The cutoff race to the opening round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs is upon us. This is the race that all 16 playoff drivers were dreading heading into this postseason.
Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the second edition on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course. Last year’s race was about as bizarre as one could be. This year’s, should be more of the same.
Right now, three drivers have clinched their ways into the Round of 12 (Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch). Three more drivers are close to advancing (Brad Keselowski +55, Denny Hamlin +54, and Joey Logano +50).
That’s half of the 12 spots available for the second round being taken. That leaves six spots for 10 drivers.
How To Tune In
Coverage – 2:30 p.m. ET
TV – NBC
Radio – PRN
Distance – 109 Laps/248.52 Miles
Stage Lengths – 25/25/59
Playoffs – RD 1, Race 3
Defending Race Winner – Ryan Blaney
Elimination Race, Who Moves On, Who Doesn’t?
Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 is an elimination race. With three drivers already locked into the second round and three more practically clinched, it leaves six spots open for 10 drivers.
Currently, Chase Elliott (+37), Kyle Larson (+25), Ryan Newman (+14), Ryan Blaney (+8), Aric Almirola (+3) and William Byron (+2) hold onto spots that will advance to the Round of 12. But, Alex Bowman (-2), Clint Bowyer (-4), Kurt Busch (-14) and Erik Jones (-45) want to bump their ways in too.
Realistically, we’re down to three spots for five drivers with 12 points separating them. I think Busch needs to win to get in while Jones definitely does.
So, who gets in and who doesn’t?
Blaney, won this race last year and has two top five finishes in as many tries on road courses this season. His problem is, he has just one top five finish over the last six races on the season though.
Almirola, finished 19th in this race last year to go along with results of ninth and 12th respectively on road courses in 2019. He hasn’t scored a top 10 finish since Daytona in July or a top five since Phoenix in March.
Byron, was 34th on the ROVAL last year and just 19th and 21st respectively on road courses this season. Those are a bit skewed though. He went for stage points with a fast car in Sonoma and retaliated too much in Watkins Glen. His car has been fast on twists this year. Also, he does have two top 10 finishes in his last three starts on the season.
Bowman, finished fourth last year but has only been 14th in both road courses run in 2019. He also has just two top 10 finishes over his last 11 starts on the season and one top five in his last 16 starts overall.
Bowyer, was third in this race last year but only 11th and 20th respectively on road courses in 2019. He has four top 10 finishes though in his last five starts on the season but just one top five in his last 14 tries.
Busch, was fifth in this race last year but 13th and 10th on road courses in 2019. His last top five was his win at Kentucky 10 races ago. Furthermore, Busch has just two top five finishes in his last 20 starts overall.
That leaves Jones who’s only path to make it onto the second round is to win. He can do so too. Jones, finished 30th in this race last year but was in a similar position and went off strategy. He’s been strong on road courses this year with results of eighth and fourth respectively. He has six top four finishes over his last 10 starts on the year too. Plus, Joe Gibbs Racing has won both races this round to go along with four out of the last five overall on the season.
I think Truex, Harvick, KyBusch, Keselowski, Hamlin, Logano, Elliott, Larson, Newman, Blaney, Byron and Bowyer continue on in the playoffs while Almirola, Bowman, KuBusch and Jones are eliminated.
Can Truex Sweep The 1st Round?
No one has swept an entire round in the NASCAR playoffs before. Maybe Martin Truex Jr. can end that drought on Sunday. Truex, won the playoff opener two weeks ago in Las Vegas. Last weekend, he dominated the penultimate race at Richmond. Now, he’s eyeing a first round sweep on the Charlotte ROVAL.
It can happen too.
In Richmond, Truex’s win was the first time in his career that he’s ever gone back-to-back in terms of victories. How about going back-to-back-to-back?
I wouldn’t bet against him despite blowing his engine in final practice and having to start Sunday’s race from the rear.
Truex, won the road course race at Sonoma back on June 23. He finished second on the second road course race of the season last month at Watkins Glen. If you go back to the 2017 race at Watkins Glen, Truex has scored a top two finish in five of his last six road course starts. The only reason he’s now six-for-six is because he was wrecked by Jimmie Johnson while leading on the last lap heading into the final corner of this race last year.
