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Weekend at The Roval

The 2023 NASCAR playoffs made their return to Charlotte Motor Speedway for a track that could be described as trickier than the tricky triangle (Pocono). The Roval – a combination of a road course with the traditional superspeedway oval – made its debut in 2018. Since then, it has drawn a mix of opinions from drivers and fans alike. Take Spartanburg’s own Xfinity Series driver Jeremy Clements, for example. 

 

“It’s tough. It’s tough to pass. If you’re starting in the back, it’s tough to make up positions. Especially through the infield. It’s so hard to pass. You can’t really get a line on anybody.

You can only kind of drive in on both of the hard braking zones that we have. That’s about it. It’s not the greatest. It’s not a great road course really, but I think it’s good to have change instead of doing oval both times. But, It’s not my favorite road course. It ranks at the bottom. I love Road America, Watkins Glen, Mid Ohio, even Portland. Sonoma is fun. But, those are all real road courses. This is not.” 

 

For certain, the product on track has been one of the reasons the attendance and TV ratings for the Roval have declined since its debut, so much so that it was heavily thought that this weekend would be the final time for NASCAR to run on the roval configuration here, instead potentially going back to racing on the superspeedway oval for both Charlotte race dates. But it is also hard to deny that the “playoff chaos” – especially with this being a cutoff race to get to the next round, doesn’t still make things interesting. 

 

In general, road courses are challenging places to pass – especially on the Watkins Glens and Sonomas of the world. Pit strategy, luck, a little patience, and driving talent is what wins on these types of tracks. Road course racing is a chess match, not a sprint competition and it almost always boils down to a late caution and restart before things actually get exciting. This weekend was no exception. 

 

Xfinity Series 

Drive for the Cure 250. 

 

Jeremy Clements is not in the playoffs. But, his luck over the course of the season, much less the span of the last few weeks, has probably made him feel like he is dealing with the playoff chaos. The problems for the 51 team started almost as soon as they unloaded from the hauler. 

 

In practice, after a couple of laps, Jeremy ended up spinning out in the backstretch “bus stop” chicane, which is an area that has a reputation for being a house of horrors. “Wheel Hop” is a common problem in both the cup and Xfinity series cars in the areas where they have to go heavy on the brake pedal to avoid losing control. Luckily for you all, Jeremy defined it for you where I don;t have to go full professor mode. 

 

“That just means when you get on the brakes, the rear tires start hopping.” 

 

Slightly elaborated on, when you slam on your brakes suddenly, gravity keeps working and momentum causes weight to shift to the front end of the car, causing the nose to dip down. That causes the rear tires to come up (hop). 

 

Oftentimes, when this happens, the drivers will use the curbing on the boundary of the turn to slow the car down and keep the nose of the car from dipping down as much while helping keep from cutting the corner or missing the chicane entirely. Almost like a speedbump, but much smaller so that you can go insanely fast over it. At the Roval, this curbing has a special nickname – “turtles”. 

 

When Jeremy lost it and spun out in practice, he went all the way over the top of them at high speed, which dealt some serious damage to the suspension and other key components on the undercarriage of the car. 

 

“I spun out, I went over the blue ‘turtles’ curbing and it broke the jack post {a bolt under the left side of the car where the jack is inserted on pit stops to change tires. The jack has a plate on top that hits that bolt and pushes the car up} and messed up some of the rear end where the mounts are”, said Clements. 

 

The incident ended up bending the area on the suspension control arms where they connect with their bushings – a component that acts as a shock absorber of sorts – to help keep the car from bottoming out and tearing the fender off when it goes over a curb or bump. This irreparable damage may have only worsened the handling for Jeremy by making the car irreparably loose. 

 

To compound matters for the 51 team, they had to give up their 15th place qualifying spot because of the repair that was not only doable but also absolutely crucial – welding on a new jack post. NASCAR rules deemed that to be an “unapproved adjustment” due to it being done last-minute before the race, which meant Clements would have to start at the tail end of the field instead, really putting the team behind the 8 ball as far as trying to gain back track position. 

 

Jeremy managed to move through the field early on, making his way up to the 27th spot within the first 2 laps. He got up to 25th by lap 10, but from there, the handling issues began to rear their head on him. He was heard on his team radio saying “The car needs more front turn and it is loose.” 

