NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 NASCAR Charlotte ROVAL

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday (Oct. 10) despite early mechanical issues. Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top-five finishers.

Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, William Byron and Alex Bowman were eliminated from the playoffs.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Hamlin led a surprisingly clean first lap at the ROVAL, and that continued through the early going. With the competition caution scheduled for around lap 10, most of the field pitted just before NASCAR threw the yellow at lap 11. Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Chase Elliott were out front when the caution came.

Blaney took the lead from Logano on the restart at lap 14. Back a few positions further, Brad Keselowski spun in front of the field and nearly caused a huge pileup.

Another caution came with six to go in the stage when Ryan Newman blew a tire and crashed out of the race. The mixed strategy continued, with six drivers staying out and the rest pitting. Hamlin was penalized for speeding on the stops.

On the restart with three to go, AJ Allmendinger moved from the outside of the second row, cut down in front of Elliott on the inside and stole the lead from Blaney. The final two laps of the stage were a good, clean battle between two of the sport’s best road racers. Elliott used a crossover move on the final lap and outbroke Allmendinger entering the backstretch chicane to grab the stage win, his fourth of the year.

The race restarted at lap 30 with Kyle Busch taking over the top spot. Deep in the field, Hendrick teammates Larson and Bowman were worried about different mechanical issues related to the alternator and battery, respectively.

At lap 34, Chase Briscoe spun across the start-finish line and brought out another yellow. Both Hendrick cars made adjustments that did not solve their problems as both faced potential eliminations. Busch continued to lead throughout the stage, though a lot of drivers pitted with three to go before pit road closed. Busch stayed out front and grabbed the key points for his sixth stage win of the year.

Larson changed his alternator belt during the stage break, while Bowman changed his battery. Byron took the lead after the leaders pitted under caution.

Shortly after the next restart, Elliott and Harvick worked their way back up through the field after securing stage points. Instead of moving up together cleanly, Harvick drove into Elliott’s bumper and sent him spinning into the wall. Cole Custer was collected in the aftermath, and Elliott’s car seemed destroyed.

Elliott’s crew repaired the car enough to keep it going and keep him on the lead lap, but his shot at a ROVAL three-peat was over. Byron continued to lead out front while Elliott ran respectable lap times in the back.

The race stayed green from the lap 58 restart through green flag pit stops, which began with 35 to go. Byron cycled back to the lead when Hamlin pitted with 28 to go, and he inched closer to Elliott at the tail end of the lead lap. Elliott’s rear bumper was taped up after the wreck and came undone during the run, and it eventually disconnected from the car and forced a debris caution with 23 to go.

Just three drivers stayed out, with Hamlin taking the lead. The restart came with 20 to go, and Elliott and Harvick were tied for the final playoff spot as Hamlin took the green flag.

Hamlin retained the lead on the start, but more playoff drama unfolded when Keselowski spun in the backstretch chicane.

Just a lap later, Byron was bumped out of the chicane by Reddick while they were fighting for second with Larson.

With 17 to go, Corey LaJoie and Joey Hand wrecked to bring out another yellow. The next restart with 14 to go saw Harvick leading Keselowski by one point for the final playoff spot. Elliott worked his way back into the top-20 and was relatively safe from the bubble. Hamlin again held the lead on the restart, but it obviously wasn’t the final restart.

With nine to go, Harvick locked up his brakes and overshot turn one as Elliott lurked in his mirror. He barreled into the wall, as his car caught fire and his championship hopes went up in flames with it.

The final restart with eight to go was one restart too many for Hamlin. Larson, who worked his way around Reddick just before the caution, got the lead on a heads-up crossover move. Reddick and Byron followed into second and third, respectively, but they couldn’t get close enough. Byron spun off course with two to go while running third, around two seconds behind Larson.

Larson, after the early mechanical problems, won his seventh race of the season (second in the playoffs) and 13th of his career. He has more wins this season than he had in his entire career entering 2021.

Who stood out?

Any doubt about Larson’s title chances can be simmered after another victory — especially after a look at the upcoming schedule. I’ll put my hand up — I proclaimed Hamlin the title favorite just a few weeks ago after he won in Vegas. I won’t budge on that just yet, but he and Larson are very even right now. This feels like the Hamlin-Harvick battle from last year, where two drivers were just operating at a different level than the rest of the field. Of course, we all remember how that went: Harvick missed the Championship 4 and Hamlin finished fourth at Phoenix. Still, it feels like these two have been a notch above, especially in the playoffs (winning four of the six races).

Reddick ran the best of any non-playoff drivers, and he’s becoming a real threat at road courses. It was surprising when the No. 8 won the pole at COTA earlier this year. Then he won both stages at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, albeit thanks to some strategy. The ROVAL was his best run of the year, as he had a real shot at victory throughout the final stage.

