Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – With the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff cutoff race upon us, four of the biggest names in the sport are teetering on the brink of “we’ll get ‘em next year” as the championship contender list is officially cut from 16 drivers to 12 following Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course (at 2 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The debut of the 2.28-mile circuit – road course with a touch of oval – is either highly anticipated or highly feared, depending on you who speak with. A good attitude will be essential, however, for those drivers with championship hopes on the line. Their fate rides on this presently untested race venue – the first road course in the history of NASCAR’s Playoffs.
Three of the bottom four ranked Playoff drivers – 13th ranked Clint Bowyer, 14th ranked Jimmie Johnson and 16th ranked Denny Hamlin – are experienced veterans who have won or challenged for championships. And the other, 15th ranked Erik Jones, 22, was having the best season of his young career. … up until the Playoffs started.
“Bring on the ROVAL,” Johnson said on Twitter following his eighth-place finish Saturday night in Richmond Raceway – acknowledging that his fate will now be determined at the venue.
And this won’t be unique to this to this first round of the Playoffs. There are wild card races on the circuit’s most unpredictable venues in each of the three rounds leading up to the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Charlotte’s ROVAL decides this opening round. The Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway is the big unknown in the Round of 12 in three weeks and then the new-look ISM Raceway in Phoenix sets the final four – the track debuting its own newly renovated look and the Start-Finish line moving to what used to be the back straightaway.
But first, this group of preseason title favorites must navigate their way up through the bottom of the standings this week on a configuration that has never hosted a Monster Energy Series race before, much less served as a championship cut-off. The right attitude will likely be as important as horsepower and navigation skill for these drivers, in particular.
Bowyer, who sits four points out of the 12-man Playoff field entering the Charlotte race, has one victory (Fall, 2012) at Charlotte, but has only led four laps there since that win. His last top-10 at Charlotte was an eighth-place in 2013.
As for road course racing, Bowyer does have a victory at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway in 2012 and 10 top-10 finishes in 13 starts there. He was runner-up in 2017 and finished third this summer. He is winless, however, at the Monster Energy Series’ other road course, in Watkins Glen, N.Y. His best showing there is a fourth-place in 2012.
Just behind Bowyer in the standings is Johnson in 14th place. He trails 12th place Ryan Blaney by only six points. And while obviously, this week’s trip to Charlotte features a new track dimension, Johnson has proven to be one of the very best at Charlotte Motor Speedway with eight wins – most among anyone in this weekend’s field. His last win was the Fall, 2016 race. And he has 21 top-10s in 34 career starts. His fifth place there this Spring is one of only two top-fives he’s had in 2018.
Johnson’s only road course win was at Sonoma in 2010, although he’s had nine top-10s in 17 starts there. His showing at Watkins Glen has been a little less stellar. He has eight top-10s in 17 starts and was 30th last month.
Of the two drivers – Jones and Hamlin – essentially needing a victory to advance in the Playoffs, Hamlin has proven himself a road course favorite while Jones has definitely worked on his learning curve.
Jones, who is 21-points south of the cutoff line, finished 19th at Charlotte this Spring. His seventh place at Sonoma in June is his best in two outings at that road course. He has two top-10s in two starts at Watkins Glen highlighted by a fifth place this year.
Hamlin, who is 29-points behind 12th place Blaney, is winless on the Charlotte oval but finished among the top-five in the last three races there – leading laps in the last four races there. He won at Watkins Glen in 2016 and won the pole position there this summer. He is winless at Sonoma, but finished runner-up in 2016 and has led laps in the last three races there.
As for Blaney, the Team Penske driver’s best road course finishes are ninth at Sonoma in 2017 and eighth at Watkins Glen that same year.
Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman has only a one-point edge on Blaney in the standings – five points ahead of 13th place Bowyer. He was ninth at Charlotte earlier this season and ninth again at Sonoma – his career-best road course showing.
“I think surviving is just the biggest thing,” Johnson said of the challenge in front of him this week. “We will just go there and give 100 percent and do what we can.
“It’s been one of those years, but we are going to go down swinging to the bitter end.”