Today's NASCAR Cup Series race at the Charlotte Roval was an exciting, dynamic battle between a wide variety of contenders to secure a meaningful win at what has quickly become one of NASCAR's most difficult and unique tracks. Just behind that, Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick engaged in a race-long battle that saw one shamelessly wreck the other, only to crash into the wall and effectively end their season with ten to go. It was two events separately representing the best and the most chaotic NASCAR has to offer. To accurately assess either, you need to look at them separately.
First, the race itself. More significant road course tire falloff than usual, awkwardly timed stage breaks, and a competition caution meant that most of the playoff contenders were cycling through a conservative primary strategy together while the quickest non-playoff drivers and the few playoff drivers most desperate for a win swung on an alternate strategy. The timing of that cycle meant that Chase Elliott would win stage 1 and Kyle Busch would win stage 2.
Behind that group of leaders, two of the four Hendrick Motorsports playoff drivers suffered their own distinct problems. In the first stage, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman both suddenly suffered catastrophic electronic issues. It was a deeply disconcerting moment for HMS, but specifically for the team's segmented shop that builds cars only for those two teams, but both Larson and Bowman were able to stop for full alternator belt and battery changes during two separate stops under caution. Larson, who was briefly below the cutoff line in points-as-they-run, re-started P36, got to about 15th on track before stops, and moved up to 6th after the drivers on the alternate strategies pitted under green before the stage break.
In the third and final stage, the timing of everyone's final stop was the story. William Byron fought up to an early lead and, knowing a win was effectively his only chance to advance in the playoffs, stopped relatively early to ensure that he would cycle back to that position if the race ran green to the end or if a quick caution came out and caught out those who stayed out longer. Denny Hamlin stopped later, gambling on both the opportunity to spend more time on fresher tires over the course of a full green-flag stint and the chance to have fresher tires on a late re-start if a caution did come. He cycled further back in the top five after his stop, then the expected caution came shortly afterward. His fresh tires got him the lead he expected, with Byron in second, non-playoff Richard Childress Racing driver Tyler Reddick in third, and Larson in fourth.
Byron, Larson, and Reddick fought hard for second, leading Reddick to actually slam Byron's rear bumper under braking heading into a backstretch chicane. The resulting trip through the runoff area would push Byron out of the top ten.
Then, another crash and another restart. This time, Hamlin's tire advantage was gone. Larson got past him on track, he fell back in the top ten, and suddenly Byron fought his way back into the top three. He again caught the bumper of Reddick with three laps to go, only to spin into the wall and cede the race to Reddick and Larson. No caution flew; Byron's chance at a championship was gone. Larson held off Reddick over the last two laps and took the win, overcoming both electrical issues and strong on-track competition in the closing stage.
But Larson also benefitted from what happened behind him. His fastest teammate, Chase Elliott, won the first stage. He finished second at the end of stage 2, banking an all-important 19 playoff points and moving past the cut line. Then, after pitting under yellow to begin stage 3, he found himself on track next to his rival from the race at Bristol two weekends ago, Kevin Harvick. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver, seemingly in retaliation for his issues with Elliott at Bristol, tapped Larson's left-rear corner on the exit of the infield, destroying the back of Larson's No. 9 car. It looked like shameless and intentional retaliation, the kind that could coincidentally end Larson's season and promote Harvick to the final spot in the Round of 8; a post-race interview with NBC seemed to confirm that theory.
As NASCAR has long since decided that drivers competing on the same level can wreck each other at any time, there was no penalty. Elliott's car was quickly taped back together in accordance with NASCAR's strict 5-minute repair clock, allowing the No. 9 team to get their driver back out on track. He was nearly lapped in the stage while behind the cutoff line as-they-ran, but he was instead saved by a late caution while he sat just 4 seconds ahead of the race leader.
A caution he caused.
Elliott saved his own lap by dropping an entire decklid on track. It was unintentional, of course. The part simply fell off after an inadequate repair. But he was not black flagged for dragging the bumper around the three prior laps, he was not penalized for bringing out the caution, and he was able to re-start with the leaders in position to charge back through the field and once again easily guarantee his spot in the Round of 8.
With laps winding down, he came up on Harvick on track with the opportunity to put a bumper back to him and wipe him out of the next round of the playoffs in retaliation for previous retaliation. Before he had the chance to even consider it, Harvick locked up his tires heading into turn 1. The No. 4 Ford went hard into the wall, ending the team's shot at a championship in an instant. Was he reacting to seeing Elliott in his mirror? Maybe. More likely, he was simply well aware of the precarity of his points situation and desperate to preserve every spot he could. Either way, Harvick was eliminated, Elliott advanced, and the rivalry seemingly ends in an instant.
Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman, two drivers who had struggled throughout the Round of 12, joined Byron and Harvick in being eliminated. It means that Larson, Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Elliott, Joey Logano, and Brad Keselowski advance to the next round. Playoff point seeding is still in play, so Larson is still a gargantuan 65 points ahead of the cut-off line for the Championship Four and would once again need two disastrous races in three to be eliminated from contention.
That round, two 550 horsepower races at D-shaped mile-and-a-half ovals and a 750 horsepower race at the half-mile Martinsville short track, kicks off at Texas Motor Speedway next weekend. Every driver left is one who came into this season expecting a spot in the Championship Four, but only four can actually come away with that shot at a title. Expect fireworks.
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