Who survives to the next round is likely going to come down to one question.
Who has the guts to push through the final chicane?
The NASCAR playoffs are back at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course for The Bank of America ROVAL 400 on Sunday, putting Cup series drivers through the most unique postseason race as they try to avoid elimination.
By Sunday night, four drivers will be cut, leaving 12 to fight for the championship. Only three drivers, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, are currently safe heading into this weekend, but with a topsy-turvy track like this one, the ROVAL 400 is anyone’s race.
Last year, Ryan Blaney won after a last-lap, last-turn wreck when Truex, this year’s front runner and winner of the first two playoff races of 2019, spun Jimmie Johnson, giving room for Blaney to slip through unscathed.
“It was wild,” Blaney said during an interview with the Observer on Wednesday. “Nothing we really expected … It was an odd way to win one, but we were at the right spot at the right time.”
Drivers have a better idea of what to expect this year, Blaney said, and thinks this will again be a captivating race for fans. Here are four things to watch during the ROVAL 400.
Martin Truex Jr. and Joe Gibbs Racing
Leading the pack with six wins, Truex is coming off back-to-back playoff victories at Las Vegas and Richmond, collecting 12 out of the 14 available playoff points. He’s also on a six-race streak of top-three finishes on road courses.
Truex’s Richmond win marked the 14th victory for Joe Gibbs Racing in 28 races. His teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin are in third and fifth respectively. However, despite running up top, Busch has gone 14 races without a win.
It’s also important to note that Hamlin has swept the top-five on road courses in 2019, as well as in ‘16 ‘17. It’s likely that a majority of Joe Gibbs Racing could dominate the top of this track again.
The six winless drivers
Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman, Blaney, Aric Almirola, William Byron and Clint Bowyer are all without a win this season, resting in 8-12th and 14th place, respectively, in the playoff standings.
These drivers are the most desperate and in need of a trip down Victory Lane. All of the drivers are within ten points or fewer of each another. While they can hope that it’s enough to get by, a win would help add some extra padding for the next round.
Hendrick Motorsports in trouble
Johnson isn’t in the playoffs for the first time since NASCAR introduced the postseason in 2004.
Alex Bowman is right outside of the second round cutoff at 13th with teammate Byron in 12th, two points above him. After a tit-for-tat battle of the bumpers between Bowman and Austin Dillon at Richmond last week, Byron got caught in the crossfire, and the two finished 23rd and 24th, respectively.
Chase Elliott seems to be the only driver keeping the team alive, sitting at seventh — a full 35 points above Byron. Keep an eye on Elliott this weekend as he’s the most recent road course winner from Glen. He also swept the top-10 of this track type last season.
In a sport that relies on a lot of skill and a little bit of luck, the experience may come in handy at Charlotte.
The final turn
After watching last year’s race, that final turn is a killer. Granted, that was the first time the drivers raced the track, but it’s still something they, and fans, need to keep an eye on this Sunday afternoon. It could completely change the outcome of the race.
“That last turn is one of the tougher turns we got,” Blaney said. “... We have a better idea this year than last.”
Through watching hours of film like any other sport, some drivers feel more prepared than last year and that the track is more predictable in the second the second time around. But Charlotte Motor Speedway did adjust the angle of a chicane opposite of the finish line for this year’s edition to, hopefully, add even more drama. Anything can happen.
As Blaney said, “A win is a win.”