CONCORD, N.C.—On Sunday, there will be the race inside the race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course.
While winning the Bank of America Roval 400 is a prize in itself, transferring to the second round of the Playoffs will be foremost on the mind of the 13 drivers not already guaranteed a berth in the Round of 12.
Here’s a cheat sheet for those following at home:
1) Martin Truex Jr.—With his win at Las Vegas, Truex transferred to Round 2. His victory last weekend at Richmond Raceway put his fellow contenders on notice. The No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team was flying under the radar over the summer months. No more. Truex is in kill mode. Although he’ll start from the rear of the field on Sunday after missing a gear in Happy Hour and going to a back-up engine, Truex finished first and second at the first two road courses this season and nearly won this race last year. Don’t count him out.
2) Kevin Harvick—Harvick trails Truex by 21 points and is 69 points to the good entering the Roval. The No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team came alive in the second half of the summer with three wins and two poles since July. Take away Harvick’s clutch failure at Bristol, and his worst finish in the last nine races is seventh. Harvick’s average finish on road courses this year is 6.5. He finished ninth at the Roval last year. He’ll roll off sixth on Sunday.
3) Kyle Busch—Busch won early and often at the start of the season which provided the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team with a cushion in the Playoffs. He has lost ground to Truex over the last three weeks and now is the time for the 2015 champion to get serious. Busch did just that at Richmond where he finished second but still lost ground to the No. 19 team. Busch will have to come from 17th on Sunday. He finished second to Truex at Sonoma, but drama got the best of Busch when he tangled with Bubba Wallace and ultimately finished 11th.
ON THE SAFE SIDE
4) Brad Keselowski—While his teammate Joey Logano broke the Big 3 stranglehold last year, Keselowski could be the spoiler in the 2019 Playoffs. He’s currently 35 points behind Truex and lacks the Playoff points that the top three Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have accumulated this season. Still, with a 55 point advantage over 13th-place Alex Bowman, the No. 2 Team Penske driver is comfortably above the cut line. Keselowski started the Roval from the rear last year and led 29 laps before causing a 14-car pileup in Turn 1 with five circuits remaining. He’s starting 11th on Sunday.
5) Denny Hamlin—Similar to his JGR teammates, Hamlin is benefitting from 23 Playoff points from earlier in the season and currently is 54 points ahead of 13th. However, since winning from the pole at Bristol, Hamlin’s average finish is 13.25 with results all over the board. Hamlin wadded up his car in first practice on Friday and spent qualifying dialing his backup car in for the race. Still, Hamlin is stout on road courses and finished fifth and third, respectively, at Sonoma and Watkins Glen this year. He came from 27th last year at the Roval and finished 12th.
6) Joey Logano—With a 50-point advantage over Bowman, only something catastrophic could keep Logano from advancing to the next round. The defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion was also sixth in the standings following a 10th-place finish at the Roval last year and went on to win the title. He’ll start 10th on Sunday.
A BIT VULNERABLE
7) Chase Elliott—Elliott is 37 points above the bubble and has double-digit Playoff points, but is nearly a full race worth of points (53) behind Truex. Still, Elliott has carried the banner for Hendrick Motorsports this season and showed off his road course racing prowess with a second win at Watkins Glen. The team suffered an engine failure earlier in the year at Sonoma Raceway. Elliott started fourth in the inaugural Roval race and finished sixth. He was fastest in Happy Hour on Saturday. On Sunday, he’ll roll off 19th.
8) Kyle Larson—Larson has come alive of late but it has been 74 races since his last win. With the exception of a pair of 33rd-place finishes at New Hampshire and Indy, Larson hasn’t finished worse than eighth in his last 10 starts. He’s currently 25 points to the good but holds just four Playoff points in his pocket. His average road course finish in 2019 is ninth. Larson squeaked into Round 2 last year by finishing 25th on the final lap of the Roval. He picked up a Playoff point in the race with a stage win. Larson starts seventh.
9) Ryan Newman—If there was a hard-charger award for the grittiest finishes in the Playoffs, Newman would get the nod. In the last 10 races, the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing team has come from 17th to ninth in the standings buoyed by three top 10s in the last three starts. Although Newman is a full race in points (76) behind Truex and only 14 points ahead of Bowman, don’t bet against him. He finished seventh at Sonoma but ran into trouble and finished 25th at the Glen—where he started. Once known as the Rocket Man for his proficiency in qualifying, time trials have been a struggle for this team all year. He’ll start 24th at the Roval.
10) Ryan Blaney—Blaney brings the confidence of winning the inaugural Roval race into Sunday’s contest. He’ll need it with just eight points separating Blaney from the bubble. The best way to describe the No. 12 Team Penske’s season is unremarkable. While the season started out solidly, lately Blaney has been average at best. The good news? Blaney is adept on road courses and posted top fives at Sonoma and the Glen this year. He topped the speed chart in second practice and rolls off ninth.
11) Aric Almirola—When Kevin Harvick is your teammate, it’s easy to be overshadowed. That’s been the case for Almirola. His 10.8 average qualifying effort is a career-best, but he can’t maintain track position. Almirola’s last top-10 finish was seventh at Daytona in July. His average road course finish in 2019 is 10.5. This is the time of year where contenders get hot, and the No. 10 Stewart-Haas Racing team has cooled considerably. With a three-point advantage over Bowman, Almirola needs to grab max stage points and hope for the best at the Roval. He starts 16th.
12) William Byron—Byron has two things in his favor entering the Roval on Sunday—starting from the pole and Chad Knaus on the pit box. This is a team in transition, and while the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports crew is trending up, Byron, 21, is still relatively new at the game. Two points separate him from his teammate Bowman. Even if he should advance to Round 2, that will likely be the end of the line for this Playoff rookie. Byron finished 34th in the inaugural Roval race. His best road course run this year was 19th at Sonoma.
13) Alex Bowman—Oh, Alex. With seconds remaining in Happy Hour, Bowman slammed into the wall and destroyed his car. Considering he qualified second and will now have to start from the rear of the field, it’s hard to say what was more painful. This is just how Bowman’s season has gone. After winning his first race of the year, Bowman finds himself about to be ousted from the Playoffs. Crew chief Greg Ives will have to work his magic on Sunday to salvage the No. 88 team’s season. Bowman finished 14th at both road courses this summer.
14) Clint Bowyer—Bowyer is four points below the cut line. For a team that has underachieved all year, that’s not surprising. While his situation isn’t as dire as the drivers below him, Bowyer has yet to have that magical moment to separate him from the pack. Perhaps starting fifth on Sunday will be the stark he needs to roll forward. Although Bowyer has a decent road course game and a win at Sonoma, he has averaged 15.5 on the two road courses in 2019. However, he finished third here last year.
15) Kurt Busch—The last month has been brutal for Busch. After leading the charge at Ganassi Racing, the No. 1 team’s average finish in the last three races is 29th. He’s currently 14 points below the cut line. And Busch didn’t help his cause on Friday after qualifying 23rd. Busch finished fifth at the Roval last year and has averaged 11.5 on road courses in 2019. However, crew chief Matt McCall will need a Hail Mary to get Busch back into the Playoffs on Sunday.
16) Erik Jones—Jones watched his Playoff hopes disappear last weekend at Richmond once the No. 20 Toyota was disqualified after the race, negating a fourth-place run. Despite his win at Darlington, this team has teetered on the edge of the Playoffs all year and never displayed the traits of true contenders. Facing a 43-point deficit, Jones needs a win to advance this team to Round 2. He’ll will have to come from 15th to achieve that feat.