If any race track has earned a place of prominence in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, a.k.a. the Charlotte ROVAL, has to be near the top of the list.
Since its debut as the Round of 16 cutoff race in 2018, the ROVAL has figured dramatically in the successes—and failures—of title contenders.
Now the final race in the Round of 12, a position it has occupied since its “promotion” to that position in 2020, the 2.28-mile, 17-turn circuit is all but sure to produce its share of suspense in Sunday’s Bank of America ROVAL 400 (2 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Whether it can match the pyrotechnics of the 2018 maiden race remains to be seen.
That extraordinary event was noteworthy not only for the finish but also for the Playoff scenarios that played out during the final lap. Jimmie Johnson, fighting for a spot in the Round of 12, was hounding leader Martin Truex Jr. and closed on the No. 78 Furniture Row Toyota through the backstretch chicane.
Running second, Johnson was seven points to the good where advancement to the Playoffs was concerned, but the seven-time Cup champion was winless in 2018. As the top two cars approached Turn 16, Johnson steered to the inside of Truex’s Camry, locked his tires and spun.
Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet slid through the Turn 16 chicane and tagged Truex’s car as the 2017 series champion entered the final left-hand corner. Knocked off course by Johnson’s rear bumper, Truex slid sideways and backed into the outside wall on the oval.
Johnson deliberately stopped short of the finish line, then continued, a NASCAR requirement for any driver cutting the chicane. Ryan Blaney passed Johnson to win the race, and six other cars shot past before Johnson reached the stripe. Truex rolled home 14th after righting his car.
The eighth-place finish would have been enough to send Johnson to the Round of 12—were it not for what unfolded behind him.
Driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, Kyle Larson had won the first stage, but Larson was part of a massive pileup in Turn 1—appropriately dubbed “Calamity Corner”—on Lap 104 of 109.
Larson continued in his severely damaged car but was one point below the cutoff for the Round of 12, until Jeffrey Earnhardt spun off the front bumper of Daniel Hemric’s car in the final corner. Earnhardt’s No. 96 Toyota came to rest against the outside wall.
Driving a car that was all but impossible to control because of a flat tire, Larson cleared the final chicane, bounced hard off the wall in the tri-oval and beat Earnhardt to the finish line. That one spot created a three-way tie between Larson, Aric Almirola and Johnson for 11th in the Playoff standings.
Larson and Almirola got the final two berths in the Round of 12 based on best finishes during the opening round, and Johnson was bounced from the Playoffs.
“I had kind of given up there the last lap,” Larson said after the race. “I saw the No. 88 (Alex Bowman) made a couple of passes, and that’s who it sounded like we were in the points battle with. I knew I was screwed. And then they said they were all crashing, and it had to have been 45 seconds by the time I got back over there.
“I ran really hard through (Turns) 1 and 2. We had a lot of right-front damage, and we kind of knew the right front would blow if I ran hard. But I ran hard through (Turns) 3 and 4 and blew a right front and got into the fence. I could see the No. 96 and I knew I needed that point to get to the tiebreaker and hit the wall again. Thankfully, we got the tiebreaker.”
That wasn’t the end of Larson’s history with the ROVAL. In 2021, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, Larson won the Round of 12 elimination race at the road course on the way to the Cup Series title.
This year, Larson’s position entering the Bank of America ROVAL 400 is as fragile as it was in 2018. Larson is seventh in the standings, the same position he occupied after two Playoff races in 2018. At that point, he held a 17-point edge over 13th-place Clint Bowyer—and came within one point of elimination at Charlotte.
Currently, Larson leads ninth-place Tyler Reddick by 15 points, with the Playoff field to be cut from 12 drivers to eight on Sunday.
“We typically run pretty well there,” Larson said of the ROVAL. “I made a mistake last year and cost myself advancing (after finishing five laps down in 35th). But I know our race car will be fast. We’ve been fast everywhere this year.”