CONCORD, N.C. — The new Charlotte Motor Speedway road course race, an elimination event of all things in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, could have crossed the line from cool and innovative to ridiculous.
Thankfully, it did not. So Sunday was a win for NASCAR at a time when it could really use it.
“Change is important for us, and this is something I felt was good, and certainly I think at the end of the day people would vote that it was some race and some finish,” team owner Roger Penske said.
Penske had reason to think that way considering his driver, Ryan Blaney, won the inaugural Bank of America Roval 400.
But this was more than just another race. NASCAR, plagued by sagging attendance and television ratings, desperately needed a boost. In the hallways of its corporate office, a new president (Steve Phelps) takes charge Monday and hopefully that means some clear minds and fresh ideas.
The race Sunday featured not-so-clear minds and fresh ideas on the new 2.28-mile road course. Thank goodness.
“I guess all of us are just stupid and don’t know where to break for the corner considering what our tires look like and so we just all drove off into a 90-degree wall for something to do because we had nothing else better to do,” Busch said.
“That kind of sucked.”
That set up a dramatic finish, with a restart with three laps remaining. Several playoff drivers were wounded, just hoping to get to the end and salvage their championship hopes.
One of those drivers without damage was Jimmie Johnson, who was second behind Martin Truex Jr. and eyed his first win of 2018. So a seven-time champion also lost his mind and went for the win, crashing into Truex on the final chicane and ultimately lost enough points not to advance to the next round.
Johnson was shell-shocked, and the fans seemed thrilled. They had seen an exciting finish and Blaney, one of NASCAR’s newest stars, earned the second victory of his career. And they saw a driver appear to not give a damn about points and go for the win.
“I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive, but we had such a good car and it was just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points and it bit me,” Johnson said.
Blaney had no plans on winning the race as he pitted with 20 laps remaining just to keep on the same strategy as the other drivers — Alex Bowman and Clint Bowyer — that he thought he would battle for the last playoff spots.
But as the wrecks happened — Blaney actually was in the big one and thought he might have damage, but no way could he afford to pit — Blaney stole the victory.
“Whenever you win something like this, it’s a weird feeling,” Blaney said. “I don’t really want to call it an undeserved feeling, but it’s just kind of an odd feeling. But we put ourselves in a good spot, and it worked out for us.
“When I was running third, I was just thinking about points. We were good on points, and I was cool with just riding around in third. But then that situation happened, and we happened to be there.”
The 17-turn Charlotte road course was designed for such dramatics. NASCAR didn’t have a road-course race in its playoffs and its unwillingness to take races away from existing facilities resulted in Speedway Motorsports Inc. president Marcus Smith deciding to put millions of dollars into renovating his existing road course that included most of the 1.5-mile oval.
He did it right, with synthetic grass and an awesome paint job. It wasn’t easy. The track opted to remove some infield turns early in the configuration process in order to have a faster course and quicker laps. They went through a variety of barriers and ended up changing the angle on one of the tire barriers the day before the race after some awful-looking wrecks for Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones.
The drivers expected a race of survival, and there were relatively few incidents until the final 43 laps. But fans will remember a wild ending, and this one had all of that at the front and as drivers attempted to earn enough points to advance in the playoffs.
While Johnson’s move wasn’t the smartest when it came to trying to make the playoffs, fans will probably applaud it. He was the guy crazy enough to go for a win instead of playing it safe.
“You make decisions every single second behind the race car, and sometimes really hard decisions, and sometimes the will to win kind of is too high to just sit there and run second,” Blaney said when asked about Johnson’s move.
And then, Blaney added: “I couldn’t really give you a good thought on that just because I’m not Jimmie Johnson.”
Truth is, Johnson thought he was safe. And he thought he was making a safe move. And maybe the greatest stock-car driver ever made a mistake.
While Johnson admitted he was “shell-shocked” after failing to advance and by his mistake, Kyle Larson seemed just as shocked that he blew a tire with two turns remaining as he limped a damaged car to the finish and past just enough cars to advance in the playoffs.
“I knew I was in bad shape, so I kind of, I guess you could say, [I was] giving up. But I couldn’t even drive my car, it was so bad destroyed,” Larson said. “But then they said they were all crashed and they were coming to the checkered. … I blew a right front center of [turns] 3 and 4 and plowed the wall, I was like, ‘Crap, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get down to make the chicane.’
“But luckily it came down off the banking and I could turn right OK.”
He was one of the few drivers who felt as lucky as the fans. Keselowski certainly didn’t even though he knows his crash while leading with six laps left was his own fault.
“You like the ones you win at, you hate the ones you don’t, so I guess that answers itself,” he said when asked if he liked the track. “As a driver, I’m selfish.”
So are fans. They want action, which often means wrecks if drivers are pushing the limit. They saw that Sunday. They felt their drivers made a difference, something they always don’t feel when watching an oval race and it appears more a mechanical exercise.
“It was crazy,” Truex said. “We at one point got spun by the 2 [of Keselowski] in the same corner and had to go to the rear — I thought we were done. We restarted 27th and drove out way up through there.
“You never knew what was going to happen today, on the one restart the 2 drove straight into the wall. Just trying to survive and we were in the right spot, we did everything right and we got spun out twice and there’s nothing you can do about guys running you over.”
Frustrated drivers included those who took chances, those who were innocent victims and those whose championship hopes slipped away.
With Keselowski, Busch and Blaney earning spots in the playoffs on wins, the final margins on points looked like this: Truex made it by 74 points, Kevin Harvick by 44, followed by Kurt Busch (23 points), Joey Logano (18 points), Chase Elliott (11), Bowyer (7), Bowman (2) and then Larson. Aric Almirola won the tiebreaker (best finish in the round) over Johnson for the final spot.
“All I really cared about was leaving here plus-one, and it turns out plus-zero is good enough,” Almirola said.
That’s a solid elimination race right there. That’s what this manufactured playoff system was all about. So why not throw in another curve — or several curves of a road course — to add to the drama?
“It wasn’t much sleep the last couple nights,” Bowyer said after his third-place finish allowed him to make the playoffs by seven spots.
“The little one woke up at 5 a.m., and once you’re up, you start thinking about this gremlin that’s ahead of you today and there wasn’t any more sleeping. … Now it’s time to think about a cold beer because, my god, I want one.”