Where Racing Lives is still emblazoned on backstretch billboards at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, so it’s perhaps fitting that NASCAR’s biggest success of 2018, and what will likely prove its biggest failure in 2019, both were on display at CMS this season.
Let’s get this out of the way. I took last weekend off as a writer, put on my favorite driver’s gear and drove down to Charlotte Sunday morning as a race fan. I sat in the grandstands, bought too many souvenirs and ate too much junk food taking in the ROVAL race. And it was worth every penny and 11.5 hours on the road to be there for that race. My driver running well was a bonus, but the ROVAL was one of the more memorable experiences I’ve had as a race fan in recent memory. For those that want nothing to do with the ROVAL, you might as well stop reading.
As our own Amy Henderson wrote earlier this week, there truly was an energy in the stands that hasn’t been there in recent years. Sadly, that energy didn’t seem to turn into more butts in the seats, but the butts that were there were excited, and were buying merchandise to the point I had to settle for my third choice event t-shirt. Dating back to my first race ever, the 2004 Coca-Cola 600, where 160,000 people actually were there, I’ve never been to a race where I couldn’t buy a program two hours before the green flag, simply because there were none left to buy. And the other point, which had me most excited for the ROVAL even before I got there, was the ability to sit in a grandstand seat and see an entire road course race play out before me.
I have covered races at a half dozen road courses during my time with Frontstretch, and the only time I’ve ever actually been able to see the entire race track was at Palm Beach for ARCA’s monsoon race in 2010…and the only reason I had that view was because I was standing on a barrier I had no business standing on, but there was no track security venturing out in that torrential rainfall to stop me. The road courses have been a consistent bright spot for NASCAR racing over the past few seasons, and now being able to enjoy the experience of seeing an entire race course, plus the thrills of road racing is a game-changer from my perspective. I will definitely be renewing my ROVAL tickets next season.
The number of boxes the ROVAL race checked goes on and on. More road racing and less mile-and-a-halves? Check. Disrupt the Chase schedule? Check. Adding a new venue to the Cup schedule for the first time in nearly a decade? Check check check.
But most importantly, it shook up the playoffs to the point that even NASCAR’s very best were seen going over the ragged edge. Jimmie Johnson, arguably the consummate playoff/Chase/whatever they call it this week driver, spun himself out of the playoffs going for the race win. Brad Keselowski, arguably the hottest driver in NASCAR over the last month, went to a backup car, spun out again during the first stage, and still drove to the front, only to drive headfirst into a tire barrier only moments after his spotter told him to beware of the No. 78 behind him, whom Brad had hit earlier in the event.
Kyle Larson arguably the strongest car in Sunday’s race, and was collected in Keselowski’s mess because he was driving based on the back bumper of the No. 2 car, rather than the track and ended up overdriving the corner nearly as bad as the No. 2 car did. It was exciting and refreshing to see NASCAR’s stars take to a track where they had no notebook, no career of experience to draw from. Here, the drivers truly had to adapt more than any other place they’re raced in recent memory.
And that challenge, that aggression, was openly visible to anyone in the stands on Sunday. Jimmie Johnson proved quite convincingly just how hard the drivers were pushing into the chicane coming to start-finish. The Keselowski/Larson melee that took out the two cars that led the most laps Sunday proved just how treacherous Turn 1 was. And countless cars could be seen wiggling out of shape as drivers pushed harder and harder through Turns 7 and 8 as the event went on. It took serious car control to handle those two corners on their own merits, much less dealing with the sudden change of driving the cars on the oval banking.
Which begs the question what NASCAR is thinking when it comes to the 2019 rule package they’ve announced for this week, which is based off of the Charlotte All-Star Race from earlier this year. The ROVAL race was proof positive yes, that close-quarters, side-by-side racing is the solution to all ails, but it’s also proof positive that much of the thrills garnered by stock car racing comes from being on the ragged edge.
Switching to a rules package that strips horsepower in favor of matting the floorboard is the antithesis of what made the ROVAL race work. The All-Star Race did have plenty of side-by-side action compared to recent years, sure, but that’s to be expected when the cars are moving visibly to the naked eye slower than on any other intermediate oval NASCAR contested this year. It’s like thinking that adopting a rule package for four-cylinder cars is the way to go because the buzz bombers race side-by-side more than the late models. I’ve got news for you NASCAR, even if that’s the case some nights at my hometown dirt track, all of us in the stands that are not blood-related to a four-cylinder driver pay our admission fee and sit through the support classes to see the late model feature at night’s end. Racing without a true sensation of power and speed is not a show that’s going to generate excitement.
So leave the cars alone and tweak the schedule some more. For as much as the current generation car is maligned, all it took was adding a race track that no one had experience on to make something special happen. NASCAR got their TV-ready playoff moment at race end. Anyone that’s ready to dismiss the battle that Keselowski and Larson staged for the lead mid-race was determined to hate the ROVAL race before the green flag fell. And the fans actually tuned in for the first “new” event the Cup Series has had in years.
Send the Cup cars to Iowa. Erect temporary grandstands and send them to Knoxville. Put the world’s best drivers and obscenely powerful race cars into situations where they have to adapt and find limits as they go, rather than attempting to manufacture Talladega on every intermediate oval in America.
I can’t wait for ROVAL 2019. Here’s hoping this rules package doesn’t make the wait painfully long.
About the author
Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.
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