Roger Diez: Thrills and spills at Charlotte
NASCAR decided to run a slightly different track configuration of the Roval at Charlotte than the one I had been told would be used. In any event, the race provided the thrills and spills expected, especially in the closing laps. But who could have anticipated a three-way tie for the last transfer spot to round two of the playoffs? The poor NASCAR scorers must have burned up half a dozen calculators trying to figure out all the tie-breaker scenarios as Jimmie Johnson crashed at the final chicane taking leader Martin Truex Jr. with him. Kyle Larson brought his badly wounded Chevy home against the wall, as all hell broke loose on the last lap. But when the smoke cleared, the championship quest was over for Johnson, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, and Erik Jones. And Larson owes Jeffrey Earnhardt a steak dinner for crashing on the last lap, moving Larson up into the tie. Larson advanced due to his second place at Las Vegas, which was the deciding factor in the tie-breaker. Oh, and as a side note, Ryan Blaney threaded his way through the carnage to take the first-ever win on the Charlotte roval.
And now it’s on to the Monster Mile, and Johnson is undoubtedly re-thinking his decision to go for the win in the last chicane at Charlotte. Had he maintained second place he’d have advanced to round two, with Dover coming up this weekend. Dover is perhaps Jimmie’s best track ever, and he leads all active drivers with 11 wins there. His most recent victory was last year, and he began is winning ways at Dover in 2002, when he swept both races. The next closest are Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, and Matt Kenseth with three apiece. Busch won Dover a year ago, Kenseth (who is back in the No. 6 Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing this weekend) last won in 2016, and Newman’s last Dover victory was 14 years ago. Kevin Harvick has won the Monster Mile twice, in May 2015 and most recently this past May. Other Dover winners in the field are Truex and Kurt Busch with two each, and Brad Keselowski with a single victory.
As round two of the playoffs begins, just 12 drivers still are in contention, with the top eight the prospective transfers to round three. Playoff points carry over, so Kyle Busch has 3055, 47 points above the cut line. Harvick is second with 3050, Truex has 3038 for third, and Keselowski 3025, 17 points above the cut line. The next four drivers have much smaller margins. Clint Bowyer is only seven points above the cut line, Joey Logano and Kurt Busch are six points to the good, and Ryan Blayney’s roval win puts him five points above the cut line. Playing catchup going into the next round are Chase Elliott (-5), Larson (-7), Aric Almirola (-12) and Alex Bowman (-13).
In Formula One action, Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton further extended his championship lead over rival Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari. Hamilton won the Russian Grand Prix last Sunday when his teammate Valtteri Bottas let him by on team orders, and Mercedes scored another 1-2 finish while Vettel had to settle for third. Hamilton now leads Vettel by 50 points, 306 to 256, with five races remaining on the schedule. In the constructor’s championship, Mercedes boasts a 53-point advantage, 495 to 442. This weekend the series is at Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix, and Hamilton predicts “insane” speeds as teams and fans alike anticipate the fastest Suzuka race ever.