By Hunter Bailey. September 30, 2018. CONCORD, NC – A chaotic finish to the inaugural “Roval” at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday found race leaders Martin Truex, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson wrecking in the final turn, allowing the third-place car of Ryan Blaney to scoot by and bring home the checkered flag.
All photographic images by David Scearce for Blowing Rock News
With the threat of elimination looming, constricted chaos abounded throughout the race. It was a historic beginning to the 2018 NASCAR playoffs and the first cutoff race. Jimmie Johnson tracked down Martin Truex Jr. on the last lap of the race, at the time holding an eight-point advantage above the elimination cut line.
But simply qualifying to continue competing in The Chase was evidently the furthest thing from Johnson’s mind. The seven-time Monster Energy Cup champion could have taken a second-place finish and advance to the next round of the playoffs, but the hunger to break his 58-race winless streak took over. Heading into the final turn, Johnson locked up the breaks trying to make the pass. His car spun through the grass and took out a surprised Truex. With the race’s first and second place cars involved in the crash, Blaney had Lady Luck on his side in avoiding the mayhem and easing through for the win.
Johnson dropped in the standings, falling below the cut-line. Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin, and Daytona 500 winner Auston Dillon joined Johnson in being eliminated from the playoffs in the first round.
The focus wasn’t just on the leaders in the closing laps of the race but also on Aric Almirola. The driver of the #10 Ford Fusion owned by Stewart-Haas Racing as he passed three cars to make the cut-line and remain in the playoffs. The elimination race format has added more intensity and storylines to the chase, and today showed exactly why.
With the reconfiguration of the track, drivers weren’t yet adapted to the challenges a 17-turn track could have. Inexperience showed when Brad Keselowski lead the field to the green flag with 6 laps remaining, as he overdrove the first turn, locking up the breaks and collecting 15 cars in the wreck. Kyle Larson who won the days first stage and led 47 of the 109 laps was involved in the wreck, along with championship contender Kyle Busch. Although there were two wrecks in the final 10 laps, much of the race was ran pretty clean, to the surprise of many as the 17-turn “Roval” had collected many victims throughout the week.
This wreck set up the final restart of the race, and the battle between 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson, and defending champion Martin Truex Jr. Ryan Blaney was able to capitalize on the leader’s miscues and win his first race of the season.
“We were in the right place at the right time,” Blaney said during the celebration in victory lane. “You hate to see that happen, but you try to capitalize on the circumstances given to you.”
During the cool-down lap after the chaotic finish, Martin Truex Jr. let his frustration show, spinning the 48 of Jimmie Johnson. Although it didn’t seem intentional, Johnson did take himself and the 78 of Truex out at the finish line. “I was more worried about the win than anything else,” Johnson said after the race. “These wins are so important, and the veteran could have taken the safe route and didn’t.”
Next week the NASCAR playoffs will head to Dover, Delaware, where the final 12 drivers will continue their quest for a title. The Gander Outdoors 400 starts at 2 PM Sunday, October 7th.
FACTOID: The Roval and the Daytona 500 are the only two races this season where a driver from the big three (Martin Truex Jr, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick) didn’t finish in the top 5.