The Headline(s): Conquering the ugliest race Charlotte Motor Speedway has seen since the 2005 “Levigation 600,” Chase Elliott rebounded from a lap 65 wreck into the turn 1 barrier. He passed Kevin Harvick entering turn 1 of the CMS oval on lap 104 to score his third win of 2019. The race marked Elliott’s sixth career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win and 13th career NASCAR national series victory, all coming with Hendrick Motorsports.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 29, 2019
Alex Bowman, Harvick, Clint Bowyer and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top-five finishers. Bowman’s late-race charge to second, coupled with Ryan Newman missing the backstretch chicane on lap 107, allowed Bowman to score the 12th and final playoff spot in the next round.
How It Happened: Pole-sitter William Byron got off to a clean start, but the first of what would be many incidents hit on lap 1. That’s when Bowman spun himself out entering the backstretch chicane, in doing so forcing Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace to also miss the chicane missing the wreck. Nearly five laps later, NASCAR would call penalties on the Nos. 43 and 88 for missing the chicane (more on that later).
The first stage appeared to be headed for an uneventful finish, even with Joey Logano getting loose in the chicane racing for third with Harvick on lap 15. But on lap 20, a questionable yellow flew when Ryan Preece wheel-hopped and spun in the back chicane. That triggered a melee heading into turn 1 when Kurt Busch set off an accordion after contact with Chris Buescher. The resulting multi-car wreck eliminated Erik Jones from the playoffs.
— Charlotte Motor Speedway (@CLTMotorSpdwy) September 29, 2019
The ensuing yellow also handed stage one to Kyle Larson, who got by Byron before the yellow flag came out. Larson’s day was derailed soon after, however, for a controversial penalty that was deemed “pitting outside the box” and resulted in a one-lap penalty that took him right out of contention.
On the lap 28 restart, Logano emerged as the race leader and would remain there until lap 31, when Elliott took the point heading into turn 1 of the oval. The ensuing laps were a nightmare for the Team Penske camp. Lap 32 saw Logano’s teammate Keselowski forced to pit early after he flat-spotted his tires the lap prior entering the front chicane, dropping from the top five to 13th in a lap. Logano then narrowly avoided an uncontrolled tire penalty when he pitted on lap 37, only to smack the left front of his car exiting turn 3 when he locked up his car on pit exit with cold tires.
While the field dodged a yellow flag on lap 37 when Corey LaJoie went off track, the yellow did fly for good cause on lap 42 when Bowman “cleaned out” the No. 43 of Wallace exiting the back chicane. Social media quickly revealed that Bowman took out Wallace in response to the driver of the No. 43 flipping off the No. 88 on several occasions.
Elliott pitted from the lead during this yellow flag, leaving Clint Bowyer as the race leader when the green flew again on lap 45. Bowyer’s lead would only last a lap before he got wide in turn 5 and handed the point to Keselowski. It wasn’t long, however, before Elliott retook the lead easily on lap 49, having taken four tires under the yellow and restarting seventh. Elliott then cruised to the stage two win, with a Denny Hamlin spin in the back chicane failing to bring out a caution.
A few laps after the start of the final stage on lap 55, Penske’s problems continued. Ryan Blaney slapped the wall and damaged his car while running near the back of the top 10. The team opted to keep the No. 12 (which Rick Allen amusingly referred to as Newman’s car during the lap 55 restart) on track, a gamble that paid off when the yellow flag flew on lap 61 for Daniel Hemric’s spin on the apron between oval turns 3 and 4. That set the stage on lap 65 for one of the defining moments of the race, as Elliott pulled his best Keselowski impression out.
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 29, 2019
Come lap 67, Harvick assumed the race lead and the race stayed green, despite Kyle Busch going off course exiting turn 2 with a mechanical issue that had the No. 18 limping for nearly the entirety of the ROVAL. The race stayed green, with Harvick losing the lead as pit stops cycled only to regain it on lap 81. Lap 85 saw a Matt Tifft spin into the grass fail to bring out a yellow, but that caution soon arrived nonetheless on lap 89 when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. spun entering the backstretch chicane.