That’s how good that he’s been.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver also has scored six top six finishes in his last eight tries in 2019 and drives for a team that’s won 15 of the 27 races run this year including four out of the last five.
Truex, is the favorite in his No. 19 Toyota for Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400.
Can Busch Keep It Going?
Kyle Busch finally got over the proverbial hump last weekend in Richmond. He led over half of the Federated Auto Parts 400 and came home runner-up to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Martin Truex Jr. Now, can Busch keep it going in the final race of the opening round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs?
Busch, does have four top six finishes in his No. 18 Toyota in the last five races of the season. The problem is, he’s scored only three top five finishes over the last nine races overall and hasn’t won since June 2 at Pocono (14 races).
You can sense the frustration levels rising on the talented driver. Yes, he was smiling after his top five finish last Saturday night at the Richmond (VA) Raceway, but if he doesn’t finish well in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) then you very well could see Busch blow a gasket.
Right now, he’s clinched his way into the second round, so he’s not too worried with how Sunday’s race around the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL will play out. He just wants to build more and more momentum going further into the playoffs. He’s +66 right now on the cutoff spot. He wants more playoff points to add more insurance just in case he needs it in the second round.
Busch, has been pretty strong at the second round tracks but recent stats though could have him worried. In the last four fall races at Dover, Busch has three top two finishes. The problem there is, out of his last six spring race starts on the Monster Mile, his best finish is 10th too. Next is Talladega, which is a crapshoot. Then, it’s to Kansas where Busch has eight top 10 finishes in his last nine tries but he was only 30th this past May. Kansas is a lot like Vegas, a place where JGR struggled as a whole and Busch finished 19th two weeks ago there.
He needs as much insurance as he can get and the only way to do that is to go out and win Sunday on the ROVAL and pick up five more playoff points by virtue of that.
Must Win For Jones Sunday In Charlotte
Following what he thought was a fourth place finish last Saturday night in Richmond, Erik Jones’ prospects of making it to the Round of 12 looked good. He entered the weekend 26 points out but thought he was leaving just four points behind.
Then the penalty came.
Jones’ car failed post race inspection so instead of Joe Gibbs Racing finishing 1-2-3-4 and Jones being right in the thick of things to make the second round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, he was credited now with a last place finish in each stage and a last place finish for the race itself.
That leaves Jones as the only driver facing a must win in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s now 45 points behind the cutoff spot, meaning it’s win or go home for the Michigan native.
The good news is, if anyone of the bubble drivers can win, it’s Jones.
Kurt Busch in front of him has just one top five finish in his last 13 races on the season and only two in his last 20. Clint Bowyer is ahead of Busch but he has scored just one top five result in his last 14 races. Alex Bowman is in front of him but Bowman has just two top 10 finishes in his last 11 races overall and one top five in his last 16.
William Byron is holding the final cutoff spot but he has three career top five finishes. Aric Almirola is 11th in the standings but the Stewart-Haas Racing driver hasn’t had a top 10 since Daytona in July nor a top five since Phoenix in March.
Think any of them can win?
Jones has actually been strong on road courses lately. He’s scored a top 10 finish in five of his last six road course starts including being eighth in Sonoma and fourth at Watkins Glen this year alone.
Plus, JGR is at their best believe it or not on road courses. They went 1-2-5-8 in Sonoma and 2-3-4-11 in Watkins Glen. They also have won 15 of the 27 races run this year including four out of the last five.
Jones, can certainly win on Sunday and make it to the next round by virtue of that.
Can JGR Earn 16th Win Of The Season? They’ve Been Strong On Road Courses
Martin Truex Jr. is obviously going for the first round sweep on Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, but if he can’t win, Joe Gibbs Racing is still hoping for a sweep themselves.
