Friday 5: Cup drivers prepare to deal with anxiety, chaos at Roval

0 Comments

It is not hyperbole to say that the final lap of last year’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval might be among the most exciting laps in NASCAR’s history.

The leaders crashing within sight of the finish line. The car running third suddenly wins. A mangled car bouncing off the wall and puttering toward the checkered flag needing to pass a car stalled less than 100 yards from the finish line for 25th place to advance in the playoffs. And a three-way tie for the final two spots to advance to the next round.

The Roval was great for fans and stressful for competitors.

A year ago, Aric Almirola entered the Roval sixth in points. He had a 23-point lead on the first driver outside a transfer spot and six drivers between them. While not safe, it wasn’t an awful place to be.

And yet …

“Going into the Roval last year was really nerve-racking for me,” Almirola said. “It’s hard because you go into that position and you want so badly to advance to the next round and you feel like you’re holding on so tight. You almost race with don’t lose (mentality) than with that mentality of go get it, and that’s a hard way to race. I don’t like racing that way. I like racing on offense, but I don’t want to be on the other side of the cutline, either.

“I think I learned a lot last year. I had never really been in that experience before, going into the last cutoff race (of a round) of the playoffs. In 2014, when I was with Pettys, we blew up in the very first race and we were never really in it. So going (into) this year, I gained a lot of valuable experience of being in that position. I’ll feel better about it this year and just kind of knowing more and being more relaxed and having a better understanding of what to expect.”

Expect chaos.

Almirola survived a day last year that saw him involved in three incidents before he finished 19th, tying Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson for the final two playoffs spots. Almirola and Larson both advanced on the tiebreaker of better finishes in the opening round.

Almirola enters Sunday’s elimination race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) in a worse position than he was last year. He is 11th in the standings, three points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot in 13th place.

Bowman understands the pressure after experiencing it last year. He went into the Roval 11th in the standings a year ago, five points ahead of the first driver outside a playoff spot.

“That was a really stressful situation, a lot of anxiousness and nervousness,” said Bowman, who advanced to the second round last year. “Going into that race, I didn’t think that was going to be a good day for us, not being super confident in my road course skills. The day went well for us and it worked out. Just stressful.”

Last year’s Roval showed anything was possible.

“It’s a crapshoot,” Almirola said, “but it’s a crapshoot for everybody.”

2. Don’t just watch the battle to avoid elimination

Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance in the opening two playoff races has allowed him to score 12 of 14 playoff points and that is likely creating concern among his competitors.

While playoff points may matter in the next round, they likely will be critical in the third round, which will determine the four drivers who will race for the championship Nov. 17 in Miami.

At least one of the four drivers in the championship race will advance from the third round via points. The difference could be playoff points.

That’s why each stage win is important and each victory is critical for the playoff points. And why the race at the front of the field could be as meaningful as the race for the final transfer spot Sunday.

Here are the drivers with the most playoff points this season:

46 — Kyle Busch

41 — Martin Truex Jr.

30 — Denny Hamlin

29 — Joey Logano

28 — Kevin Harvick

24 — Brad Keselowski

18 — Chase Elliott

Strategy on road courses often dictates giving up a chance for stage points to be in a better position to win.

Last year’s Roval race saw Truex, the points leader entering the event, not pit in the first stage when some other playoff drivers did, in hopes of winning the stage. He finished fourth in the stage.

Truex pitted in the middle of stage 2 to set himself for a final pit stop under caution with just under 40 laps to go in the final stage. It would have led to the winning strategy and five playoff points had Jimmie Johnson’s spinning car not hit Truex in the final chicane on the last lap.

3. A better trip the second time?

Even though teams tested at the Roval last summer and had three practices, some drivers struggled around the course a year ago.

Eleven drivers either spun or crashed during practice or qualifying last year. Bubba Wallace had the roughest time, spinning four different times and crashing into the tire barrier on the backstretch chicane (which was redesigned this summer).

Wallace was one of four drivers who went to backup cars for the race after incidents in practice or qualifying last year. The others were: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.

Practice should be interesting Friday and Saturday.

MORE: Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity teams at Charlotte Roval

4. Don’t overlook those deep in the standings

In four of the previous five years of the elimination style playoff format, a driver ranked 10th or worse after the second playoff race went on to the championship race. It could be a sign for those drivers 10th or worse this year.

In 2014, Ryan Newman was 11th in points heading into the first elimination race. He made it to the title race and finished second. Also that year, Denny Hamlin was 13th in points heading into that elimination race. Hamlin also made it to Miami, finishing third in the points.

In 2015, Kyle Busch was 13th in points heading into the first elimination race. He went on to win the crown that year. Kevin Harvick was 15th in points heading into the elimination race — which he had to win to advance and did — and went on to make the title race, placing second in the championship. Jeff Gordon was 10th in the points going into that first elimination race and made it to the title event, placing third in the championship.

In 2016, Carl Edwards was 10th in points before the first round elimination race. He made it to Miami and finished fourth in the championship.

In 2017, Kevin Harvick was 10th in points before the last race of the opening round. He advanced to Miami and placed third in the championship.

Last year, Joey Logano was the lowest ranked driver after two playoff races among those who would compete in the championship race. Logano was fifth in the points at the time.

5. New deal, similar plan

Christopher Bell’s ascension to Cup next year in the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing won’t end his ability to race sprint cars. But Bell concedes that he won’t race those cars as much next year.

“There’s not a plan for him to stop that,” car owner Bob Leavine said this week. “I know he will be prudent in races he goes to because he understands the commitment that we’re going to ask of him in the Cup Series.

“It’s had to tell somebody that does that as a ‘hobby’ not to do it. We’re excited that he still wants to and excited to see him win there. I think it’ll be contagious with his confidence level.”

Said Bell: “I understand that my dirt racing is going to have to slow down a little bit. With the Cup Series, the schedule is a lot more, it’s a little bit bigger than what the Xfinity cars are and it’s going to be a huge learning curve moving into the Cup Series. …  I’m going to be allowed some races, but I understand that the schedule won’t be near what it has been the last several years.”