Road courses present a unique opportunity for underdog teams. Much in the same way as restrictor plate races, they are an equalizer in terms of minimizing the performance gap between the haves and the have nots.
The absence of the cars’ dependance on aero also contributes to the parity. The previous two road course races in 2018 were peppered with examples of the capability of the underdogs to keep up. Chris Buescher finished in the top 20 at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen earlier this year. Matt DiBenedetto and Michael McDowell also had a top-20 run at one of the two previous road course races.
Therefore, it’s of little surprise that optimism was high for many small teams as the series ventured to the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL for the first time this weekend. After all, not only was it a road course but it was the inaugural event on the layout. Longtime Cup participants Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Stewart Haas Racing and other large scale organizations had no more data or history to utilize than any of the other teams dis.
In qualifying, Buescher and his JTG Daugherty Racing teammate AJ Allmendinger both landed top ten starting positions. Also, McDowell put his Ford 18th on the grid after advancing to the second round of qualifying.
While no small budget teams were a threat to win on race day, there were a few that took full advantage of the ability to run a comparable speed to that of the leaders as well as a bit of late race carnage.
Top of the Class
For only the eighth time in 2018, the Frontstretch “Underdog of the Race” was Allmendinger. AJ was as aggressive as ever chasing the leaders. He began the race from the outside pole and declared that he was essentially racing for a job. Earlier in the weekend, the team announced that modified standout Ryan Preece would take over the No. 47 full time in 2019. So Allmendinger felt as if he really had nothing to lose by letting the rough side drag.
Allmendinger never led the race but finished eighth in stage one and steered his way through the late mayhem to finish seventh. It was his fourth top ten finish of the season and first since coming in third at Daytona in July.
The result had to feel like a bit of vindication for the road course ace after Allmendinger qualified in the top ten for both of the previous road races this year, only to come away with finishes of 15th and 38th.
In addition to Allmendinger, DiBenedetto also had a banner afternoon. The GoFas Racing No. 32 Ford posted a solid 13th place finish after beginning the day in 28th position. For DiBenedetto, the run was even more impressive considering he hasn’t enjoyed a great deal of success when it’s time to make left and right turns. Coming into 2018, the California native had never finished better than 23rd on a road course. Now, he has a 17th at Sonoma this past summer to go along with the 13th place run on Sunday.
Underdogs of the Race So Far in 2018
Daytona: Darrell Wallace Jr. (second)
Atlanta: Kasey Kahne (21st)
Las Vegas: Chris Buescher (15th)
ISM: AJ Allmendinger (21st)
Auto Club: Darrell Wallace Jr. (20th)
Martinsville: AJ Allmendinger (seventh)
Texas: Darrell Wallace Jr. (eighth)
Bristol: David Ragan (12th)
Richmond: Matt DiBenedetto (16th)
Talladega: David Ragan (sixth)
Dover: Kasey Kahne (17th)
Kansas: David Ragan (13th)
All-Star Race: AJ Allmendinger (eighth)
Charlotte: Darrell Wallace Jr. (16th)
Pocono: David Ragan (16th)
Michigan: AJ Allmendinger (17th)
Sonoma: Chis Buescher (12th)
Chicagoland: Michael McDowell (21st)
Daytona: AJ Allmendinger (third)
Kentucky: David Ragan (18th)
New Hampshire: Kasey Kahne (19th)
Pocono: AJ Allmendinger (14th)
Watkins Glen: AJ Allmendinger (15th)
Michigan: Chris Buescher (20th)
Bristol: Kasey Kahne (15th)
Darlington: Chris Buescher (13th)
Indianapolis: Michael McDowell (17th)
Las Vegas: Regan Smith (12th)
Richmond: David Ragan (23rd)
Charlotte ROVAL: AJ Allmendinger (7th)
Looking for More
The back half of the top 20 was loaded with underdogs who had decent runs on the ROVAL.
David Ragan posted a 16th place finish in his Front Row Racing Ford. Ragan’s teammate McDowell came across the finish line in the 18th position.
Sandwiched between the team duo was Buescher, who had a very eventful day and likely couldn’t wait to put the ROVAL in his rearview mirror. Buescher had a few run ins with both other cars and the barriers. Additionally, one particular spin and subsequent contact with an advertising banner left the sign lodged in his team bumper. Buescher dragged the sign behind his car for nearly a full lap as he made his way to pit road, where his crew removed the unwanted addition.
Also sneaking into the top 20 was Cole Whitt, who piloted his Tri Star Motorsports entry to a 20th place finish. It was the first top 20 for Whitt on a road course and his second such finish in only 11 Cup starts this season.
Next up was Ross Chastain in 24th place. Chastain gained 11 positions from his starting spot and kept his car fairly clean throughout the event.
Behind was Jeffrey Earnhardt, who had a disappointing 26th. The notable thing about Earnhardt was that he spun on the frontstretch on the final lap, allowing Kyle Larson to get to the line first for 25th place. This gave Larson just enough points to advance to the next round of the playoffs.
Justin Marks, JJ Yeley and Landon Cassill occupied the next three spots in the running order as they came home 27th, 28th, and 29th respectively. Timmy Hill was victimized by a broken axle, dropping out of the race after 70 laps and being credited with finishing 38th.
In terms of disappointment for the underdogs, Stanton Barrett had to have been the biggest let down. The former Hollywood stuntman was making his first Cup start since 2006 for Rick Ware Racing. However, Barrett was the track’s first victim of the day, as he slid into the turn one wall. The team was done for the day after just 11 laps had been completed.
The XFINITY Series kicked off the ROVAL action on Saturday afternoon but the underdog presence was a bit less apparent in that event.
Canadian Alex Labbe made the biggest splash, qualifying fifth and overcoming early trouble to finish 13th. Also carrying the underdog banner was once again Jeremy Clements. The driver of the No. 51 scored his first career win last year on a road course and backed it up with a decent 18th place on Saturday.
Also worthy of recognition was Lawson Aschenbach. The sports car standout was making only his second ever NASCAR Xfinity Series start in a JD Motorsports entry. Aschenbach kept his car out of trouble and brought it home in 21st place.
P13 today at the first ever race at the Roval! Total team effort today 💪🏻 that was crazy
— Matt DiBenedetto (@mattdracing) September 30, 2018
Hats off to @CLTMotorSpdwy and @NASCAR for trying something new. The layout of the Roval is definitely challenging, but fun. I think with a few very minor tweaks it would be exciting to see a sportscar race here! 💥
.#letsgo #fun #racing #roval #charlotte pic.twitter.com/NNRnBxe4gw
— Lawson Aschenbach (@lawsonaracing) September 30, 2018
— Michael McDowell (@Mc_Driver) September 30, 2018
Ended up P13 today after losing an axle cap on the 2nd lap. Didn’t get back on the lead lap until the last stage and we charged back from P32 in 20 laps. Tough break for us, but still really proud of the speed my @dgm_racing_ guys brought to the track!!! pic.twitter.com/6SFPMa425B
— Alex Labbe (@AlexLabbe36) September 29, 2018