Truex, makes the most sense due to his track record on road courses lately. He won the road course race at Sonoma back on June 23. He finished second on the second road course race of the season last month at Watkins Glen. If you go back to the 2017 race at Watkins Glen, Truex has scored a top two finish in five of his last six road course starts. The only reason he’s now six-for-six is because he was wrecked by Jimmie Johnson while leading on the last lap heading into the final corner of this race last year.
That’s how good that he’s been.
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver also has scored six top six finishes in his last eight tries in 2019.
But, don’t count out Denny Hamlin either. He has eight top six finishes in his last 10 starts on the season and was fifth in Sonoma and third in Watkins Glen. Kyle Busch has four top six finishes in his last five starts on the year himself to go along with being second in Sonoma and 11th in Watkins Glen. That leaves Erik Jones who absolutely has to win on Sunday. Jones, has six top four finishes in his last 10 starts on the year to go along with an eighth place finish in Sonoma and fourth in Watkins Glen.
JGR went 1-2-5-8 in Sonoma and 2-3-4-11 in Watkins Glen. They also have won 15 of the 27 races run this year including four out of the last five.
I wouldn’t be shocked to see one of their drivers win this weekend.
Can Penske Get Back To Victory Lane?
Heading into the Month of July, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing looked like the clear cut favorites to be heading to the Homestead-Miami Speedway in hopes of a 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship. You could make a strong case that all four Championship 4 drivers would come from these two camps.
Through the first 16 races run, JGR and Penske combined to win 15 of them including the first nine to start the season off with. But, they’d only win one of the next seven after that point. Then, out of the last five, they’ve won four. The problem is, JGR has won all five of the last 12.
Penske, hasn’t won a race since June 10 with Joey Logano’s victory in the rain delayed race at the Michigan International Speedway. If they want to win a championship, that drought has to end sometime soon.
Logano hasn’t won in his last 13 starts. Brad Keselowski is riding a 16 race winless streak. Ryan Blaney hasn’t won in the last calendar year as his last trip to victory lane was actually in this race last year.
Can they end this drought in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)?
Currently, despite their drought, Keselowski and Logano are sitting pretty in terms of advancing out of the first round. Keselowski, is +55 on the playoff bubble while Logano is +50 himself. The odds of both of them letting the wheels fall off on Sunday are slim to none.
Plus, Keselowski has been racing pretty good lately. He has four top five finishes in his last five starts on the season including seven top 10’s in his No. 2 Ford in his last nine overall. Also, he was 14th, 11th and third respectively in practice this weekend and starts 11th on Sunday.
Logano, has been the polar opposite. Six of his last eight starts on the season have resulted in a finish outside of the top 10. He has one top five in his last 11 starts overall. He’s finished 23rd in both road course races run in 2019 as well. But, the defending Cup Series champion was 15th, third and 12th respectively in practice this weekend and rolls off third.
Blaney though is the one that they’re watching. He’s only +8 on the bubble but as I said, did win this race last year and was third in Sonoma and fifth at Watkins Glen. He also has six top 10 finishes in his No. 12 Ford in his last nine starts of the year too. Blaney, was 10th, first and sixth in practice and rolls off ninth.
I think Blaney has the best shot among the three of winning on Sunday as they’d take it. They need to get him onto the Round of 12 and hope that Keselowski can keep his momentum going and Logano can gain some.
Hendrick Motorsports In Danger Again, Can Byron And Bowman Join Elliott Into 2nd Round?
It’s bad when the best driver in the playoffs for Hendrick Motorsports right now is Jimmie Johnson. That’s not a shot at the seven-time series champion either. It’s just that Johnson didn’t make the playoffs this season.
Chase Elliott is sitting pretty good though as he’s +37 and seventh in the standings heading into the first round cutoff race this weekend on the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. I don’t think he has too much to worry about. It also helps that he’s been strong this weekend in being sixth, eighth and first respectively in practice.
The problem is, he may be the only driver among the HMS camp still championship eligible leaving Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Right now, William Byron holds the 12th and final spot that advances to the second round. But, Byron is only two points up on his teammate Alex Bowman for that position. The best case scenario would be for Byron to move ahead of Aric Almirola who’s only one point ahead of him right now in the standings and hope that Bowman can gain at least three points on Almirola himself and move on to the Round of 12 as well.
