The Charlotte Roval promised to be chaotic, a fantasy design straight out of the old video games that was going to tear cars up and dash hopes. Well, that narrative did not pan out, at least in the early going on Sunday. As for the ending, well, that was another story.
It was different, but it was racing. Going in, we knew Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones needed to do very, very well to keep their championship hopes alive. They did not. We knew Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer needed to do better than the likes of Chase Elliott, Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, and Ryan Blaney to make themselves happy and upset those they were chasing. As we neared the midway of the contest, things remained close enough that we still did not know how things were going to play out
Aric Almirola looked safe, coming in 23 points to the good, but when William Byron blew a tire late in the middle frame and bobbled he caused the then 11th placed Almirola to flinch. That saw him pound the fence on the way by. They came in for repairs and then got tagged with a tire violation. That was all it took for him to find himself on the outside trying to get back to the table with the cool kids.
However, when it came to actual points in the bank, he was still nine up after the two stages. Among the five battling for the final three berths into the next round of the Playoffs, only five points now separated second stage winner Blaney, Dillon, Bowyer, Johnson, and Bowman, in that order. Their fate at the finish was going to decide things between them unless someone else had their luck run out on them.
Dillon’s fortunes dipped a tad when he tried to avoid a slow Chris Buescher. In doing so, he went high into the marbles and battered the passenger side of his beast along the wall. That required some repair, even more than what it received. A short time later the tire blew, he hit the barrier yet again and Dillon was done, leaving a vacancy at the inn.
Meanwhile, Almirola was doing his best to provide another. He went for another spin and went bowling for dollars with the infield advertising signs. At the same time, Buescher did him one better and actually hooked up a sign for Echo Park Automotive and had it waving behind him for part of a lap before the pit crew detached it. Best advertisement moment of the entire weekend. Echo Park Automotive, a used-car dealer based in Charlotte, a subsidiary of Sonic Automotive. Echo Park, for all your automotive needs.
With seven to go, more than a few automobiles had some needs emerge. On a re-start, Brad Keselowski charged into turn one. Literally. He hit. Kyle Busch got caught up in it but, like Keselowski, he already had his pass to the next round of the dance. Kyle Larson, a contender all day, saw his auto all bent and busted. Almirola got caught in a rapidly stopping traffic jam. Those two had looked good to advance, but now it depended on how many points they might drop, who might be able to take advantage, with little time left. Meanwhile, Bowman and Bowyer were still fighting for one spot, or would there be more room at the hostelry opening up for them both?
As it turned out, yes there was. Blaney advanced with a win, as third place became first place in the final chicane. Johnson went for the win, taking himself and Martin Truex Jr. out of the running when they collided.
Larson, sitting now in a pile of junk, was out of it, we thought. His car was bouncing off the wall on the right side after blowing a tire, but he kept the bucket of bolts running forward, but not quickly. He needed to pass somebody to advance. Sitting just shy of the line, after being spun out, was the idle solitary car of Jeffrey Earnhardt. It sat 100 yards short of the finish. It did not move until Larson passed him. It took an eternity, but Larson went by Earnhardt, got the point, and that left us with a three-way tie in the standings. Only two would advance. Larson was given the nod, followed by Almirola, leaving Johnson, despite finishing eighth, the guy left on the outside.
Johnson was in, but in trying for the win, he got knocked out by the smallest of margins. As for Larson, he needs to thank the guy who spun Earnhardt out just shy of the line, that left him available to pass, the guy who made Larson’s continued hopes possible.
Ty Dillon and Daniel Hemric finished 22nd and 23rd respectively, but not before taking Earnhardt out in the final chicane. Definitely Daniel, and possibly Ty as well, deserve much thanks from Larson for the deed. He owes them big time.
Now, on to Dover.