Getty Images

Five can’t-miss NASCAR Cup races in 2019 beyond Daytona 500

3 Comments

We’re 32 days out from the biggest NASCAR event of the season in the Daytona 500, a race of such importance that needs no explanation.

But what else is there to look forward to?

There are 35 other Cup points races this season and they’re not all created equal.

Here are five races to pay closer attention to this season.

– Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on Feb. 24 on Fox)

The second Cup race of the season will probably have its biggest spotlight in recent memory when the 1.5-mile track is the first to host the 2019 rules package.

Derived from the 2018 All-Star Race package, it includes a tapered spacer and is intended to provide closer racing. Cars will run 550 horsepower at all tracks 1.33 miles and larger, which includes Atlanta. At tracks less than 1.33 miles, cars will have 750 horsepower.

Combine the hopeful intent behind the package and a rough track surface that’s being kept in place by the “most powerful lobby this side of Washington, D.C.,” and you have no excuse to not tune in and see what happens.

Camping World 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on June 30 on NBCSN)

The race that marks the start of NBC’s portion of the NASCAR schedule set an incredible precedent in 2018. The 1.5-mile track debuted in its new spot on the schedule with Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch’s dramatic last-lap battle and Busch’s win.

Was it a result of the drivers involved? The hot Chicagoland surface? Lapped traffic?

Yes.

Can it be topped?

We can only hope.

Go Bowling at the Glen at Watkins Glen International (3 p.m. ET on Aug. 4 on NBCSN)

From the green flag last year, the Cup race on the New York road course was a barn burner, ending with a duel between Chase Elliott and Martin Truex Jr. that resulted in Elliott’s first Cup win as Truex ran out of gas.

Races on the road course have had increasingly memorable finishes over the last seven years (beginning in 2012 with Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose). WGI shows no sign of providing a snoozer in the near future, especially as long as pit strategy is involved.

Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 29 on NBC)

The final lap of last season’s inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Roval  had enough drama for three races on the new road course.

From Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson‘s contact in the final turn giving Ryan Blaney the win; Kyle Larson hitting the wall twice and passing a stalled car at the checkered flag to advance in the playoffs; and Aric Almirola passing enough cars to advance himself.

Do teams have the oval-road course hybrid figured out after one year? It’ll be fun to watch that question answered.

First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Oct. 27 on NBCSN)

We’re starting to run out of fingers to use to list memorable events in Martinsville’s recent history of hosting a playoff race.

You could argue it started with Dale Earnhardt Jr. banging doors with Tony Stewart to win his only Martinsville clock in 2014.

Since then?

We’ve seen Matt Kenseth’s retaliation against Joey Logano in 2015, which resulted in Jeff Gordon’s final Cup win.

Two years later, Denny Hamlin wrecked Elliott from the lead near the end of regulation. Kyle Busch then won in overtime as Martinsville’s version of “The Big One” unfolded. Afterward, an angry Elliott confronted Hamlin on the track as fans filled the air with cheers and boos.

Last year Truex and Logano provided a thrilling battle over the last six laps. Logano performed the bump-and-run on Truex in the final turn to win the battle in the “damn war” (which Logano also won in Miami).

 

Ryan: Challenging NASCAR is last-lap lesson from Roval

4 Comments

CONCORD, N.C. – Dissect and relish every tantalizing aspect in that beguiling finish Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, because – hopefully — it’s likely the last time we’ll see the race unfold that way.

Oh, we again will see the last-lap wildness that is guaranteed by myriad zones of mayhem in a hybridized layout perfectly cast as a playoff cutoff race, which was as much an ingenious masterstroke as turning the 1.5-mile oval into a quasi-street course.

With any luck, we will see another delightfully punch-drunk circuit as memorable as the final one completed by the comically wounded car of Kyle Larson, who passed muster for playoff advancement but would have failed any driver’s ed road test for a license.

And surely Sunday will be the first of many times that we see world-class talents such as Larson, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch cook their tires beyond the limits of even their sublime ability in trying to navigate the intractably narrow path through Turn 1. (Runoff area? Please. It’s perfect! Don’t change a thing!)

No, the reason the Roval’s debut will be unique is it should be the last time that we see drivers being so observant of NASCAR’s Byzantine rules with a last-lap victory at stake.