This triggered a never-ending plume of yellow flags. Lap 93 went yellow when a Hamlin spin blocked the track, collecting Preece and Newman and damaging the Rocket’s Ford. Lap 96 saw Daniel Suarez spin unassisted, bringing out a yellow flag when he was unable to get his Ford moving again. It all came to a head on lap 99, when Kurt Busch and Buescher both spun entering oval turn 1, further damaging both Preece and Newman. NASCAR attempted to go green at both laps 102 and 103, unable to do so when the pace car continued to find debris and fluid on the surface from Garrett Smithley’s car, which was forced to retire with a broken axle. NASCAR belatedly threw the red flag after the two failed attempts to start.
The race finally went back green for good on lap 104, with Elliott passing Harvick in oval turn 4 and driving off into the (by this time, literal) sunset. The playoff battle raged behind the leaders, with Bowman charging to second place on the restart. Bowman’s efforts paid off when on lap 107 Newman overdrove and missed the back chicane, incurring further penalties on the next lap when he failed to perform the stop-and-go penalty for missing the turn. Newman’s error allowed Hendrick Motorsports to win the race and secure the final spot in the Round of 12 for Bowman.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
Elliott benefitted from a rash of yellow flags that rivaled the Terrible Towels of Pittsburgh. That said, he still deserved a ton of credit for rebounding from a lap 65 wreck to win his second road course race of the year. Elliott also won the race without using his bumper, keeping his credit account open come Martinsville.
The rest of the Hendrick camp showed up in Charlotte as well. Byron delivered one of the most complete races of his Cup career by winning the pole and finishing sixth, avoiding the melee that was the entire afternoon. Jimmie Johnson scored a top-10 finish, a follow-up to his near-win in this race a year ago. And then there was Bowman who, despite wrecking his primary car in practice and getting involved in numerous incidents Sunday, including a completely unnecessary tiff with backmarker Wallace, had enough in the tank to battle to second in the closing laps. Bowman drove himself into literal exhaustion to make the Round of 12, and succeeded.
Though Logano scored another top 10, both Harvick and Keselowski remained the top bullets for Ford with their top-five results; the two drivers have a combined average finish of fourth in the playoffs thus far this season. That Keselowski managed to score his top five with his car handling like a shopping cart was icing on the cake.
Is this bad pic.twitter.com/4jPVYhjS2f
— nascarcasm (@nascarcasm) September 29, 2019
Bowyer’s fourth-place finish was his best since the spring Richmond race. Matt DiBenedetto’s 11th-place finish was his 11th top 20 in the last 12 races for the No. 95 team despite being his worst road course result of the season. Michael McDowell earned ironman of the race honors for finishing 12th, his best result since the Daytona 500, a mere 48 hours after passing a kidney stone.
Though he was a chew toy for the ROVAL circuit on Sunday, Buescher’s season-long consistency earned him a promotion back to Roush Fenway Racing for the 2020 season. Considering what Newman did for that team on his own this year, upgrading his teammate can only be good for the RFR camp.
For the second week in a row, despite just being himself, I found myself siding with Rowdy.
1000 respects for Kyle Busch for bailing on this race
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) September 29, 2019
Having said that….
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
The No. 18’s playoff campaign thus far is looking a lot more like 2008 than Joe Gibbs Racing would probably want to admit. Busch ran in the top five for some of Sunday’s race but was never a factor for the lead. And when mechanical woes struck on lap 67, the No. 18 team (or its driver at least) appeared to check out, incurring a penalty for driving through too many pit boxes. Limping around for the rest of the race, Busch eventually parked himself when the red flag was displayed late in the running. While the JGR operation covered Rowdy in the event anyone challenged that he made the call to park instead of his team (and, in reality, the No. 18 team had nothing to gain staying on the track), this whole episode was certainly petulant. It’s not one that leaves JGR’s flagship with momentum heading into the Round of 12.
Let’s get another list out of the way. Jones, Newman, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch all were eliminated from the playoff chase on Sunday. Jones truly was a victim when the lap 23 melee punctured his radiator, but between being disqualified at Richmond and the early wreck at Charlotte it appears the No. 20 team peaked at Darlington. Jones certainly appears safe in the JGR camp, though; Coach Gibbs made it very clear on pit road he considered the No. 20 team a victim of bad luck. The same could be said for Kurt Busch, whose luck appeared to run out this fall despite drastically elevating Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 car this season.
