For the first time in Monster Energy Cup Series history, the circuit visited the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval for the Bank of America Roval 400. The race also held major playoff implications as the final race of the Round of 16, meaning four drivers would be eliminated from title contention by the end. By said end, Ryan Blaney was victorious in dramatic fashion.
Kurt Busch started on the pole alongside A.J. Allmendinger. Busch led the race early as Allmendinger quickly lost second to Kyle Larson. In the middle of the field, Michael McDowell and Daniel Suárez made contact, causing damage to the latter’s nose. Denny Hamlin, who was fighting to climb across the cut line, had to pit for a corded tire, delivering a serious blow to his playoff hopes.
On lap 14, Stanton Barrett, making his first Cup start since 2006, hit the turn one wall to bring out the caution. During stops, Landon Cassill and Suárez were penalised for speeding.
Larson led the field to the restart on lap 17. He led for the remainder of the stage. With three laps left, Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon, both playoff drivers on the bubble, pitted. Clint Bowyer finished second, followed by Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, and Blaney.
A number of drivers like Larson and Truex stayed out to create the front row for the start of Stage #2 on lap 30. Kurt Busch won the race off pit road and restarted twenty-third.
As Larson led, Justin Marks, making his final start in NASCAR, spun though no caution came out. Truex and Kyle Busch pitted under green on lap 37, sparking a cycle of green flag stops. Larson did so shortly after and surrendered the lead to Blaney. Blaney’s Team Penske team-mate Brad Keselowski pitted from second, enabling him to pull away as he stayed out. Suárez pitted from fourth, but ended up with a second speeding penalty. For multiple drivers fighting to advance, they elected to also remain on track in an effort to receive as many stage points as possible for use in the standings. Harvick, who was running in second and was safely in position to move into the next round, also pitted. His Stewart-Haas Racing team-mate Almirola suffered fender damage and attempted to pit, but received an uncontrolled tire violation.
With Blaney not pitting, he scored the stage win ahead of Johnson, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Dillon, Bowman, Larson, and Daniel Hemric.
Larson stayed out between stages to take the lead. Stage #3 began on lap 55 as Hemric started falling through the field on older tires. Four laps later, a caution for debris came out. Dillon hit the wall as he tried to avoid Chris Buescher, damaging his wheel. During stops, Hemric received a penalty.
Lap 61 saw the next restart. As the cars entered turn one, Allmendinger made contact with Denny Hamlin, damaging the former’s car. Dillon’s playoff hopes came to an end on lap 65 when he hit the wall again, with a debris caution coming out a lap later.
The green flag waved on lap 68, but racing did not last long as Almirola was involved in a spin after a lap when he was bumped by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., with Buescher also taking damage. Stenhouse and Paul Menard led the field to the lap 71 green as Erik Jones‘ tire went down upon bumping with Suárez; Kyle Busch cut the first turn to dodge the incident and received no penalty. Keselowski eventually took the lead.
By lap 80, Larson reached Menard and passed him on the final chicane for second, and eventually caught Keselowski for first. Suárez’s day worsened when he pitted and was penalised yet again for speeding.
As the stage progressed, Larson and Keselowski had distanced themselves from the field. On lap 102, Stenhouse went airbourne as he approached turn one and wrecked to bring out the yellow. The top six cars decided to stay out.
The ensuing restart on lap 103 saw the largest accident of the day. As he neared turn one, Keselowski locked his brakes and hit the wall. Larson, Menard, Blaney, and William Byron were all unable to avoid him and either collided with the #2 or the wall. On the other side of the track, Hemric spun, collecting more drivers. The wreck forced the red flag to come out for cleanup. Larson was able to get his car repaired on time to remain in the race and playoff contention.
Truex and Johnson comprised the front row for what was the final restart with three laps to go. A strong restart by Truex enabled him to pull away. Following their incidents, Larson and Almirola found themselves dueling each other for the final playoff spot as the latter began moving through the field to close the points gap. Larson was able to distance himself to preserve his position at the moment, forcing Bowman into a precarious position.
On the final lap, Johnson, seeking his first win in fifty-one races, made his move in the final chicane. However, he eventually spun, and as his decommissioned car rolled back, it clipped Truex and sent him into a spin. In the carnage, Blaney sneaked by to score his second career win. Johnson crossed the line second, but he had cut the chicane, resulting in a time penalty that relegated him to eighth. Truex finished fourteenth.
In the playoff picture, Hemric clipped Jeffrey Earnhardt as they came to the finish, causing the latter to stall on track. Driving a severely damaged car, Larson slammed into the wall as he slid past Earnhardt to finish twenty-fifth. Almirola finished nineteenth. Between Almirola, Johnson, and Larson, all three drivers were tied for twelfth place. The tiebreaker is determined by the driver’s best finish in the Round of 16; Larson’s best run was second at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, while Almirola’s was fifth at Richmond Raceway. Johnson had two eighths, meaning he had the lowest best run and was therefore eliminated from the playoffs.
“Everyone makes mistakes… apologies to the 78 and all of their fans,” Johnson tweeted after the race.
Interestingly, Blaney’s win is the 501st for Team Penske. In the Star Wars universe (one of Blaney’s favourite film series), the 501st Legion is the main Clone Trooper infantry legion led by franchise antagonist Darth Vader.
“Well we had some luck on our side today,” Blaney tweeted. “What a wild finish. Not how I want to win them but we capitalized on an opportunity. Happy for this 12 team.
Next week, the Round of 12 begins at Dover International Speedway with the Gander Outdoors 400. Kyle Busch is the defending winner.