 

To divert away from Jeremy’s day for just a second, 4 laps in there was a pass for the lead as Sam Mayer managed to outbrake pole sitter Justin Allgaier and get by him going through the frontstretch chicane near the start/finish line. Mayer would go on to dominate the day from there, only giving up the lead two more times, but it was Justin Allgaier that managed to claim the stage 1 win. Jeremy managed to rebound from having to serve a stop and go for missing the backstretch bus stop that dropped him back to 32nd to finish the opening stanza 26th. 

 

The green flag for the second stage dropped at lap 24 where once again, Sam Mayer jumped out to the lead while Josh Berry experienced some playoff chaos after recording a P2 finish in the opening stage. Berry spun out on lap 33, but managed to save it and get re-fired to avoid bringing out the race’s first true caution. A few moments later, he went around again, this time backing into the inside wall, but still managing to avoid bringing out a caution. The yellow finally came out on the 2nd to last lap of the 2nd stage when Conor Daly had a left front tire go down on the front straightaway, which put him in the wall. With many drivers pitting for strategy ahead of the end of the stage, it shook up the field, and John Hunter Nemechek went on to take the 2nd stage under yellow. 

 

The final stage went green at lap 43, with Sam Mayer once again easily checking out to a nearly 1-second lead over Cole Custer. But, in typical road course fashion, the closing laps had to feature a chaotic caution that leaves some teams to gamble for track position and almost always breeds another late restart. 

 

A cone had been run over on the frontstretch chicane and was just sitting on the asphalt just inside the track boundary, bringing out a caution for debris with 12 to go. Four laps later, the green flag dropped again with a new leader – Jeb Burton, who stayed out on older tires. Justin Allgaier would join him on the front row, and as they entered turn one, Burton locked up his brakes and went up the track into Allgaier, sandwiching the 7 between Burton and the wall. The damage on Allgaier proved to be enough to end his day, and NASCAR made Burton come down pit road to check his damages, making Cole Custer the leader for the final restart with 5 to go. 

 

Two laps later, Sam Mayer once again reclaimed the top spot for good as he would go in to win his 3rd race of the season, which was also his 3rd career victory – all 3 coming on road courses. He also punched his ticket to the next round in a must-win situation. Daniel Hemric, Parker Kligerman, Josh Berry, and Jeb Burton were not as lucky, having been eliminated from the 2023 Xfinity Series playoffs. 

 

Jeremy Clements came home in 23rd position, a result he will take given how the weekend went. Asked to summarize the day, Jeremy had this to say. 

 

“It was just tough to keep it under me and I had to brake sooner than I wanted. We had to start last, and it’s really hard to make up track position. We never got any track position either. So a really, really tough day for us, which has been the theme of the year.”

 

Following the points reset, John Hunter Nemechek is back atop the standings 37 points above the cutline. Austin Hill is in second 21 points in the good. Justin Allgaier sits at 17 points ahead of the cut while Sam Mayer, by virtue of his win, holds the final spot 2 points in the positive. Cole Custer, Chandler Smith, Sheldon Creed, and Sammy Smith are all currently on the bubble below the cutline as the playoffs roll into Las Vegas next week.

 

Cup Series

Bank of America Roval 400 

 

In much similar fashion to the Xfinity race on Saturday, the cup guys started out in the same way. The first 2 stages did not see a whole lot of action and the entire final stage, particularly the last 30 laps, were complete and utter chaos unlike anything we have seen since the inaugural Bank of America Roval 400 back in October of 2018. 

 

23XI racing’s Tyler Reddick started on the pole, marking just the 6th time in his cup career that spans 142 races and just his 2nd of the 2023 season. Christopher Bell continued his trend that has dated back to the playoff opener at Darlington a month ago, once again scoring a starting spot on the front row. Spoiler alert: having a good qualifying run doesn’t mean anything in the main event. Of those 2, only one would post a top 10 finish as Tyler Reddick came home 6th. 

