Drivers knew the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ inaugural “roval” race at Charlotte Motor Speedway was going to be more about survival than anything else. And that’s the only way to describe how Ryan Blaney ended up as the surprise winner of the Bank of America Roval 400 on Sunday.
“I almost wrecked trying to get through the chicane as fast as I could just because you’re trying to make up time and trying to seize the moment, but it was kind of just disbelief,” Baney said of taking the checkered flag after the leaders spun.
“I didn’t really know what — I was just kind of shocked that something like that happened and that you’re lucky to be in that spot.
“And luck has not been on our side very often and sometimes you find a nut.”
The first playoff elimination race on the half-oval, half-road course had not lived up to the hype and anticipation of chaos until the final six laps, and the drama — including the race winner and playoff advancement — actually came down to the drivers’ last time around the 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit.
As Jimmie Johnson fought to catch race leader Martin Truex Jr. on the final lap, the seven-time Cup Series champion lost control and spun out through the chicane on the front stretch just before the finish line, taking Truex with him.
Miraculously, Blaney survived the mess and slid by to win his first race of 2018 and second overall in his career.
Johnson, meanwhile, saw his playoff hopes shattered. Instead of safely coming home in second, he crossed the finish line in eighth place after regathering his No. 48 Chevrolet. That result, though, left him in a three-way tie for the 12th-place cutoff spot, and ultimately lost the tiebreaker to both Aric Almirola and Kyle Larson.
“I was more worried about the win than anything else,” an extremely dejected Johnson said on pit road. “I hated that I start wheel-hopping and took Martin and I out. That was the last thing I wanted to do. I thought that I was going to be in the prime braking zone but I just drove it too hard in there and wheel-hopped it.
“I didn’t think I hit him at first. I knew I was spinning but I didn’t think I collected him in my spin. I certainly regret doing that.
“And then ultimately we were in a transfer position and didn’t get it. So … just going for the win. The wins are so important. The veteran could have taken the safe route and didn’t. And unfortunately it took us out of the playoffs — and took out the 78.”
Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon — who did not continue after making contact with the wall on lap 65 — were also eliminated from the playoffs. Hamlin finished 12th, and Jones came in 30th.
The last-lap crash with Truex and Johnson wasn’t the only incident late in the relatively uneventful race that affected multiple playoff drivers.
At the beginning of lap 103 of 109 total, Keselowski led the way on a restart. But the No. 2 Ford driver lost control and slid into the barrier of turn 1 — which was nicknamed “Heartburn Turn” — and took Larson and Kyle Busch with him, as well as William Byron, Paul Menard and Trevor Bayne.
“Maybe we all overdrove it, maybe the track had something on it — I don’t know,” Keselowski said afterward, still unsure of what exactly happened with six laps left.
“I got in the corner. I didn’t feel like I got in it. I got in hard but not like ridiculously hard, and it just locked up. I couldn’t get the tire to unlock.”
Luckily for Keselowski and Busch, they won the first two playoff races in the playoff-opening Round of 16 and automatically locked themselves into the second round. Truex advanced based on points prior to Sunday’s race, while Harvick also clinched his spot simply by starting Sunday.
Larson managed to get his badly damaged car back onto the track and limp around to finish 25th, which was enough to put the Chip Ganassi Racing driver into the tie with Johnson and Almirola, who rebounded from his own struggles to finish 19th. Both drivers advanced over Johnson with better finishes in the first two races of the first round.
Clint Bowyer (third), Alex Bowman (fourth), Kurt Busch (fifth), Chase Elliott (sixth), Kevin Harvick (ninth), Joey Logano (10th), Truex (14th), Kyle Busch (32nd, DNF) and Brad Keselowski (31st, DNF) — along with Larson and Almirola — advanced to the Round of 12, which begins next Sunday at Dover International Speedway.