Moving forward, it’s clear that career win No. 1 is coming for Reddick — we just don’t know when or where. He has 15 top 10s this season, with seven on intermediates, four on road courses, two on short tracks and two on superspeedways. Reddick has become a diverse driver who is capable of winning on any track type, and he’s doing it with Richard Childress Racing equipment, which isn’t top tier. It’s been an impressive season of growth for the 25-year-old Californian.

Kyle Busch impressed at a track he admittedly hates and now he’s a major factor in the championship race. There were plenty of moments during Sunday’s race where things could’ve gone wrong for the two-time champion. He worked his way to the front and picked up a key stage win, and ended up with a relatively quiet — by ROVAL standards — fourth-place finish.

Busch sits fifth in the standings entering the Round of 8, just one point behind Blaney for the final spot in the Championship 4. He won at Texas last year, won at Kansas in the spring and has two career wins at Martinsville. After a down year in 2020, Busch is in prime position to make a push for his third championship.

Who fell flat?

Many prognosticators pegged the Round of 12 as the place where Harvick’s playoff run would end. Few expected it to go down in the way it did. Harvick was in position to advance throughout most of the race. After wrecking Elliott (more on that in a bit), he was in an even better spot on points. With Elliott storming through the field, Harvick still should’ve been good to advance because Keselowski and Truex couldn’t keep their cars going straight. Instead, he locked up his brakes and completely took himself out of it.

This is part of a bigger, more troubling trend for Harvick. He clearly has lost a step after winning nine times last season. Could this failed last-ditch effort at the ROVAL be reminiscent of Jimmie Johnson’s 2018 incident at the track? Harvick was nowhere near the win like Johnson was, but the parallels are interesting. Both aging stars were on large winless streaks and made moves they felt necessary, even though they were both seemingly good to advance to the next playoff round. We’ll see if Harvick can have a better close to his career than Johnson did after his ROVAL wreck.

Byron nearly snuck into the Round of 8 with a miracle win. If there wasn’t a caution in the final stage, Byron had the win all but locked up. He was quick all day, it just wasn’t enough after digging too deep of a hole at Las Vegas and Talladega.

Even though the season ended in disappointment, this was a huge year for the 23-year-old. He was more consistent than ever, as he’s already set career highs in top-fives and top-10s with four races to go. Working with new crew chief Rudy Fugle, the pair now has some playoff scars to patch up in the future. It often takes going through tough times for a young driver to get over the hump. This might have been a necessary step for Byron’s development, and he should be even better in 2022.

Bowman was off from the moment the playoffs began, and he’ll have to be better to avoid falling behind at Hendrick Motorsports. In many ways, this has been the best season of Bowman’s career. He has a career-high three wins and is tied in career highs for top-fives (seven) and top-10s (15). Still, he was consistently the fourth-best of the four Hendrick cars this season. There’s no way he’s on the hot seat — sponsor Ally loves him and was pleased to see victory lane for the first time this year. But the pressure has to be on after an ugly playoff outing.

What did this race prove?

Karma came back to bite Harvick after a classless move to wreck Elliott. My take on this three weeks ago was simple: these drivers should feel even after Harvick ended Elliott’s chance to win Bristol and Elliott made Harvick’s life difficult. It wasn’t pretty afterwards and I understood why they were upset, but they both hurt the other once and that should’ve been it. Well, Harvick thought otherwise.

Harvick made a few mistakes in wrecking Elliott. First and foremost, he did it way too early in the race, as Elliott obviously had plenty of time to recover. The wreck also wasn’t enough to take Elliott out of the race. If you’re going to wreck somebody, you have to make sure you finish the job. That all came back to bite Harvick when he locked up the brakes and took himself out. Elliott is looking like the good guy in this exchange, and now he should be clear from more retaliation from Harvick as he looks to win another title. Oh, and he delivered the quote of the year.

NASCAR towed the line of credibility when it didn’t black flag Elliott with his loose rear bumper. The only reason Elliott had a chance to advance was because of the debris caution. The problem was that the debris came from his car, and it was painfully obvious that it was coming off at any moment. I thought it warranted a black flag, but NASCAR explained afterward why they didn’t see it that way.

I can see this one going either way, so I’m not too fired up about it. The caution directly benefited Elliott, who was nearly a lap down and outside the playoff cut line. But it’s not like his damage was impacting the race — he was basically running around on his own. I’m fine with the no-call, but I would’ve been fine with the call had it been made.

Paint scheme of the race

Every October, pink cars flock the track in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. That was taken to a new extreme at Charlotte with pink window nets on every vehicle. It meshed nicely with some schemes, while others clearly weren’t designed with the pink in mind. Reddick’s No. 8 Lenovo Chevy worked perfectly, with a subtle touch of pink and a great paint scheme.

Better than last time?

Last year, the race started with a wet track for the first time in NASCAR Cup Series history. The track dried by the end of the first stage, and with cars on different tire strategies, Ty Dillon cruised to the stage win. There were a few spins in the second stage, but nothing major as Blaney pulled away for the stage win. The final stage had four cautions, which played in Elliott’s favor after he had to make an unscheduled stop to tighten lug nuts. He drove through the field for the second straight year and won by leading the final 18 laps.

