Five thoughts after Sunday’s first-round elimination race at the Roval…
1. Roval Love
There were so many things to love about the entire Roval weekend before the race even started. The hype was real, the freshness of a new course injected a boost of enthusiasm into a long season and the whole thing replaced a traditionally ho-hum event with a huge unknown.
Given all that, the Roval was probably going to be viewed as a success even if the race turned out to just be OK.
At least they tried something different!, people would say.
Most of it was a fuel-mileage affair, where drivers tiptoed around the track and kept themselves out of trouble — which honestly was fine! That was the smart thing to do, and the strategy and doubts over whether they could make it to the end on fuel offered enough intrigue to keep fans interested.
But then the race suddenly delivered on its potential for chaotic entertainment — and without crossing the line into shitshow territory. Brad Keselowski stuffed it into the Turn 1 wall and the other leaders followed him into the barrier like the old Lemmings computer game.
GAHHHH!!! WHAT WAS THAT!?!?!
As it turned out, it wasn’t even the craziest moment of the race. As the playoff elimination battle was unfolding behind the race leaders, Jimmie Johnson saw a chance and tried to pass Martin Truex Jr. for the win — only to ruin both of their races.
Just like that, Ryan Blaney drove through the spins and ended up being declared the first official winner in a Cup Roval race.
But the unofficial winners were many: Marcus Smith, the father of the Roval who saw his brainchild come to life in a majorly successful way; NASCAR, which continues to have an excellently fun second half of the season; and the fans who came from all over the country to check the Roval out for themselves, then surely left feeling like they got their money’s worth.
Damn. When NASCAR is good, it can be so, so, SO good. And this was one of those weekends. I got so much enjoyment out of the entire Roval experience; I can’t imagine anyone feeling otherwise.
2. The idea of going for it
Imagine you’re Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. You barely made the playoffs, haven’t won all season — and hear about it constantly — and now you see an opening to grab a victory with a last-turn pass in the playoffs.
Now tell me you’re NOT going to go for it there. Really? Come on. I don’t believe you.
Yes, Johnson screwed up. Yes, he threw his playoff hopes away. But those type of calculations can’t possibly be factored in during a split-second decision.
Gee, what if I try to pass him, but spin myself out and then get passed by seven cars and miss the next round?
There’s no WAY that would even enter a seven-time champion’s mind! Winning racers don’t think that way. He saw a chance and went for it. I don’t even think it was that much of a “just gonna send it!” type gamble; he just messed up.
“If I knew the outcome was going to be that, no (I wouldn’t have tried it),” he said. “I want to stay alive in the championship points. But I really felt like I could pull that pass off.
“I wish I could go back in time and let off the brakes a little bit and take that opportunity, because the championship is what we’re here for.”
Of course he regretted the move with hindsight factored in. But at the time, you wouldn’t want him to do anything differently.
Truex seemed to have a much harsher viewpoint, though. He showed his displeasure by spinning Johnson out after the race — which is understandable, given the lost opportunity to win and get five extra playoff points.
“(Johnson) 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.”
3. Larson’s epic last lap
Someday, when we compile all of the great NASCAR moments from the otherwordly talent that is Kyle Larson, let’s not forget the last lap of the Roval.
Larson was out of the playoffs for about 20 seconds until he somehow drove all the way around the track with a wrecked car and passed Jeffrey Earnhardt about 100 feet before the finish line.
I normally wouldn’t dedicate so much space to a single quote, but you’ve got to read how he described it:
I knew I was in bad shape, so I guess you could say (I was) giving up. I couldn’t even drive my car, it was so badly destroyed.
But then they said (Johnson and Truex) were all crashed and they were coming to the checkered. I was getting on the oval (in the traditional Turn 1 location), and they said they were starting to crash, so I ran hard. We had so much camber and toe in our car, they said if I ran fast, I would blow a right front. But I was like, “You’ve got to go.”
So I ran hard through (the oval Turns) 1 and 2 and through the (backstretch chicane), and then I blew a right front (in the) center of (oval Turns) 3 and 4 and plowed the wall.
I was like, “Crap. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to get down to make the (front) chicane.” But luckily, it came down off the banking and I could turn right OK.
So I got through the 16th corner, and then I hit the wall again on the front stretch, and (Earnhardt) was stalled the whole time. He was like 100 feet from the start/finish line. I could start to see him creep in when I was getting to 16. I was like, “Gosh, don’t go! Don’t go!” And we were able to make it. Hey, I was pretty lucky.
Amazing, right!? Check out those last few turns:
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 30, 2018
To add to the barely-made-it storyline, there’s this nugget: NASCAR gives drivers with damage three laps to meet minimum speed. Larson, who had no chance of getting back up to speed, was on his third lap.
So had the race been one lap longer, he would have been eliminated through that rule alone.
4. Oh yeah…the winner!
How have we gotten this far without talking about Ryan Blaney? He won the race, after all.
Blaney might have seemed unusually chill after the race in some of his interviews, but that was because he didn’t really know how to digest the win. He appeared almost apologetic at times, like a driver who wins a rain-shortened race or through some other fluke scenario.
This really wasn’t in the same category, though, since he put himself in position to win if something happened. The leaders have wrecked and given the win to the third-place car many times in racing history — though not necessarily very often on NASCAR’s biggest stage. The bottom line is he shouldn’t feel bad about it.
But Blaney also isn’t the type of guy to be overly impressed with himself or brag in the first place, so feeling like he didn’t really deserve it was consistent with his personality.
“You’re happy you won the race. You’re happy for the team to do that,” Blaney said. “But me personally inside, there’s some of me (that thinks) … you don’t want people to look at it as, ‘Oh, you just won because the two guys wrecked.’ And that’s what it was.”
Blaney said that scenario had never happened to him in any race he’d ever run — including quarter midgets as a kid. So he just wanted to remain humble while also acknowledging the victory was worth celebrating.
“You don’t want to be kind of overjoyed about it, I guess, but you have to have some pride in it,” he said. “It’s a weird feeling.”
5. Moving on
Two big names are out of the playoffs after Round 1 — Johnson and Denny Hamlin — while young drivers Erik Jones and Austin Dillon also saw their hopes of gaining additional playoff experience come to an end.
Left behind are only two Toyotas — Truex and Kyle Busch — and three Chevrolets — Larson, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.
Everyone else? Well, it’s a LOT of Fords. All of Stewart-Haas Racing and all of Team Penske has advanced to Round 2, setting up for a Ford-dominated playoffs just three years after the manufacturer was completely shut out of the final four.
I only correctly picked two of the eliminated drivers for Round 1 (Dillon and Jones), so take these next predictions with a grain of salt. (And yes, I’m updating my picks in the middle of the playoffs. Weak, I know.)
— Round 2: I can potentially see the second-round eliminations being less shocking than the opening three races. I’ll pick Bowman, Blaney, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer to get eliminated this round.
— Round 3: That sets up a final eight of Truex, Harvick, both Busch brothers, Keselowski, Joey Logano, Elliott and Larson. Out of those, Truex, Harvick, Keselowski and Kyle Busch will advance to the final four (not going out on a limb at all, in other words).
— Champion: I’ll stick with Harvick as my pick to win it all. For now.