Charlotte Roval features many pitfalls for competitors

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CONCORD, N.C. — The most difficult part of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval?

That’s easy, AJ Allmendinger says.

It is “as soon as you pull out of the garage.”

He’s about right.

The 17-turn, 2.28-mile course combines the track’s oval and the infield road course to create a one-of-a-kind track littered with danger points for drivers. That this is a playoff race — “I think everyone agrees that’s a little bit crazy,” Joey Logano said — only adds to the drama this weekend for the Xfinity and Cup Series.

MORE: Friday’s Crash and Spin Report at the Roval

Here’s a look at some of the key points on the track that could impact the outcome of this weekend’s races.

BACKSTRETCH CHICANE

This is not a favorite of the drivers. They’ll be going around 150 mph as they enter this chicane at the end of the backstretch. It’s narrow.

“Getting into the chicane, there’s not going to be two cars going through there, ever,” Austin Dillon said.

The chicane is protected by blue curbing that is taller than most of the other curbing around the track and can cause more damage to cars — something Denny Hamlin discovered in Friday’s practice.

There’s also the tire barrier at the exit of the chicane. It leaves little room for error. Both Hamlin and Dillon struck it Friday.

“I think in race conditions it is going to be really gnarly,” AJ Allmendinger said. “That is going to be a difficult challenge, and I think it’s going to be a challenge for NASCAR to make the right call if somebody gets shoved and has to shortcut it.”

START/RESTARTS

The field will not go through the frontstretch chicane for the start or restarts. Instead, the field will do those on the frontstretch like any other race. The reasoning is that if the chicane was used, the front of the field would be accelerating while many further back would be braking as they went through the chicane and would not create a fair situation for the field.

With starts and restarts not using the chicane, drivers have estimated that they’ll be going 15-30 mph faster toward Turn 1 — a sharp left-hand turn that will require them to downshift from third gear to second and brake.

As the front of the field does that approaching the corner, others farther back will still be accelerating. It could stack the field and cause a multicar crash.

Restarts, I think that’s probably where most of the questions lie,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “How do we navigate the place? Can we go two wide (into Turn 1)? Where can we go two wide? How’s that all going to play out? That’ll be the interesting part.

“In Turn 1 specifically – Turns 1 and 2, the walls on both sides are really narrow. Kind of a difficult spot on the racetrack, so we’ll just – I don’t know. I don’t really know how to answer your question there. Everybody is anxiously anticipating what’ll happen there and hopefully, we can figure out a way to make it through there.”

TURN 8

This is the left-hand turn that takes cars off the infield road course and puts them back on Turn 1 of the oval.

A lot of teams have worked to make sure their cars handle well here so they can fire off on the oval and build speed through the second corner of the oval and the backstretch before hitting the chicane. If a car isn’t as good here, it will lose time to others, and that could be difficult to make up the rest of the lap.

“That’s going to set up a lot of passes into the backstretch chicane,” Trevor Bayne said. “If you can get off that corner, the speed carries all around (the oval).”

PIT ROAD AND PIT EXIT

While pit road is always important, this pit road carries a unique challenge. Shortly after crossing the final timing line — allowing drivers to go as fast as they want after that point — competitors face a 90-degree turn and then a lane before they blend on the track in Turn 2, a tight section of the track.

“If you’re side by side with a car coming off pit road, and you’re making that first sharp left, and then you blend onto the racetrack, one, if there’s another car coming off of Turn 2, that’s three cars in a really tight spot, that’s not going to work,” Ryan Blaney said. “There might have to be a little give and take there because it’s almost a blind corner pretty much. 

“So that will be a big deal for the spotters to let us know if someone is coming or if you need to back out or something like that. It’s a lot on the driver, too, but you just can’t see on the racetrack. If you’re two wide, and you’re coming off pit road and no one is coming off of Turn 2, I think you can do it. You should be OK, but it’s a big deal if someone else is on the racetrack because they don’t know if you’re coming out or not at that wall.”

Friday 5: ‘Everything is in play’ as NASCAR looks ahead to new ideas

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This weekend’s racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval could be a start of new ideas, new races and new ways of thinking in NASCAR.

