Brad Keselowski expected last Saturday night’s race Richmond Raceway to be a slugfest with five cars running at the end. Already locked into the Round of 12, Keselowski thought his competitors would go to war trying to join him on the safe side of things ahead of the Charlotte road course race, and was surprised when it didn’t.
“I’m honestly shocked by what we saw [Saturday],” Keselowski said. “I think all these guys are so scared of next week they didn’t want to put a fender on each other … I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. Guess they’re saving the slugfest for next week.”
Charlotte is the great unknown in this year’s edition of the playoffs, leading to predictions of chaos that have drivers on edge. Whereas Talladega in the second round is expected to be wild and known to shake things up, no one can say for certain what is going to happen with the unpredictable new course on the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield.
“I think everybody is just nervous because it’s very slick — I don’t know why it’s so slick,” said Richmond winner Kyle Busch, who is also locked into the next round. “When we go to Sonoma, Sonoma doesn’t feel this bad. When you go to the Roval, though, you’re just on edge the entire time. It feels like ice. You’re never comfortable. And if you get off course, you’re into a tire barrier, you’re into a wall, you’re hitting someone or something right away. There’s no runoff.
“At Sonoma you can go off course in Turn 1, you can run off through the dirt, whatever. There is none of that at Charlotte. That’s why I think everybody is so worried about it, is just the tightness of the course. But it’s the same for all of us. I think a lot of guys will have different mentalities going in this week and what they expect and what they are looking to achieve. We’ll go in there with a good mindset and a good attitude about it, and hopefully it’ll come out well for us.”
Outside of the two stage breaks there was one caution in the Federated Auto Parts 400. Busch drove from the rear of the field to hold off Kevin Harvick for the win, sealing his Round of 12 spot.
Meanwhile, defending champion Martin Truex Jr., who finished third, clinched a next round spot through points. Truex said he feels bad for those going to Charlotte with their postseason hopes on the line.
Harvick admitted he’s “terrified” of the Charlotte road course, but fortunately for the Stewart-Haas Racing driver he just needs to start Sunday afternoon’s race to advance.
Twenty-five points separate fifth-place Joey Logano on the playoff grid from Clint Bowyer, the first driver below the cutoff line. Denny Hamlin is last on the playoff grid in a 29-point hole.
“Think ‘smart’ is the key word,” said Austin Dillon when asked about his Charlotte approach. Dillon is 10th on the playoff grid with a slim 10-point advantage.
A two-day test at Charlotte during the summer saw numerous accidents. William Byron went nose-first into the tires at Turn 1. Darrell Wallace Jr. also got out of shape going into the corner and totaled his No. 43 machine. And drivers like Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman and Erik Jones all spun to different consequences in Turn 3.
“Well, it’s going to be one way or the other,” Logano said of Charlotte. “It’s either going to be a total slugfest or it’s going to be a race like you saw [Saturday] where everyone was very cautious. … [Charlotte] is going to be one extreme or the other. Won’t be any in-between.”
And even for drivers like Keselowski who go to Charlotte with nothing on the line, having fun might be hard.
“As much fun as you can have going into a race knowing you’re going to destroy about 30 cars,” said Keselowski.