This year, the points battle was much tighter and the playoffs made this an insane race. Elliott appeared to have the best car in the first two stages, collecting a race-high 19 stage points. Everything went off the rails in the third stage with the Harvick incidents, Byron’s near-victory turned agony and Larson’s unreal comeback. Both races were really good — give me 2021 over 2020 because you have to factor in the points battle and the Harvick-Elliott rivalry.

Playoff picture

Four more drivers were eliminated from the playoffs after a wild day in Charlotte. Hamlin and Larson automatically advanced to the Round of 8 after their respective victories at Las Vegas and the ROVAL.

The other six spots were decided by a points battle that didn’t end up being close in the end. All four drivers who entered the ROVAL outside the top-eight exited in the same position. But that’s not the full story. Elliott, Keselowski, Truex and others were all threatened to be eliminated during portions of the race, and Harvick’s late wreck combined with Byron’s spin essentially sealed the deal.

Logano (+50), Blaney (+45), Busch (+43), Elliott (+40), Keselowski (+28) and Truex (+25) nabbed the final six spots in the Round of 8, while Harvick (-25), Bell (-28), Byron (-43) and Bowman (-52) had their title hopes dashed.

Here’s the full standings before the Round of 8 reset:

And here’s how the top eight look entering Texas:

What’s next?

The Round of 8 begins next weekend at Texas Motor Speedway for the first of three races to decide the Championship 4. This will be the first and only points race of the season at Texas after its spring date was shifted to the All-Star Race in June. The Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 will go green on Sunday (Oct. 17) at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

guest
14 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Bill B

I have to say that was one entertaining race to watch.

Once again Harvick shows the poor sport and all around dick that he is when his back is up against the wall (and it’s not because I care about Elliott, I don’t). He has done similar things throughout his career. Win at any cost no matter how low you have to stoop (maybe he should run for some political office, it seems he’d be a natural). I hope he never gets another victory. What a punk.

Wow, looks like Childress may have a real driver in Reddick. He has impressed me since he took over the 8 ride.

I also have to think that Byron might be a real contender next year if his trajectory stays the same.

NASCAR once again screwed up by not making the calls they should have. Harvick should have been penalized at least 2 laps or parked. Elliott should have been black flagged when his rear panel was flapping in the wind for 10 laps (I’ve seen the blag flag a car for less). Of course the reason for this is the whole playoff deal and not wanting to affect the outcome. When a call needs to be made the officials need to make it, period.

JT

I agree that Tyler Reddick is the “real deal”. He reminds me of Larson when the first couple of years he was at Ganassi. When the “Big 4” teams (JGR, HMS, Team Penske and SHR) eventually go out looking for new drivers, Tyler should be the first on their call list.

Kevin in SoCal

I love Kevin Harvick for his brash attitude, same as I loved Tony Stewart for his. Kevin’s problem is going to be messing with the fan favorite, as Kyle Busch found out after he dared to spin out Dale Jr.

Bill B

So you don’t think there should be a line between what’s acceptable to advance and what isn’t?
And I assume you were liked it when he wrecked a good part of the field at Talladega several years ago so he would make it to the next round?

Kevin in SoCal

No, I didn’t like that, that was uncalled for. This incident was a bump and run, and karma caught up with him later.
Kyle Busch didn’t have a problem with Harvick bumping him for a playoff spot a few years ago, and neither did Kyle Larson with Ryan Newman a few years before that.
Harvick and Elliot have a feud going on, it spices up NASCAR right now. The fans seem to hate feuds when it involves one of the “favorite” drivers getting wrecked.

DoninAjax

Was there anyone watching Brian’s product who didn’t know that the toadies with the brown noses in the control tower would wait until there was a debris caution from Elliott’s bumper car? NA$CAR has NO credibility at all.

Kevin in SoCal

Brian France hasn’t been involved with NASCAR for several years now. They gave him the boot after his drunk driving arrest.

DoninAjax

Who says? The suits in Daytona? They’re worth believing aren’t they!

Brian

If it was say the 42, 17, 3, or just about anyone else the black flag would have been given at least a lap or two prior to it actually coming off. This unnecessary caution did directly affect the outcome of the race.

Ted

Possibly. They didn’t black flag Harvick for causing the incident, so no point in doing it to another Playoff driver. I think they were kind of desperate for a caution at that point anyway.

Jeremy

I didn’t see the race, but sounds to me that Harvick / Elliott need to be given boxing gloves and put in a ring for a pay-per-view event and settle it.

DoninAjax

It would be Delana in the ring with Elliott.

Jeremy

She should probably be driving the 4 car instead of Kevin too!

DoninAjax

She’d probably drive smarter!

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch
14
0
Comment on this articlex
()
x