It’s entirely possible too. Almirola, finished 19th in this race last year, was only ninth and 12th respectively on road courses in 2019 and hasn’t scored a top 10 finish since Daytona in July and a top five since Phoenix in March.
Byron, has been quick too. He earned the pole on Friday and backed that up with being third, sixth and seventh respectively in practice.
The issue is, Bowman hasn’t exactly been that much better than Almrola. He has two top 10 finishes in his last 11 starts on the season and just one top five in his last 16 races as well. He finished 14th in both road course starts in 2019 too.
On Friday, Bowman qualified second but he crashed in final practice and has to now start in the back as a result of having to go to a backup car. He was also only 17th, 22nd and 10th respectively in practice this weekend.
Byron, does have two top seven finishes in his last three tries on the year but only three career top fives. He was 34th in this race last year and 19th and 21st on road courses in 2019.
Where Byron can hang his hat is he was fast in both road course races. Those finishes don’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Here’s why.
Byron, went for stage points in Sonoma. The finish isn’t indicative on how strong his car was. He had a top five car that day. Same for Watkins Glen. The issue there was, Byron and Chad Knaus let their emotions get the best of them and when they went to retaliate against Kyle Busch at the end of the first stage, Busch brake checked Byron and caused damage to his front end.
Byron could easily have scored top five finishes in both road courses this season. His No. 24 Chevrolet should be strong this weekend. Knaus, gave Johnson a top two car for this race last year. If Byron can do that, he can move on. Bowman, may have more trouble advancing.
SHR Needs Almirola And Bowyer To Show More Speed
Kevin Harvick’s main goal on Sunday is to score as many playoff points as he can. There are seven available, one for each stage win and five for a race win in this weekend’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2:30 p.m. ET/NBC/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
By virtue of being +69 in the playoff standings, Harvick knows that he has a spot clinched into the Round of 12. So, why not add more to his bank for future rounds? Harvick, has four straight top eight finishes in his No. 4 Ford on the season and eight top eight results in his last nine overall. He finished ninth in this race last year and has finishes of sixth (Sonoma) and seventh (Watkins Glen) on road courses in 2019.
The other goal would be to do what he can to help his teammates Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer join him in the next round. The problem is, neither have shown consistent speed this season.
Almirola, sits 11th in points but is only +3 on the cutoff spot. He finished 19th in this race last year to go along with results of ninth and 12th respectively on road courses in 2019. He also hasn’t scored a top 10 finish since Daytona in July or a top five since Phoenix in March. That’s not going to get the job done.
Bowyer, is 14th in the standings, four points out. He has a better shot of moving on that Almirola does. Bowyer, was third in this race last year but only 11th and 20th respectively on road courses in 2019. He does have four top 10 finishes though in his last five starts on the season but just one top five in his last 14 tries.
While it’s possible for both to move onto the next round, the length that they stay in the playoffs won’t go much further if they can’t get consistent top five finishes.
19 Truex – Until somebody beats him on a road course, I’m riding with him. Truex, has five top two finishes in his last six road course starts. The only reason he’s not a perfect 6-for-6 is because he was crashed by Jimmie Johnson on the final lap in the last corner of this race last year. Truex, has won each of the last two races on the season too.
12 Blaney – He won this race last year. He has two top five finishes in as many tries on road courses this year. Blaney, was in the top 10 in all three practice sessions and rolls off ninth on Sunday.
9 Elliott – He won at Watkins Glen last month. Elliott, was sixth, eighth and first respectively in practice this weekend as well.
42 Larson – I do think he quietly gets a top five. Larson, has seven top eight finishes in his last eight starts on the season. Also, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver was second, seventh and eighth in practice this weekend to go along with qualifying seventh. He finished 10th and eighth respectively in the two road course races in 2019 as well.
24 Byron – Chevy gets three cars in the top five on Sunday. Byron, qualified on the pole. He was third, sixth and seventh respectively in practice too.