It might have been hard to recognize in the clouds of tire smoke enveloping the frontstretch in chaos, but Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr. – two champions revered for their morally upstanding character and generally clean styles – both tried to be extraordinarily good citizens during and after their memorable battle for the lead.

Johnson penalized himself for spinning on entry to the final chicane. And by dutifully adhering to NASCAR’s chicane policy, Truex essentially left himself in the vulnerable position of being clipped by Johnson’s spin, which took him out of the win.

This is easy to say absent the heat of the moment and the necessary split-second decisions made while decelerating at more than 100 mph, but Johnson and Truex might have chosen differently if given another chance.

Both could have demonstrated chicane disobedience that would have benefited themselves and forced NASCAR into facing difficult judgment calls.

As soon as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet lost traction entering the penultimate turn, Truex could have skipped the final left-hand turn and run his No. 78 Toyota directly through the grass – avoiding the contact with Johnson, capturing the checkered flag and challenging the stewards to disqualify him.

He would have had an outstanding case to keep the win.

In the prerace drivers meeting, Cup director Richard Buck said if a driver was judged to have missed the chicane because of an accident, “NASCAR may, in its discretion, forgo the penalties and adjust the lineup based on the running position prior to the avoidance maneuver.”

If NASCAR still had stripped Truex of a precious victory – worth five extra points through the next two rounds – for trying to miss a wreck, the defending series champion would have been well within his rights to raise holy hell about it.

Johnson’s option is a little more nuanced but still worth taking the risk for the rewards.

By self-policing and stopping in the penalty box a hundred feet before the finish line, Johnson gave up the exact number of spots that would have secured his playoff advancement. If he would have floored it instead, he would have retained the necessary points – but NASCAR claims Johnson still would have been hit with a 30-second penalty for a last-lap violation and eliminated from the playoffs.

Oh, really.

It would have been that simple, huh?

After a seven-time champion made one of the most indelible and swashbuckling moves in his illustrious career, NASCAR would have shamed him a la Gargamel stomping down the mountain to smash the newest beautiful creation in Smurf Village to pieces?

In win-at-all-costs modern-day NASCAR, which has spent the better part of a decade (justifiably) restructuring its championship to emphasize victories while mostly declining to punish drivers who intentionally wreck leaders to get them (see: the 2018 Daytona 500), what message would that have sent?

Mostly, that the scoring tower sometimes feels haunted by the ghosts of busybody Bill Lumberghs who are more obsessed with making sure an obnoxiously thick rulebook is being followed without regard for the ways in which it potentially can disincentivize and hamper the delivery of maximum entertainment.

Though Johnson was kicking himself postrace Sunday for being “so focused on a race win,” NASCAR should at the least be sending him a fruit basket for self-imposing the penalty after throwing caution to the wind despite the circumstances, which lest we need reminding, can be hazy at best.

Why did Busch get away with intentionally straight-lining the Turn 1 corner on an earlier restart? Because he didn’t gain any positions. Why were all the chicane penalties in races Saturday and Sunday administered to drivers who didn’t gain any positions after losing control of their cars without any apparent intent?

Uhhh …

There are good reasons for officiating chicanes, which are designed to slow down cars and need to be respected within reason. But Sunday also exposed there is plenty of wiggle room in interpreting how to apply the policies and what precisely constitutes a violation.

A perfect example is Truex’s race. Though he also spun through the chicane with Johnson, NASCAR officials said Truex wasn’t made to stop because his four tires didn’t fully cross the red-and-white curbs. But curiously, Truex was required to stop in Stage 2 when he missed Turn 17 … because he was knocked off course by Keselowski’s spinning Ford.

In neither instance did he gain an advantage by purposefully trying to short-cut the chicane, which should be the only justification for issuing a penalty. There is a clear distinction between spinning through a chicane and straight-lining or avoiding it entirely.

Surely in such a future instance of a win or playoff spot at stake, drivers should try to put the onus on NASCAR in making those determinations.

The repercussions could make the next Roval finish even more entertaining — or controversial — than Sunday’s.

Long: Roval provides roller coaster of emotions for playoff drivers

Leave a comment

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.”

Jimmie Johnson’s ‘mistake’ ends his chances for record eighth title

7 Comments

CONCORD, N.C. — History will have to wait.

Because Jimmie Johnson couldn’t.