Steve Phelps, who begins his role as NASCAR’s president Monday, acknowledged the possibility of doubleheader races, ending the season sooner and closer ties with grassroots racing, among many topics in an hourlong session with reporters this week.

“Everything is in play,” Phelps said.

For a sport that divided its races into stages in 2017, changed the tracks in its playoffs this year and is expected to soon announce rule changes intended to tighten the racing in 2019, Phelps’ attitude shows the efforts series officials will make to retain fans and reach new ones.

His comments come as NASCAR soon will enter a key period with its scheduling. The five-year commitments with tracks expire after the 2020 season and gives NASCAR more flexibility to change its schedule as soon as 2021.

NASCAR typically announces the Cup schedule at least nine months before the season opener. That timetable would give series officials about 20 months until the 2021 schedule is revealed.

With the call for more short tracks, can NASCAR accommodate fan interest? Speedway Motorsports Inc. has expressed an interest in bringing NASCAR’s national series back to the 0.596-mile Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Tennessee.

With the success of the Truck race at Eldora Speedway, would it make sense to run Cup there or on some other dirt track? Could Iowa Speedway land a Cup date? What about midweek races?

Another key question is what about tracks that have lost significant attendance? NASCAR’s charter system allows the sanctioning body to take a charter from a team that has ranked among the three lowest chartered teams in three consecutive years. Is it time to consider taking races away from tracks that have had a precipitous decline in attendance?

“We need to make sure that the race product that we put on the track is as good as it can be, which is what we’re going to do,” Phelps said. “I do know that the race day experience or the race day weekend is really important and we’re working with our tracks to have them understand that.

“We need to reinvent what I would call the event promotion. What that looks like. That gets back to a collaboration effort, which we are going to see between our race tracks, NASCAR, our broadcast partners and our teams and drivers in order to promote this sport in a way that we haven’t in the past. That is really coming together and creating unique opportunities that reach fans and ask them to come out and see what is going on in NASCAR.

“It’s part of our 2019 business plans. We’re working with the race tracks to have them understand that we need to make a change.”

International Speedway Corp., which is controlled by the France family, saw a 10.7 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, ISC tracks removed 172,000 seats at its tracks during that time. In July, ISC President John Saunders cited “an issue with star power” as a contributing factor in the company’s attendance decline recently saying, “hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Speedway Motorsports Inc., which is controlled by Bruton Smith and his family, saw a 25.1 percent decline in admission revenue from 2012-17, according to its annual reports. Also, SMI tracks removed 183,000 seats at its tracks during that time. 

The declines for both track companies have come in a period that has seen Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 15-time most popular driver, quit driving full-time.

Some in the sport also have raised concerns about the season’s length, suggesting NASCAR should not end in November and compete against the first 11 weeks of the NFL season.

“There’s a lot of discussion about that among the industry,” Phelps said. “There are a lot of things in play. We would rule out nothing at this particular point. We need to make sure that we have all the input, all the information necessary to make an informed decision that will allow us to get to what that 2020 schedule will look like.”

2. Reset button

At the Kansas test this week, Kurt Busch was asked if NASCAR’s leadership issues — Chairman Brian France’s arrest, Jim France taking over as acting Chairman and Brent Dewar’s term as NASCAR president ending — since August have taken away from the playoffs. 

Busch said those events hadn’t but noted a change has taken place in the sport.

“What it has done, though, is behind the scenes, hit the reset button and it’s created a refreshment of communication lines between the drivers, the owners and the way that the sport works,” Busch said. “I’ve never seen so much involvement from Jim France, Mike Helton, Steve Phelps, Steve O’Donnell, the whole group. It seems like a weight was lifted off their shoulders through all of this and now everybody is communicating more easily.”

Jim France has been visible in the garage more often than Brian France had been before his indefinite leave.

“If you’ve been at a race track, you’ve seen Jim France there,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s incoming president. “From the moment he was announced as the Chairman, CEO of NASCAR, replacing Brian, he has been at the race track.”

3. Charlotte surprise?

Erik Jones enters Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs.

He is 21 points out of the final cutoff spot. As he looks to this weekend, he knows anything can happen and expects it will.

“I’ll bet you will see a surprise winner this weekend, somebody you wouldn’t expect just because it is going to be a little bit of an attrition race,” he said. “For us, we have to survive, we have to make it to the end of the race.