Almirola was a non-factor pretty much all summer and was just that coming to the checkers at Charlotte. Despite taking fresh tires later than anyone at the back of the lead pack, Almirola was unable to make up any ground to enter the battle between Bowman and Newman. As for Newman, the sheer will with which he’s made the No. 6 car relevant over the last month finally wore thin on Sunday with two driver errors proving fatal to his team. He lost a number of spots pitting after the lap 89 yellow when stalling his car on pit road. Then, Newman lost the final spot he needed to advance on-track to Bowman when he missed the backstretch chicane on lap 107.
Lastly, if there’s one driver that emerged the loser of Sunday’s race, it’s one Bubba Wallace. There’s ample reason for Wallace to be upset with Bowman, and had the driver of the No. 43 exacted revenge later this season no one would have batted an eye. Instead, Wallace opted to play cheap shot bully on pit road, harassing Bowman as he was receiving medical treatment….
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 29, 2019
It’s bad enough the Wallace/Bowman scrap on lap 42 was triggered by Wallace flipping the bird to his competitors. But to go after a man that’s literally on the ground incapacitated is classless, low and indefensible. It’s not to the level of Matt Kenseth being a thug and jumping Keselowski from behind in a dark alley, but it’s every bit the cheap shot. After spending the entirety of 2019 listening to Wallace play the “woe is me” card about poor performance and a lack of respect and sponsorship, my message is simple: take that card and shove it where Austin Dillon’s silver spoon is.
Insights, Opinions and Fake News
I’m not going to differentiate between in and out of the playoffs this week, because the officiating was uniformly God-awful for all 40 cars that took the green on Sunday. For one, NASCAR’s hawkeye system led to another ridiculous pit road call that saw Larson penalized for pitting outside the box because a team member putting tape on the grill got dragged out of his box on exit (to the impact of NO OTHER COMPETITORS). Two points here. One, being consistent is not a virtue if its consistently bad, as most calls emanating from the Hawkeye have been in 2019. And second, I’ll let Frontstretch alum Nick Bromberg speak for himself here.
(I’m not advocating to penalize Alex Bowman a lap for crashing Bubba Wallace but Alex Bowman not getting penalized for crashing Bubba Wallace while Kyle Larson lost a lap for this is a hilarious contrast) pic.twitter.com/cGxO51gP10
— Nick Bromberg (@NickBromberg) September 29, 2019
Now, for the story of Sunday: There is not a man alive that can establish a standard as to what does and does not bring out a yellow flag in a NASCAR race.
Stage 1: Bowman spins in front of oncoming traffic on lap 1, no caution. Preece spins by himself off the racing surface on lap 20, the yellow comes out.
Stage 2: LaJoie goes off course into the grass on lap 37, no caution.
Final stage: Hemric spins on the apron of oval turns 3 and 4 on lap 61, and the yellow flies. Tifft goes off in the grass on lap 85, the yellow doesn’t fly. Lap 89, the No. 17 car spins and gets it going again without stopping in the backstretch chicane, the yellow flies. And the worst of them all came on lap 96 when Suarez’s single-car spin off the racing surface brought out a yellow flag that directly benefitted his teammate Almirola, who was dropping like a rock on old tires. Apparently, Bowyer has taught his new home at Stewart-Haas Racing all the tricks he learned at Michael Waltrip Racing. There’s no better proof that something was up with the officiating than seeing Bob Pockrass, possibly the most rational and objective reporter on the NASCAR scene, making a point such as this.
why does a ref call holding on one play but not another? why does an umpire call a strike instead of a ball? … yeah, this looked like a quick trigger on the yellow. https://t.co/hckDBJfrYe
— Bob Pockrass (@bobpockrass) September 29, 2019
What’s worse, these caution flags had real tangible consequences for how Sunday’s race played out. The unnecessary lap 20 caution resulted in a lap 23 wreck that eliminated Jones from the playoffs. The unnecessary lap 61 caution resulted in a lap 65 wreck that saw fan favorite and race leader Elliott go headfirst into a barrier, an incident he was only able to overcome thanks to a continual parade of yellow flags in the closing laps of the race. And had Almirola had any semblance of speed in his No. 10, he may well have been able to parlay fresh tires into a playoff spot thanks to teammate Suarez going off track by himself and triggering the yellow.
Make no mistake about it, Sunday’s race was being officiated from the TV production trailer.
So the attendance for Sunday’s race didn’t look too much different from last year’s race and was certainly not helped by the extreme heat in Charlotte. But that doesn’t change the fact that there were TONS of empty seats. Some rightfully criticized Charlotte for this phenomenon.
