Sunday, 21 October 2018

Hallman: Roval a home run, but NASCAR’s timing turns it into a single

Hallman: Roval a home run, but NASCAR’s timing turns it into a single
04 Oct

For the first 102 of the 109 laps of NASCAR Cup Series racing on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, I was feeling smug.

Before the race, I had been saying (and tweeting and Facebook-posting) that predictions of a “wreckfest” were unduly alarmist.

Sure, I said, the first race for stock cars on the 2.28-mile course incorporating a twisting infield road course with most of the track’s traditional oval would be a challenge, but predictions of mayhem were out of order.

These drivers are professionals, I said. It’s not like the 1960s, when the NASCAR regulars didn’t like road courses and did not take them seriously.

Back then, a great road racer like Dan Gurney could make the NASCAR regulars look like amateurs. From 1963 through 1968, Gurney won five of six at Riverside International Raceway, his only loss due to an engine failure.

Nowadays the NASCAR Cup roster is full of drivers who know how to navigate a road course. They take lessons; they test on road courses; they drive simulators; they run the occasional event in other disciplines that give them extra road racing experience.

So no, I said, they’re not going to look stupid on the Roval.

Well, here’s an excerpt of what Kyle Busch — perhaps the most versatile driver in all of NASCAR — had to say after Lap 103: “I guess all of us are just stupid and don’t know where to brake for the corner.”

For 102 laps, Busch and the rest of the field had handled the track with aplomb. There were some routine spinouts, but nothing outrageous. Those highly trained professionals ran two-wide, even three-wide when necessary. They had mastered the Roval and the racing was spirited.

But on a Lap 103 restart, with time running out to be the driver to win the first Cup race on the course, and with NASCAR playoff positions at stake, everything changed.

The field charged into the sharp left turn entering the infield portion of the course, and leader Brad Keselowski, who had raced brilliantly to make it to the front, locked his brakes and slid straight into the wall.

And — OMG! — the rest of the field followed him like lemmings. One after another, they hit the wall and each other. In all, 14 cars were damaged. Six of them, including the cars driven by Keselowski and Busch, were done for the day.

Maybe Busch was being sarcastic about stupid drivers. He mentioned that perhaps they didn’t allow for worn tires, but maybe Busch was really questioning whether the track had been adequately cleaned from a previous crash that led to the Lap 103 restart.

In any case, the big crash left an indelible stamp on the inaugural Roval event. The previous 102 laps notwithstanding, it will be remembered as a wreckfest after all.

After safety crews and tow trucks cleared the track and racing resumed, the final laps provided even more bang-up thrills. Jimmie Johnson, running second and determined to end the longest losing streak of his career, eliminated himself from the playoffs by crashing into leader Martin Truex Jr. in sight of the finish line.

Ryan Blaney drove by Johnson and Truex to win. Kyle Larson, his Chevrolet so mangled in the Lap 103 crash that he was bouncing off the walls in order to make turns, passed enough cars in the last-lap chaos to get into the playoffs ahead of Johnson.

So, yes, that’s how the inaugural Roval race will be remembered vividly.

However, before all that happened, it had been a great race of another kind. For most of the race whoever led was under pressure from at least one rival. With about 25 laps to go, Larson and Keselowski went at each other through turn after turn, trading the lead back and forth as they snaked around the course. It was a duel as good as racing ever gets on any course.

That’s the kind of thing I hope to see when we have Roval II next October — and no one doubts there will be a Roval II.

Even the TV ratings were up, a rare thing for a NASCAR race these days. According to NBC, the 1.99 overnight rating was up 10 percent from 2017.

The crowd wasn’t all that great, but Charlotte’s fall event has not been a hot ticket in recent years. Next October’s turnout will be a better measure of the success of Sunday’s race and how it galvanized interest among longtime fans and those who are new to the sport.

Which makes one wonder why NASCAR chose Wednesday of this week to release its Cup Series 2019 rules package.

Some of the rules changes, all about horsepower and aerodynamics, are expected to be significant. Immediately, talk among the NASCAR faithful veered away from Sunday’s race to a debate over whether NASCAR had made mistakes with this or that new regulation.

I am no racing engineer. To form an opinion on the rules, I’ll want to see what happens on the track in 2019.

But I do have an opinion about NASCAR’s timing.

Couldn’t you guys have waited a week? You’ll rarely have a race that generates as much interest and excitement as did Roval I.

You could’ve put that rules-package news release back on the shelf for a few days and let the Roval rule.



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