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.
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.
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 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.”