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.”

NASCAR mourns Kobe Bryant

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Joining their brethren in other sports, the NASCAR world took to social media upon learning the tragic news of the death of Los Angeles Lakers great Kobe Bryant, killed Sunday morning in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Bryant had met a number of NASCAR drivers in his career, including Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. They were among a number of NASCAR notables who took to social media to mourn Bryant:

 

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Chad Knaus and wife expecting second child

Photo courtesy Brooke Knaus official Instagram account
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Seven-time NASCAR Cup champion crew chief Chad Knaus and wife Brooke are expecting their second child.

Brooke made the announcement Saturday on her Instagram account.

The couple, already parents to one-year-old son Kip, will soon be adding a daughter to their growing family.

Brooke Knaus’s Instagram post said the baby is due in July.

Kip figured prominently in the baby revelation, coming at the end of mom and dad’s ski run while vacationing in Telluride, Colorado:

 

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Kyle Larson flips, misses finals of Australia’s biggest sprint car race

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Kyle Larson’s hope of following up last week’s Chili Bowl win with a triumph in Australia’s prestigious Grand Annual Sprint Car Classic fell far short Sunday.

Larson’s bid to race his way into the 24-car finals of the three-day race at Premier Speedway in Warrnambool, Australia, ended when he flipped (uninjured) on the opening lap of a last-chance qualifying heat race earlier in the evening.

Instead of being one of the featured drivers in the Classic’s 40-lap finale – the largest and most popular sprint car race of the year in the land down under – Larson was left to watch the event from the pits and cheer on Dyson Motorsport teammate and fellow American Carson Macedo.

Even that didn’t go very well, as Macedo flipped his own sprint car on the first lap of the Classic, resulting in a last-place finish. The highest finishing American was Cory Eliason, who ended up fourth.

Meanwhile, it was an all-Australian podium, with James McFadden winning the Classic for the second time in his career, followed by James Veal and Kerry Madsen.

In eight days, Larson went from capturing what he called the biggest win ever of his racing career on all levels – the Chili Bowl in his 13th try last Saturday in Tulsa, Oklahoma – to nothing but bad luck and utter frustration throughout his Australian journey.

Larson’s first race on Wednesday in the King’s Challenge at Borderline Speedway was rained out.

Then, in the first night of the Classic on Friday, Larson wrecked heavily in his first heat race, including flipping (he was uninjured). After his team repaired his car, Larson went back on the track, only to suffer a blown engine that knocked him out of contention to race in that evening’s feature event.

After not being on the schedule to race in Night 2 of the Classic on Saturday, Larson had one last chance to make Sunday’s featured championship event.

A total of 80 drivers battled it out in the B, C and D Mains for the eight remaining spots in the A Main, but Larson would end up not being one of those — as can be seen in the second line of the following tweet by his team:

Larson now returns to the United States to prepare for the Daytona 500 on February 16.

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Kyle Busch feeling like ‘the new guy’ during his Rolex 24 debut at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Kyle Busch was looking forward to his first stint at 6 p.m. Saturday in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

The two-time Cup champion was less enthused about his second turn behind the wheel in the IMSA season opener. Busch will climb back into the No. 14 Lexus RCF GT3 at 2 a.m. Sunday, just past the midpoint of the endurance race classic at Daytona International Speedway.

“That’s going to suck, yeah,” Busch deadpanned. “That’s exactly when I told them I did not want to run, and I got it.  Thank you very much.

“(I’m) the new guy.  I pulled the short straw.”

Click here to read more about how Busch felt about his AIM Vasser Sullivan car.