 

The first domino to fall happened yesterday for a playoff driver as Kyle Larson suffered some damage in practice, and since the team wanted to try and fix the car, they did not post a qualifying run, instead opting to start last. In the end, the damage was deemed irreparable and the 5 team had to go to their backup car, which put Larson starting in 37th. That puts a driver that is not in the playoffs in a tight spot, since passing at the Roval is a step shy of impossible. For a favorite to be in the championship 4 in a playoff race that was only “in the good” by 15 points, it is a significant increase in pressure. 

 

The good news if you are a Larson fan? He survived and advanced. Kyle made good speed early on, advancing from last to 25th over the course of the first 16 laps. Ordinarily, that’s about where you end up when you start at the back on a road course – especially in a backup car. But, he only kept moving up and managed a top 15 out of the day, crossing the line P13. 

 

The first non-playoff domino to tumble of the day was Ricky Stenhouse Jr hitting the wall and breaking a toe link on lap 3. He pitted on lap 4 to fix it, putting him behind the eight ball 2 laps down. 

 

The first stage ended relatively trouble-free with Tyler Reddick claiming the stage win, opting to stay out rather than follow most of the field in short-pitting the stage break caution (which NASCAR decided to bring back for road courses starting with this race after not having them all season) for better setup and track position for stage 2. 

 

The second stage was also fairly event free save for 1 pass for the lead. Christopher Bell took the top spot when Reddick had to come in to pit during the stage break, and led the first 6 laps of the 2nd stanza. Chase Elliott, who we all know is a threat at every road course race despite not having won a race this year or a race on a road course in the last 2 years, started the stage in 3rd and easily took 2nd within a lap. He quickly ran down Bell and overtook him coming out the section of the course that is turns 1 and 2 on the oval and into the back straightaway. Elliott went on to cruise to a lead over 5 seconds running in clean air and went on to win the second stage with ease, which ended under the race’s first real caution after Josh Bilicki crashed into the tire barriers in turn 4 on the infield portion of the course. Interestingly enough, Chase Elliott was going to pit on the final lap of the stage and just narrowly avoided being caught at the commitment line for pit road when the yellow flag was displayed for a pitting on closed road penalty. So, the stage win was really not intended in the 9 team’s strategy. 

 

The green flag for the final stage flew at lap 53, starting the most chaotic part of the race. Granted, the 3rd stage on road courses does tend to be the most action-packed, but maybe not to the extent that we saw over the final 30 or so laps in this one. 

 

Kyle Busch, who was in a must-win situation in order to advance to the round of 8, led the field to the green, but within 5 laps, AJ Allmendinger managed to run him down and overtake him going through the backstretch “bus stop” chicane. 

 

While Allmendinger continued to lead the race, chaos abounded behind him. 

 

Martin Truex Jr, who was also in need of some points to stave off elimination himself, began to dive bomb into the frontstretch chicane, which is a high risk and often low reward move, trying to gain an advantage in the front stretch going into the hard turn 1 braking zone. It is not “ride the wall at full send through turn 4 at Martinsville” kinda desperate, but it was a close 2nd. 

 

Chase Elliott’s chances at a win were all but eliminated when he noticed his right rear may have been going down and came in with 44 laps to go when running in 17th. It was later confirmed by his crew that the tire was going flat. 

 

Playoff chaos hit for Denny Hamlin around lap 70 when Michael McDowell made contact with him in the frontstretch chicane. McDowell flattened a tire when his wheels locked and Hamlin was able to get going, so it did not prompt a caution, but it did set in motion a wild final 35 or so, during which Hamlin was spun again, this time by Ty Dillon. Hamlin incurred some damage and had to go on the DVP clock. While it was repaired, he ran out of time, missing the cutoff by just 4 seconds, thus ending the day for the 11. Luckily for Hamlin, he had already clinched a spot in the round of 8 on points. 

 

The race restarted on lap 79 with 30 to go only to immediately go back under yellow when Michael McDowell and Erik Jones got together and crashed hard into the inside wall coming off turn 2. 

 

Following the next restart on lap 82, lightning struck again as the 15 of Andy Lally spun coming out of turn 1 and got stuck there, prompting another full-course caution that would be lifted on lap 87. From there, a couple of non-caution-inducing incidents happened. Going full send into the bus stop on the backstretch, Daniel Suarez made contact with the back bumper of the 2 of Austin Cindric, turning him around and sending him into Bubba Wallace. On the same lap in the front stretch chicane, Ross Chastain collided with Brad Keselowski, causing both to spin through and cut the course, making both have to serve a stop and go penalty. 