“We can’t wreck out and not put ourselves in a spot to take advantage of somebody else’s mistakes. We’ve got to hope for some trouble from some of the other playoff guys and hope we can be in position to capitalize on it. Obviously, winning would be the easiest way for us to guarantee it but that’s going to be tough to do.”

Others below the cutoff and in danger of being eliminated after Sunday’s race are Clint Bowyer (four points from the cutoff), Jimmie Johnson (six points from the cutoff) and Denny Hamlin (29 points from the cutoff). Ryan Blaney holds what would be the final transfer spot.

4. Special drivers meeting message?

Justin Allgaier, who has won the last two Xfinity races on road courses, is concerned about the start and restarts on the Roval.

NASCAR will not have drivers go through the frontstretch chicane when coming to take the green flag. If drivers had to go through that chicane, those at the front would be accelerating while some in the back would be braking to get through the chicane.

Instead, drivers will do restarts on the frontstretch and skip the chicane. That means they’ll be entering Turn 1 — a sharp left-hand turn — anywhere from 15-30 mph faster. So, as lead cars brake to make the turn, others behind them will be accelerating.

“It’s such a slow, lazy turn in and the speed that we’re going to be carrying, somebody that ducks to the left could potentially wreck a lot of cars,” Allgaier said. “I think we’re all going to have to really be mindful. It’s either going to go one way or the other. We’re either all going to wreck there or nobody is going to wreck there because we’re all very aware of it.

“I’m hopeful that Wayne (Auton, Xfinity Series managing director) will talk about that in the drivers meeting (and say) ‘Hey, let’s at least make it through Turn 1 at the start of the race.’

“We have generated a lot of hype and a lot of buzz around this race, there’s a lot of attention with coming here … the last thing we want to do is go out there and make a bunch of idiots of ourselves.”

5. Still searching 

Eight drivers who won races last year remain winless this season. They are: Kyle Larson (four wins 2017), Jimmie Johnson (three), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Matt Kenseth (one), Kasey Kahne (one), Ryan Newman (one) and Ryan Blaney (one).

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Podcast: Mario Andretti and the rare car he requested for the Roval

Aaron Burns/Charlotte Motor Speedway
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CONCORD, N.C. – What would it take to put a racing legend behind the wheel on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s new road course?

For Mario Andretti, it was fulfilling a simple request: A high-performance car with a highly limited production run.

Fortunately, Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith’s family is in the business of selling cars as well as racing them, so procuring a 2015 Porsche 918 Spyder Hybrid was easier than it might have been for many.

“My brother happened to have one,” Smith said on this week’s episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Listen, that is crazy. I haven’t driven that car. I’m afraid to drive that car. It’s a $1 million car. They only made 918 of them.

“I said, ‘I’m not driving but I’ll check.’ My brothers both said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Mario!’ ”

Andretti, a veteran of famous road courses around the world as a 1978 Formula One champion (as well as a winner of the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, the only driver to capture all three), toured the Roval in a March 2017 session. According to the track, Andretti reached a top speed at 177 mph in the 887-horsepower car.

“My brother David rode along with Mario which was extremely brave and crazy at the same time,” Smith said. “David made the mistake of asking Mario not to push too hard, which he did the opposite. This is just a super car. Before he drove it, Mario said, ‘I’ll drive it and give you feedback. If I like it, I’ll tell everybody else. If I don’t, I won’t tell anybody but you.’”

The track earned a seal of approval from Andretti, who told Smith the course was much better than he’d anticipated (“he was really surprised by the elevation changes and the camber in the turns”) and also offered two pieces of advice:

–An enhanced infield camping area because “that’s what all the great road courses in Europe have. An area where all the fans are right in the middle, and it makes it a lot more fun,” Smith said Andretti told him. The track has added pedestrian walkover bridges to provide more vantage points on the 17-turn, 2.28-mile layout.

–A chicane on the backstretch to reduce speeds. That was added after Cup drivers confirmed Andretti’s suggestion in other test sessions last year. “Mario said, ‘You’re going too fast,’” Smith said. “I said, ‘You sound like a driver!’ He said, ‘No, you need that chicane.’ That was in my mind.

