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Observations: NASCAR Charlotte ROVAL 400 – autoweek.com

Observations: NASCAR Charlotte ROVAL 400 – autoweek.com
02 Oct
5:13

How you felt about the Bank of America ROVAL 400 is probably a litmus test for how you feel about the overall state of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series in 2019.

That’s to say some inside the industry want to watch a sporting event while others simply want to watch the world burn for three hours and there was plenty for the anarchists to celebrate on Sunday afternoon.

There was no shortage of drama or excitement.

Chase Elliott stuffed his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet into the Turn 1 tire barrier from the lead on a restart with 43 laps remaining and marched back to the front to score his third victory of the season. Meanwhile, Alex Bowman took a backup car with no practice time and finished second to narrowly advance into the next round of the playoffs.

There was a race-long conflict between Bowman and Wallace that led to the latter dousing a bottle of Powerade into his rival’s face.

In a vacuum, these are all exciting narratives and the recipe for a good time at the race track, but unfortunately, much of it was overshadowed by inconsistencies within race control and the pervasive sentiment that this race product embodies everything NASCAR wants to be moving forward.

Let’s get after it.

In what has been a continuing theme for much of the 2019 season, sporting integrity has taken a far back seat to unapologetic, gratuitous entertainment on Sunday at the ROVAL.

This was Exhibit A of what the rest of the motorsports world, nay the sporting world, makes fun of when discussing NASCAR.

The pursuit of Game 7 moments has become more-and-more an exercise in doing whatever it takes for NASCAR to capture the fickle attention of a social media world with too much to do and seemingly not enough interest in watching race cars drive in circles.

The ROVAL, which by itself, has been a worthwhile addition to the schedule was warped into something obscene on Sunday largely as the result of race control’s inconsistencies of when to call a caution.  

And those decisions, or often indecisions, had consequences on the championship complexion as Sunday was the elimination race for the Round of 16.

For example, Alex Bowman looped around the backstetch chicane in the middle of a pack of cars on the opening lap, and NASCAR didn’t call for a yellow flag. However, 20 laps later, Ryan Preece spun in the exact same way on the backstretch chicane with no other cars near him and that resulted in a caution.

This was notable because a caution for a car that never even sat prone on the track set-up a restart in which six cars crashed into the Turn 1 tire barrier — including playoff driver Erik Jones, who was eliminated as a result.

“It is what it is,” Jones said after climbing from his car. “It couldn’t have been too bad because we got back there, and it was clear. You don’t expect that to be a caution. But you don’t expect to be ran over like that on a restart either.”

On Lap 83, Matt Tifft spun in Turn 6, stalled backwards facing oncoming traffic in the middle of the pack, forcing drivers to run through the grass without the benefit of a caution. Six laps later, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. looped his Ford Mustang around in the backstretch chicane without no one near him, eliciting a caution, despite the fact that his kept never stopped rolling.

Disclaimer: No two cautions are ever entirely identical so expecting NASCAR to make the subjective right call every time is an unrealistic ask. The job is also entirely thankless from competitors, fans and the media.

That’s not lost on this argument.

But it’s also a fair assumption that race control would also admit that Sunday wasn’t their best day. The decisions were erratic, and it had implications on the championships. It turned a decisive playoff race into Bowman Gray with right turns.

It left everyone extremely puzzled.

“I ask the same questions, so I can’t answer that,” Martin Truex Jr. said with a laugh. “If you find out, let me know.”

NASCAR will always defer on the side of safety: When in doubt, put it out, to borrow David Hoots legendary catchphrase.

But the timing of the cautions, and what transpired as a result of them, combined with an overarching narrative of entertainment at all costs just did not do this race any favors.

This is simply NASCAR in 2019.

It was equally puzzling to see the amount of vitriol Bubba Wallace received on Sunday in comparison to that of Alex Bowman.

Sure, it wasn’t the classiest of decisions for Wallace to douse a bottle of Powerade into Bowman’s face while he was slumped over next to his car while being treated for dehydration but that didn’t happen in isolation.

This wasn’t Wallace’s finest moment, but it can’t be ignored how we got to this point.

The dousing was a response to Bowman choosing to shove Wallace down the backstretch, through the chicane, and then dumping the Richard Petty No. 43 Chevrolet heading towards oval Turn 3.

That didn’t happen in isolation either.

Wallace, as he is prone to do when he feels victimized, flipped Bowman off several times during the course of the race, which was the result of a first lap incident between the two.

And that’s kind of the point here: This was the culmination of a series of events. NASCAR was right to speak to Wallace about the peak of the intensity — his decision to throw liquid at Bowman. This was especially egregious due to the medical personal which was on-site assisting Bowman.

That automatically makes confronting Bowman in that setting a no-no.

At the same time, Bowman can’t go through his NASCAR career deciding to wreck every rival that gives him the middle finger. That’s only going to result in a lot of cautions, torn-up race cars and the occasional fist fight.

At the same time, appreciate the sport having two honey badger race car drivers that truly aren’t afraid to show their passion.

It generates interest and builds much-needed rivalries.

Just apply blame equally.

There is no such thing as momentum in motorsports.

It’s not like winning a race, especially on a circuit as unique as the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL, will somehow cure all the ails that a race team otherwise still has.

So, when it’s said that Chase Elliott is poised for a lengthy playoff run, that’s not because he won on Sunday in such a dramatic, against-all-odds fashion.

It’s because momentum in racing is actually the byproduct of what a team learns and applies over the course of the season.

Hendrick Motorsports has turned it around and Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson are the most-poised to capitalize on the overall organizational speed.

Elliott is on a run of five top-10s over his past seven races. That run of success comes at Bristol, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and the Charlotte ROVAL. That’s indicative of an organizational improvement at Hendrick.

Only the Stewart Haas Racing No. 4 driven by Kevin Harvick showed more overall speed, based on NASCAR loop data, on Sunday.

So with the playoff eliminations of Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman and Erik Jones it is looking more likely that the most common Championship 4 outcome is Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. one of the Penske drivers of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano and who ever performs the best in the final round of Denny Hamlin, Harvick and Elliott.

And given where both Hendrick and Chevrolet started this season, having Elliott in that mix is a great testament to the work that has been put in there.  

Source: https://autoweek.com/article/monster-energy-nascar-cup/observations-nascar-charlotte-roval-400

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