Charlotte’s Roval — starting point of new-look NASCAR — is playoff-ready

The Cup Series’ title contenders will be cut down to eight following Sunday’s race

Chase Elliott is hoping to repeat last year’s winning performance on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval this Sunday. (Wesley Broome / AP Photo)

The NASCAR Cup Series unveiled a revamped schedule last week that includes a dirt track race at Bristol and six road course events, a decision that was likely helped along by the success and popularity of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval configuration that was introduced in 2018.

The Roval at CMS came to life two years ago, the brainchild of Speedway Motorsports Inc. head Marcus Smith and his years-long push to inject life into a sport that has seen decreased ratings and attendance. It didn’t hurt that the inaugural event ended with Jimmie Johnson’s desperate attempt to pass Martin Truex Jr. in the final turn, spinning both out and giving Ryan Blaney the win.

NASCAR would love to see more of that — and fewer cookie-cutter 1.5-mile ovals — and it will with new stops at Circuit of The Americas — a nearly 3.5-mile road course — in Austin, Texas, Wisconsin’s Road America — a 4.038-mile road circuit — and the annual Indianapolis race moving from the Brickyard’s oval to its nearly as long 2.439-mile road course in 2021.

For now, however, the Cup Series will have to look to Charlotte and the Roval to add drama to the 2020 playoffs. The field will be trimmed from 12 drivers to eight following Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400.

Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin — winners in the last two races at Vegas and Talladega, respectively — are the only two drivers who have already guaranteed they’ll advance to the Round of 8.

As things stand, the four drivers below the cut line heading into Sunday’s race are Austin Dillon, defending champion Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola.

Busch — mired in a season-long winless streak — let his frustration boil over after his second-place finish at Bristol on Sept. 19, claiming that, “We’ll be eliminated next round, so don’t care.”

While that’s something his team and sponsors surely don’t want to be aired in public, there are facts to back up his claim. Busch doesn’t have the best record at both Las Vegas — his home track —and Talladega, and he finished sixth and 27th, respectively, at those races the last two weeks.

In two races on the Roval, Busch has yet to crack the top 30. He finished 32nd in 2018, crashing out of the race, and, before finishing 37th last year due to mechanical failure, said, “The Roval is stupid.”

While Busch is no fan of the Roval being on the schedule — in an elimination race or otherwise — Bowyer stands to benefit.

The Stewart Haas Racing No. 14 has finished in the top five in each of the series’ road course races at Charlotte, taking third in 2018 and fourth last year. Bowyer also has one career road course victory in a Cup car, winning at Sonoma in 2012 while driving for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Neither Almirola nor Dillon has registered a top 10 on the Roval, and Almirola’s eighth- and ninth-place finishes the last two years at Sonoma are the best Cup finishes for either driver on a road course.

The favorite is Chase Elliott, who has four wins in 11 career races on road courses in the Cup Series, including last year’s at Charlotte’s Roval. Blaney — who was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs — and Johnson join playoff contenders Alex Bowman (another favorite this weekend), Bowyer, Elliott and Joey Logano as drivers who have top-10s in the first two Roval races.

Oh, and one other guy — Kevin Harvick. While Harvick hasn’t finalized his spot in the Round of 8, it would take a catastrophe and then some to see him eliminated. There’s also the fact he’s won a series- and career-best nine races this year and has been in the top 10 in 25 of 31 races in 2020.

He’s finished ninth and third the last two years on the Roval, and a win Sunday would be a reminder to the stock car world that the championship is his to lose.