 

A full course yellow came out again at lap 93 when Daniel Suarez crashed after being turned by Christopher Bell. After the restart with 13 to go, Ricky Stenhouse’s car caught fire from around the exhaust area on the passenger side as he was coming off turn 2, setting the stage for the final restart with 10 laps to go. 

 

Over the course of that 10 laps, William Byron gave it everything he had to try and catch Aj Allmendinger, coming as close as 2 tenths of a second, but in the end, it was “Dinger” that hung on for the win even with all the chaos and late restarts, driving nearly flawlessly down the stretch under pressure. 

 

Aj Allmendinger has a bit of a reputation for being very emotional. He does not win often. He also has a reputation for being a road course ringer. So, to win this race today, in his first full-time season racing in the Cup Series since 2018, and earn Kaulig Racing’s 2nd-ever cup series win (the first having been when Allmendinger won on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway “Roval” back in 2021), this one brought out the water works. 

 

“…people see how much anguish and how much I put it on my shoulders when we’re struggling. It just means the world. I hate crying right now, but it’s a freaking Cup race, man. You don’t know when it’s ever going to happen again”, said Allmendinger. 

 

“These moments make all the anguish worth it and more. This is why you do it. This is the only reason you do it. You fight. All the blood, sweat, tears (are made worth it)”, he added. 

 

Asked to go over what he did to limit mistakes over all those restarts, Allmendinger gave a ton of credit to Ty Gibbs, who he felt was the best car on long runs as the race came down to the final laps, while also detailing what he did mentally while he was “mirror driving”. 

 

“It’s hard to do this {win in the cup series}. It’s frickin’ hard. I know there’s certain teams and certain drivers that get a lot of opportunities to go and win cup races. But there’s also a lot of drivers and teams that don’t. I always study not only the track, but where everybody is in the playoffs and what they’re racing for because when you’re racing to make a cut,  everybody’s gonna be aggressive. But there is a different level of aggression. I thought we (Ty Gibbs and AJ) raced fairly clean, knowing what we were battling for (Ty Gibbs is still looking for his first cup series win). I knew Kyle had to win to make the playoffs. I kept looking up at the board to see where he was points wise. I knew William (Byron) was probably going to the next round and was going to be aggressive, but not desperately aggressive. So that was what was playing in my head on who I was racing around.”

 

As the laps wound down and it became clear the race was between Allmendinger and William Byron, he changed his whole approach and mindset. 

 

“I would always have a good enough lead that I thought I could kind of pace myself, and then you’d have to go through a restart again. So the biggest thing was just trying to change it up just enough to time it right. It’s track position based, so I knew if I could get in the lead, it was going to make it a difficult challenge for them to get around me. And that was just always the focus on those restarts”, said ‘Dinger. 

“If I give everything I have, I make no mistakes, and William gets around me and beats me, yeah, it sucks. But I’d go home and I look in the mirror, and you say the better team and better driver beat me that day. The one thing I did not want to do was be that guy that made a mistake and let him by me. This is what we all want, to be put in those pressure cooker moments. And those are the moments that I dream of, knowing, hey, you got the best of the best in the world behind you. It’s on you to not let them by. I felt like I made a couple of real small mistakes with the 24 behind me. The rear tires were starting to go, but in those last 7-8 laps, that’s as perfect as I can drive a race car”, he added.

 

Allmendinger is not in the playoffs, so his win did nothing but spoil things heading into the round of 8 opener next week. Following this race, which regardless of your opinion of the roval, you can’t deny was good for a cutoff race, Brad Keselowski, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, and Kyle Busch have been eliminated. After reseeding, William Byron is now the points leader with 4,041. Martin Truex Jr managed to squeak by into the round of 8 and now stands 2nd 5 points back from Byron. Denny Hamlin is third, and Kyle Larson sits 4th. The 4 drivers on the bubble are Chris Buescher (three points back from the cut line in 5th), Christopher Bell (-8), Tyler Reddick (tied with Bell), and Ryan Blaney (-7). 

 

The Round of Eight gets underway next Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. 



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