“And we came back from testing and they said if we don’t have a chicane, we’ll make the tires so hard that it won’t be good on the infield road course, which may not be the best choice. We added the chicane, which works out fine, allows more competitive passing and you get another passing point on the track.”

During the podcast, Smith also discusses:

–The origins of moving the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s 1.5-mile oval to a road course;

–his reactions to Cup drivers feeling daunted by the layout;

–why he believes road courses are the new short tracks.

To listen to the NASCAR on NBC Podcast, click on the embed above, or you can download the episodes at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

Preliminary entry list for Xfinity, Cup at Charlotte Roval

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The Xfinity and Cup Series each race on the Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend. Here are the preliminary entry lists for both series.

Bank of America Roval 400 Cup race (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

There are 40 entries for the cutoff race of the opening round of the playoffs.

Justin Marks is in the No. 15. Ross Chastain moves to the No. 7 for Premium Motorsports, Marks tweeted this will be his final Cup race.

Click here for Cup entry list

Drive for the Cure 200 Xfinity race presented by Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina (3 p.m. Saturday on NBCSN)

Forty cars are entered for the Xfinity event. This is the second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Drivers agree: Charlotte Roval race is ‘going to be crazy’

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Whether drivers and teams are ready, Roval week is here for the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series.

Four drivers will be eliminated from title contention in Sunday’s Cup race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The Xfinity race (3 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN) is the second race in the opening round of that playoffs. Xfinity teams will get to run the road course/oval configuration for the first time Thursday. When Cup teams tested in July, a number of them got off course. 

Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer are the four drivers outside the cutoff line to advance to the next round. Ryan Blaney holds that final cutoff spot heading into Charlotte. Click here for the standings.

Here’s what drivers are saying about the Roval:

Denny Hamlin (29 points out of final cutoff spot)

I learned quite a bit from the Charlotte test, I thought we were one of the best cars there at that test. I am optimistic, but I tell you it’s going to come down to qualifying well with the limited amount of passing zones at that race track, you can definitely get stuck behind somebody for an extended period of time.”

Jimmie Johnson (6 points out of final cutoff spot)

“I learned a lot at the road course test, but I don’t know if I have a better feeling about how the race is going to go. The track has countless areas for bad things to happen; things will just end your day. So passing zones are going to be extremely difficult to figure out, I think it’s going to be a day about really minimizing your own mistakes and you’ll be able to maintain track position pretty well. But, it’s going to be crazy.”

Alex Bowman (5 points ahead of first driver outside cutoff)

“Best places on the track to pass are going to be pit road. I have one of the best pit crews in the business so, I plan on using that. And the most treacherous is the whole track, so it’s going to be interesting for sure. It’s a very treacherous race track. There are really very few passing opportunities at all. It’s super narrow. Obviously you’re out on the oval for some of it, but I don’t really think you’re going to have the opportunity to use that to pass. All the breaking zones are pretty tight and technical and it’s going to be pretty tough to pass. … If you’re going in there and need to make up points, or whatever, it is going to be a tough day.”

Austin Dillon (10 points ahead of first driver outside cutoff)

“I think the whole track is treacherous, there are places that you could bust your tail at any moment being over aggressive. (It) can gain you speed but also can take you out from jumping a curb.”

Kurt Busch (15 points ahead of first driver outside cutoff)

“That Roval cutoff race is going to be gut-wrenching for plenty of different reasons. The extra stress that is going to come with the Roval, that one’s going to be a tough one.”

Kyle Larson (17 points ahead of first driver outside cutoff)

“It’s really easy to step over the line and crash. I think it is going to be a crazy race. Don’t really know what to expect. And it is hard to pass, I don’t really know where you can pass. We will find out when we get out there on the track.”

Aric Almirola (23 points ahead of first driver outside cutoff)

“I think the hardest part of the Roval is all of it. I really don’t know what the best opportunity to pass is. I have got some ideas but until you get cars on the race track running around each other … it is going to be hard to identify that. Running by yourself, you know you can gauge on what you could think would be an opportunistic place. I could tell you one place that is going to be incredibly hairy to pass and it is going to be that chicane on the back straightaway or trying to run two wide through there is going to be about impossible. So it is just the matter of whether or not you get position on the other guy and if he is willing to give it up or not.”