Running second — and in position to transfer to the second round of the playoffs — Johnson tried to pass Martin Truex Jr. in the final chicane. Johnson spun and saw his hopes for a record eighth Cup title end.

He lost six positions and finished eighth, dropping into a three-way tie for the final two transfer spots to the second round. The tiebreaker is the best finish in this round. Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola, who were tied with Johnson, each had better finishes in this round than Johnson.

So why did Johnson  — even though he was on a career-long 51-race winless streak — jeopardize his title hopes with a last-lap move?

“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 on pit road after the race. “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.

“I knew where I was on the math. I didn’t think that I was going to crash or spin trying to overtake him like I did. I thought I was making a calculated move and giving myself a chance to win.”

Johnson saw his opportunity when Truex drifted off the bottom groove in Turns 3 and 4 on the oval coming to the final chicane.

Johnson said his strongest spot on the 17-turn, 2.28-mile track had been both chicanes.

Johnson cut underneath Turex entering the chicane but locked his brakes and spun. Johnson clipped Truex and turned him.

“He wasn’t ever going to make it through that corner whether I was there or not,” Truex said. “Just desperation on his part and pretty stupid really if you think about it because he was locked into the next round and now he’s out. I guess if there’s a silver lining, that’s it.”

Johnson’s bid to advance ended when he stopped on course to serve a penalty for missing the chicane. NASCAR stated that any driver who failed to go through a chicane properly had to come to a complete stop in a designated area before continuing. Johnson complied and lost those six spots serving the penalty.

“I thought we had a big enough cushion on points and all and not enough cars went by,” Johnson said. “I thought I was going to be OK.”

While one corner will be viewed as costing Johnson the chance to advance in the playoffs, he knows it also was what happened at Las Vegas and Richmond that hurt his chances.

“Certainly look at Las Vegas … and know we left a lot of on the table there,” said Johnson, who hit the wall late in that race after cutting a tire and finished 22nd instead of a top-five position he seemed headed to score.

“Today, we were in the good, and I thought I was making a good clean racing move to get myself a chance to win. Unfortunately, I made a mistake and lost it. Feel terrible it took me out, took Martin out and took us out of the championship.”

Ryan Blaney wins on Roval after Truex, Johnson wreck in final turn

4 Comments

CONCORD, N.C. —  Ryan Blaney won the inaugural Cup race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Sunday, overtaking Martin Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson in the final turn as they wrecked battling for the win.

It is Blaney’s first win of the year.

Truex led on a restart with three laps to go with Johnson second. Johnson took his shot at the win trying to pass Truex on the outside entering the frontstretch chicane. Johnson lost control and went into a spin. He then caught Truex’s right rear, sending him around.

Blaney, who restarted fifth, navigated between their cars and across the line.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” Blaney told NBC. “You hate to see two guys get into it there and take each other out, two of the best cars all day. But that’s racing sometimes.”

It is Blaney’s first win since the June 2017 race at Pocono, snapping a 50 race winless streak.

Truex finished 14th and Johnson placed eighth.

Johnson was eliminated from playoff contention. Erik Jones, Austin Dillon and Denny Hamlin were also eliminated.

The top five was completed by Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman and Kurt Busch.

The final three laps were set up by a massive wreck in Turn 1 on a restart with six laps to go. The wreck included race leader Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, William Byron, Trevor Bayne, Daniel Hemric and Aric Almirola.

The wreck began when Keselowski locked up his brakes approaching the turn.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Larson

STAGE 2 WINNER: Ryan Blaney

MORE: Race results

MORE: Point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Alex Bowman earned his third top five this season and secured a spot in the playoffs … Chase Elliott placed sixth, giving him a top 10 in all three road course races this season … Matt DiBenedetto placed 13th for his best finish on a non-restrictor plate track this season … Aric Almirola finished 19th after multiple incidents and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Kyle Busch placed 32nd for his third finish outside the top 10 since the July Daytona race …  Austin Dillon placed 39th after hitting the wall twice in the second stage … Daniel Suarez placed 19th after three speeding penalties.

NOTABLE: Justin Marks placed 27th in what is expected to be his final NASCAR start.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We finished 14th and he’s knocked out of the playoffs. I guess that’s what he gets.” – Martin Truex Jr. on Jimmie Johnson.

WHAT’S NEXT: Gander Outdoors 400 at Dover International Speedway at 2 p.m. ET on Oct. 7 on NBCSN