendinger) enough room through one and two to not run into the fence. I don’t know if he just got loose, overdrove Turn 3 or whatever, but I ended up on the outside. Whatever the reason, he ran wide and I ended up the track in a super compromised situation.”
“With those restarts, I knew I was kind of used up already,” Allmendinger said of his side. “I got a good restart there and when Chase and I touched kind of through (Turn) two, I went to set up for three and it turned me sideways and I slid a little more. That was unfortunate because that allowed (Kevin Harvick) to get to my bumper and we know Kevin is going to do that if he gets any chance. That’s a part of racing and going for the win.”
All this chaos allowed Bell on fresher tires to move up to 3rd. Briscoe was spun by Erik Jones. The curbing was damaged.
Now Bell who had just passed Reddick was 2nd and lining up on the front row next to Harvick. He had 30+ lap fresher tires but didn’t necessarily want a yellow.
“Yeah, just because restarts are so hectic and crazy here at the Roval,” he said on why a caution could have hurt him there. “We see so many pileups getting into turn one. I knew I had a big advantage, regardless if it went green or there was a yellow and I was restarting on the front row. I knew that I had the advantage.
“But I felt like there were a lot more obstacles outside of my control that could take me out of it once the yellow flag flew. But fortunately it was pretty calm. The front row was able to get away. I didn’t have to worry about guys behind me putting me three-wide.
“It ended up being smooth sailing. But I did not expect that to be the case. I thought we would be three- or four-wide getting into turn one.”
Cindric was now in a position to pass Larson for the 8th and final spot while Larson was pinned 5 laps down still without any positions to gain.
The final restart was as chaotic as the one before it. Bell got by, several cars spun, Cindric was then spun by Jones in the same spot Briscoe was, Briscoe’s teammate Cole Custer was slowing up Jones and Austin Dillon on the final lap to allow Briscoe to get by all 3 and finish 2 points ahead of Larson in the end to bump Larson out…
“I knew we were going to have to have a perfect corner there with Christopher having such fresher tires,” said Harvick. “He was able to get through traffic and was able to roll through a little bit more speed in Turn 1, 2, 3 and 4 and just got in front of me, but we were able to hold Kyle off so it’s still a good day. Our guys did a great job of putting us in position and having a chance. We were half a lap there from being in the right spot. It didn’t all work out but still a good day. I knew we were in a bit of a pickle there with Christopher on new tires and I just didn’t want to blow the first corner, I wanted to give us a chance he was just able to roll more speed than we were and from there it was just kind of like damage control and make sure you bring the thing home and that’s what we did. They did a good job. They got us in position and that caution coming out killed us there. We were half a lap from coming to the white and caution, so they did a good job.”
Bell won to force his way in and the rest is history….
“Yeah, man, what a wild day,” Briscoe said. “It took every bit of it there at the end. To be easily in, then that debris caution comes out (on Lap 104). Still, I thought we had a really good shot of making it in. Get wrecked on the backstretch. Crazy at the end of these races, especially the road course races, how much can change so quickly.
“I had no idea we were even going to have a shot (on the final restart). Truthfully, I knew we were probably out. I saw the 2 (Cindric) wreck, I thought maybe there’s still a chance. We had so much fresher tires than anybody. (Crew chief) Johnny (Klausmeier) pumped them way up to qualifying pressures, let me go attack, have the ball in my hands.”
While the sign is one thing, Larson still took responsibility for the reason he’s not in.
“I just made way too many mistakes all year long,” Larson said. “Made another one today. Ultimately cost us an opportunity to go chase another championship.
“Just extremely mad at myself. I let the team down a number of times this year, and let them down in a big way today.”
That sign still changed an otherwise tame elimination race.
“I didn’t see it coming,” Bell admitted. “Like, the road courses all year long, we had not been strong. Normally they’re good for me. Last year with the Gen-6 car, got my first road course win, competed for several more wins. But this year just wasn’t happening.
“But with that being said, you see races all the time where the fastest car doesn’t win. I did keep reminding myself that; that we’re not expecting to be a dominant car or a race-winning car, but as long as you’re there at the end of the race, as long as you hang out, put yourself in position, you never know what’s going to happen.
“It worked out we were the first car on tires and I was able to carve through them. Today we were not the fastest car, but we put ourselves in position. My crew chief made a great call to put tires on, and it worked out where we won the race.
“We were there at the end.”
With that said, this chaotic finish overshadows the first 104 laps of the race.
That’s because with stage breaks, everyone knew when and where the cautions would occur. So with a tame race in nature and the 6th year of racing on road courses with stages involved, the teams and drivers are just too smart to know when and when not to push. With a Next Gen car suited to handle better on road courses, this is exactly what you get.
They handle better. They perform better. The old car wasn’t suited for road courses like this one.
You saw drivers not caring for points pit at the end of both stages to forego points for track position. The drivers needing points mostly all took them which flipped them behind those that pit towards the end of each stage at the beginning of the next.
As far as what could fix road course races for the future? Maybe the debut of an option tire.
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?
Several drivers I talked to say it couldn’t hurt and would be an interesting wrinkle to improve the racing on these tracks. It would allow for strategy plays and ones that would spice the racing up.
I mean, with a new car now, 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.
“It’s so hard to calculate that out, I mean, when you’re dealing with one or two points, like I said, there at the end. I needed one or two points,” Austin Cindric said. “That one or two points we thought we were going to get, we had some cars we probably didn’t anticipate staying out in stage two that we didn’t think their priority was going to be stage points.
“Miscommunication or a bad call, whatever you want to call it. It’s tough when it is that one or two spot and you’re relying on other guys to make decisions that benefit you.”
Another question is if we should move this race back to the oval.
It’s no secret, road courses and short tracks have looked the worse in terms of the racing package this season. Which heading into this weekend, made me to wonder, how will a ROVAL look? Indianapolis was just alright back in July. If Charlotte looks pedestrian or even a stinker, the question has to come up on if they should run twice here on the oval again?
After Sunday’s race, that question is even louder now.
“It was the type of day where basically wherever you got placed on the track was where you were going to run, unless someone made a mistake in front of you,” said Denny Hamlin. “We preferred that kind of day even though it is what it is even though our team did a great job with strategy and making sure that we junked stage two when we saw we weren’t going to get stage points there. Those guys that were in front of us most of the day ended up behind us and nobody could pass so it worked out nicely for us.”
This intermediate package for the Next Gen has worked. The Coca-Cola 600 produced one of the better races on the oval here in a while. 31 lead changes with a margin of victory of .119-seconds.
It makes you wonder if we could just race twice here on the oval again. However, with NASCAR taking more and more dates away from tracks with 2 races, would Charlotte balk at that in order to keep being unique too?
I don’t necessarily see NASCAR putting 2 oval races at Charlotte and one of which being in the playoffs, especially with Texas being there too.
Texas lost a date already. Bristol has the dirt race for the spring weekend. 2 of the same races at Charlotte may not be enough.
However, this is NASCAR’s base though and 2 races including 1 in the playoffs makes the most sense too no matter what layouts they use. Plus, this race on Sunday was terrible as a cut race without much action before that caution and more about strategy than anything else.