In reality, there’s plenty to take into account here. The fact that this race is on a Sunday, starting mid-afternoon and running until 6:30 ET means for anyone not in the local area, starting work on time Monday is going to be a tall order (that calculus prevented me from making the trek south this Sunday). Not to mention… school is back in session. Making it harder to attend races in person, especially when competing with college and pro football, makes clear that the benefits of starting broadcasts later in the day (are there any?) are going to come at the cost of in-person attendance.
One of the more fervent debates we’ve had on the Frontstretch staff forum this season involved discussion as to whether the Truck Series should abandon live pit stops, a move that I fervently oppose.
That NASCAR reportedly is looking to take it a step further with consideration being given to removing live stops from all of its national series below the Cup ranks is both misguided and infuriating. Removing live pit stops guts strategy further in races that already have seen it mitigated by the presence of stage breaks.
Further gutting the case for this move is just how weak the arguments made in favor of the move are. The cost savings to be realized by this move are incremental at best, and could just as easily be accomplished by banning Cup pit crews from double-dipping in the minor leagues over the weekend, ending an arms race that has the crew side of Truck and Xfinity racing, from the tire changers to the spotters, reading much like a Cup roster. The argument that removing the need for a pit road to accommodate live stops would allow the Truck and Xfinity series’ schedules to return to their roots and race at more bullrings also falls flat. 5 Flags Speedway, the Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, Lucas Oil Raceway, Memphis International Raceway, Myrtle Beach Speedway, Toledo Speedway… all of these tracks have pit roads with enough stalls to host at least a Truck Series race with a full field. Release a Truck or Xfinity Series schedule with just those venues on it, and watch the accolades pour in.
Most importantly, though, removing pit stops from the AA/AAA ranks of NASCAR racing means that the first exposure development drivers are going to get to pit road entry/exit, pitting, tire management outside of scheduled breaks is going to come when they are Cup rookies. Given the myriad of challenges Cup racing has already faced this year with inexperienced drivers running at the Cup level (Cody Ware and B.J. McLeod’s pit road debacle at Daytona literally changed the course of the Daytona 500… doesn’t get bigger than that) putting that big a variable into Cup racing is going to do nothing but further dilute the level of competition at what’s supposed to be stock car racing’s pinnacle.
It’s not in NASCAR’s best interest to try to turn its Truck and Xfinity series into brand-name super late model races. In that case, I’m going to buy the cheaper super late model ticket and enjoy all the short-tracking without the NASCAR (and the officiating that goes with it).
Best Paint Scheme: Hemric: I really wanted to give this to Austin Dillon and the overdue return of Jack Daniel’s to NASCAR racing, but opting to include a big “Jack” on the hood instead of the old No. 7 decal was a big disappointment. Instead, (hard) hats off to the No. 8 team for putting big hulking tools literally on display.
— RCR Updates (@RCRupdates) September 27, 2019
Missed Branding Opportunity of the Weekend: Credit to LaJoie for this one.
I couldn’t sleep last night knowing there is not one Ninja painted turtle at the Roval. pic.twitter.com/rfe8lK66K1
— Corey LaJoie (@CoreyLaJoie) September 28, 2019
Drain the Swamp Golden Pump – Bowman – taking out underachieving Chevrolet drivers everywhere.
Road Course I want to See Before I Die: Because how badass would be it to see the cars pass this close to Talladega Boulevard?
Burnout of the Year: Elliott. See above. Enough said.
Where it Rated: As I wrote last year, I freaking love the ROVAL. And Elliott’s comeback from a stage two collision with the turn 1 wall to score the victory, accomplished as Newman and Bowman battled for the final playoff spot, had every bit the drama of last year’s race. That NASCAR completely delegitimized racing at this road course with the worst example of officiating seen since the NFL had replacement refs makes me irate. This one gets a single, warm can of skunk beer. The Clash at Daytona has been supplanted as the biggest clusterf*** of 2019.
What’s the Point(s): Leaving the ROVAL, Jones, Kurt Busch, Almirola and Newman were eliminated from the NASCAR playoffs. On the back of a second-place finish, Bowman earned the 12th and final playoff spot.
Up Next: The Round of 12 kicks off on the concrete banks of Dover Downs in Delaware. Coverage from the Monster Mile begins at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.