Long: Roval provides roller coaster of emotions for playoff drivers

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CONCORD, N.C. — Jimmie Johnson stood in silence. Kyle Larson’s team cheered a 25th-place finish. Ryan Blaney wasn’t quite sure how to feel.

A wild finish to Sunday’s inaugural Cup race on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval left competitors dazed and confused.

Johnson thought he would advance to the second round of the playoffs. Then he didn’t.

Larson thought he was eliminated from the playoffs. Then he wasn’t.

Blaney thought he would finish third. Until he won.

It made pit road a wonderful, wacky and woebegone place after the checkered flag.

Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. spin on the last lap. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Johnson was second and set to advance in the playoffs when he attempted to pass Martin Truex Jr. in the final chicane for the win. Johnson locked his brakes and spun.

He placed eighth and finished in a three-way tie for the final two transfer spots.

After exiting his car on pit road, Johnson and others stood waiting to hear from NASCAR if he advanced. The silence was broken only by someone in the crowd asking if Johnson had made it.

In a season where he has failed to win a stage or a race, Johnson fell one point short of continuing his quest for a record eighth championship. If he’s to win another title, it will be with a different logo on the No. 48 Chevrolet than the previous seven crowns with sponsor Lowe’s leaving after this season.

“I wish I wouldn’t have been so focused on a race win, and I could have transferred and kept my championship hopes alive,” Johnson said. “We had such a good car. It’s just one of those split-second decisions to race for the win instead of for the points, and it bit me.”

Johnson’s misfortune — and that of Truex as well — allowed Blaney to drive by both and score his second career Cup win.

A great moment for Blaney.

But he wasn’t quite sure.

“You’re happy that it’s worked out for you,” Blaney said. “You’re happy you won the race. You’re happy for the team to do that.  … I don’t want people to look at it as, ‘Oh, you just won because the two guys wrecked.’ And that’s what it was, and you don’t want to be kind of overjoyed about it. You have to have some pride in it, I guess. It’s a weird feeling.

“I’ve never won a race like that before.”

There had never been a race like this before — on a track that combined the oval with an infield road course. 

The drama was only building after Blaney, Johnson and Truex (14th) crossed the line.

Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed on the frontstretch, and his car stopped about 100 yards from the finish line. If he crossed the line, Larson would have been eliminated from the playoffs.

It would have been a dramatic fall for Larson, who led 47 of the 109 laps and engaged in a spectacular duel for the lead with Brad Keselowski about 35 laps from the finish before seeing his title hopes all but end when he crashed into the Turn 1 tire barrier on a restart six laps from the finish.

Kyle Larson’s crew repairs his car late in Sunday’s race. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

The team made repairs, and the green flag waved with three laps to go. Larson rode behind the field, his car limping through the course in hopes that someone would spin of course or crash, and he could gain the one position he needed to make the playoffs.

“I had kind of given up,” Larson said.

Then Earnhardt crashed.

Larson’s lucky break.

But disaster soon struck Larson. His right-front tire blew, and his car slammed the wall in Turn 4 on the oval.

He kept going.

Earnhardt’s car wasn’t moving.

As Larson approached Earnhardt’s car, he said to himself: “Please don’t go! Please don’t go! Please don’t move!”

Larson’s right-front tire angled inward, the fender gone and the brakes locked as he went through the chicane. He drifted wide off the final turn and hit the frontstretch wall while Earnhardt’s car remained motionless.

As soon as Larson passed Earnhardt and crossed the finish line, a large cheer rose from Larson’s pit box.

They knew.

They had advanced to the second round.

Larson, though, didn’t know his situation.

“Did we make it?” he asked his team on the radio.

It was only two days ago that Larson sat on the pit wall after qualifying and said he just needed some good luck in the playoffs, feeling luck had gone against him so often the past couple of years.

Reminded of that conversation, Larson smiled.

“This,” he said, “was some damn good luck.”

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”

RCR, Hendrick to collaborate on Chevy engine

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Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing will team up on research and development of a common Chevrolet engine after the conclusion of the 2020 season, the teams announced Thursday.

The two organizations will continue to function independently as they “fully leverage the knowledge and intellectual property of our two successful programs to advance Chevrolet’s engine for NASCAR,” they said in a joint statement.

Engines produced by Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing (via ECR Engines) have earned a combined 20 Cup titles and the two teams have totaled 369 Cup wins.

Jeff Andrews, the new executive vice president at Hendrick Motorsports, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” Thursday that discussions about the venture between his team and RCR began two years ago.

“The day was going to come when we really needed to figure out how to get these two programs together,” Andrews said. “A tremendous amount of talent, people and a tremendous amount of equipment and resources between the two programs. How could we do this? How could we take the longstanding heritage between these two companies and get that together to start working on an alliance that truly would produce the ultimate powertrain for Chevrolet NASCAR?”

RCR is headquartered in Welcome, North Carolina and Hendrick’s campus is in Concord, North Carolina.

“I think when you step back and look at it, ultimately you have to get to a point to where, when you have these resources and you have these people, we have to do what’s best for Chevrolet, first and foremost, to continue to push their performance and get them back to the front of the field and get them wins and championships,” Andrews said. “Really, we work together in a very similar fashion. We started two years ago on the aerodynamic side with our groups working very close together and we’re kind of taking somewhat of that template and applying to the engine side in starting this joint alliance.”

Chevrolet last won a Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson earned his record-tying seventh championship. Since then, Chevy has not had a car reach the championship four.

The Cup Series is in the middle of the Round of 12. The series races Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Of the 12 cars that remain, four are Chevrolets: Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch.

Chevrolet cars have won six times through 30 races this season. That’s compared to seven wins in all of 2019, four in 2018 and and 10 in 2017.