Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – CHARLOTTE, NC – The first elimination race of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is set for Sunday, September 30 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, the first road course the sport has ever included in its championship Playoffs.
There are many unknowns with so much on the line – from the track to the championship implications as four of the sport’s most accomplished and popular drivers sit on the verge of elimination, most likely needing a victory or a top-five finish to continue their Playoff run.
High drama and intrigue are expected in the Bank of America Roval 400. And the prevailing competitive philosophy for so many of the drivers seems to be that a positive attitude toward this unknown ROVAL circuit will go a long way.
Two-time winner this season, Clint Bowyer, seven-time Monster Energy Series champion Jimmie Johnson, this summer’s Daytona winner Erik Jones and perennial Playoff contender Denny Hamlin are the four drivers hoping to avoid elimination. Ryan Blaney sits only four points ahead of Bowyer in the 12th and final Playoff transfer position. Alex Bowman has only a five-point edge on elimination and Chase Elliott and Austin Dillon are tied, only 10 points to the good.
“At this point in the season, we need a win, and that’s how we can continue to chase down a Championship,” said Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota who is ranked 16th – 29-points behind 12th place Blaney.
“We obviously have not been performing the way we’ve hoped to in this first Round (of the Playoffs), but anything can happen at the Roval this weekend. When we tested there earlier this year I thought we were one of the best cars, we just need to set ourselves up to qualify well so we can be out front.”
The 17-turn, 2.28-mile course that NASCAR breaks in this week makes use of a new infield road course as well as the high-banked Charlotte Motor Speedway. And only Playoff winners Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Kyle Busch (Richmond, Va.) and Martin Truex Jr. have already secured their spot in the next round with either a win or enough points to guarantee their position. Kevin Harvick, a seven-time winner this season, needs only to start at Charlotte to join them.
Fifth and sixth place Joey Logano and Aric Almirola have 25 and 23-point cushions, respectively in the Playoff points. Seventh place Kyle Larson holds a 17-point edge to the good and eighth place Kurt Busch is 15-points ahead of the cutoff line.
There are plenty of opinions about having such a unique new track at such a crucial time in the Playoff portion of the schedule. Fans are excited and the drivers are motivated.
“The ‘ROVAL’ is such an unknown,” said Johnson, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet who sits six points behind 12th place Blaney.
“All I have to go on is our test session and we actually had a really good test in July, so maybe there’s a chance for us to get a win. It’s going to be exciting for the fans and could switch up the Playoff picture for sure.
“Even though we had a solid night in Richmond, we are still on the outside looking in. 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. Hopefully we can survive to see another round.”
XFINITY CHAMPIONSHIP CONTINUES
Christopher Bell’s victory in the Richmond, Raceway Playoff opener last weekend puts him on a good track to become the third Sunoco rookie champion in the last five seasons (William Byron, 2017, Chase Elliott, 2014).
It marked his fifth win of the season – tying him for most wins with veteran Justin Allgaier. And it gives him a large championship lead of 28-points over Daniel Hemric in second, 34-points over Allgaier in third and 37-points over Ross Chastain in fourth.
Bell’s five victories ties him with Greg Biffle (2001), Kyle Busch (2004) and Carl Edwards (2005) for most ever by a series rookie.
This Saturday’s Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course for the Drive for the Cure 200 (at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR) presents a unique first-time championship challenge. However this series has raced on more road courses than any of NASCAR’s three premier series. Joey Logano won at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and Allgaier won both at Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake, Wisc. In the last 10 years there have been nine first-time series winners in road course events.