Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Kauling Racing has had its struggles in 2023, but you can’t keep one of the best road-course racers in the Cup Series down forever. AJ Allmendinger dominated on the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield circuit in the second half, leading a race-high 46 of 109 laps on the day and beating William Byron by .66 seconds to win the 2023 Bank of America ROVAL 400.
(Sorry about that R-bomb. You won’t hear it from me again. Because it isn’t a thing.)
Allmendinger becomes the first non-playoff driver this year to win in the playoffs, holding off Byron and a battling Kyle Busch in the closing laps.
The win was an emotional one for Allmendinger, who recently welcomed his first child, son Aero. Tears flowed under his helmet during the cool-down lap, and when asked about his emotion, Allmendinger reminded fans that drivers never know when — or if — another win will come.
Allmendinger’s win was a feel-good story, but it’s also a statement win for Kaulig Racing with the offseason on the horizon. Allmendinger will have a new teammate next year as Justin Haley moves on and Daniel Hemric takes over the No. 31. Ending the year with confidence on their side will only make the team stronger next year.
And don’t forget Alex Bowman. Since the fall race at Charlotte moved to the infield road course, Bowman has been as solid as they come. With top 10s in every one of his five starts, Bowman owns an impressive 6.4 average finish, tops in the Cup Series.
Bowman didn’t get much mention on the broadcast, but by the end of the day, there he was with an eighth-place effort. It’s been a tough year for Bowman as he recovers from a back injury he suffered in a sprint car race in the spring, but he came out of this week with a great finish.
What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?
After he was eliminated from the playoffs, we saw a different Bubba Wallace than the one we might have expected. Instead of being down on himself, Wallace was happy with his run on a track where he has struggled (as he should have been; his pit strategy didn’t work out but Wallace ran a strong race). He was optimistic about the rest of the season and entering 2024 with a renewed purpose.
Wallace isn’t the only driver with a tendency to get inside his own head and for his team owner Denny Hamlin, it has cost titles in the past as Hamlin has been unable to close the deal.
So is 2023 Hamlin’s year, as he has proclaimed?
He has seemed very confident and doesn’t seem as daunted by the pressure as he has earlier in his career. But Hamlin has cruised through the playoff races since a stumble at Darlington … until Sunday. Hamlin got turned on track and collected Mike Rockenfeller, the subsequent damage to his right-rear quarter ending his day dead last in the field.
How Hamlin emerges from this week could be telling. If he races his race in Las Vegas and going forward, he’s got his best chance at a title. But if he goes into next week trying to turn things around, trying not to make mistakes, he could be in trouble.
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Tyler Reddick won the pole by .114 seconds over Christopher Bell and handily led every lap in stage one to take the playoff point that a stage win offers. That came with a price thanks to the stage caution and pit strategy, but Reddick drove back to fourth by the end of stage two and then finished a solid sixth, more than enough to keep him in the championship hunt
Speaking of Bell, the defending race winner scored points in the first two stages and led twice for nine laps before coming home 15th. It was enough to move on to the round of eight for the second straight years.
William Byron entered the day as the points leader, already assured of a place in the next round thanks to his win at Texas Motor Speedway. With the pressure off, Byron and company put together a smart strategy, giving up racing for stage points to concentrate on making the race come to them via pit cycles. It almost worked, as Byron was Allmendinger’s closest rival on the final restart, but Byron was outclassed in the closing laps by the road-course ace.
When … was the moment of truth?
NASCAR tried to be consistent with the rules in the playoffs. By reinstituting cautions at the stage breaks on the Charlotte road course, NASCAR ensured that the rules for all of the playoff races were the same. What was different, of course, was that there were no stage cautions at every other road course this year.
The change of rules appeared to change the game for several teams, some with playoff implications. Without the cautions, drivers raced for stage points but seemed to do so more within their individual pit strategies. The return of the cautions made them plan around those cautions.
It cost some teams and drivers. While Hamlin had already locked into the next round on points, he and his 23XI teams made the call to go after stage points in stage two, which meant sacrificing a lot of track position on the restart. The decision didn’t hurt polesitter Reddick as much as his teammate, but it may have changed his finish. Wallace couldn’t gain quite enough positions to move on and Hamlin wound up getting turned in traffic, ending his day.
Chase Elliott also saw his strategy evaporate when a caution flew before he could pit under green ahead of the end of stage two. Because pit road was closed for the caution and the stage break, Elliott won the stage but wound up in 26th after the break, essentially ending his bid for a win.
That’s a tough sell to someone who might be new to the sport — how can winning a stage be a bad thing? And it shouldn’t be.
NASCAR’s call may have made the race less of a strategy game and more likely to cause mayhem, but it didn’t do anything else. Teams adapted to different stage rules at road courses all year (and the races were better for it). They could (and would) have adapted just fine on Sunday. NASCAR threw out consistency in the name of consistency and nobody benefitted.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
This is where it gets real. Once the playoff field is cut to eight, any one of those drivers is capable of winning a title.
If there’s an “easy” round in the playoffs in terms of racetracks, this is it. Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway, while very different, are the same type of intermediate track where clean air and track position will be deciding factors, particularly if the race stays under green in the late going.
The round ends with Martinsville, but the short-track package on the Next Gen car has proved to provide some pretty tame racing. With moves like Ross Chastain’s “hail melon” no longer allowed under NASCAR’s rules, the paperclip might not be the game changer it once was.
Las Vegas has seen just one repeat winner in the last 10 races. That’s Joey Logano, who has three wins in that span. Other than Logano, no driver really stands out as a favorite. Byron won the spring race and has been very strong throughout the playoffs, but you can’t count out any of the contenders at this point.
How … big is the leap from the Round of 12 to the Round of 8?
It might be the biggest leap in the playoffs. It’s hard to make the playoffs and progressively hard to advance but the second cut is what really separates the best teams of the season from the teams who had great seasons.
There’s a little bit of luck in advancing through the playoffs. There’s even a little bit of it — maybe more than a little — in winning the title under this format, but with the current schedule, the second round is one obstacle after another.
After cookie-cutter Texas Motor Speedway, where the teams who find speed sail through but the ones who struggle wind up at a disadvantage, there’s Talladega Superspeedway where the difference between a top finish and not finishing at all can be the width of a stroke of luck. Charlotte falls somewhere in the middle, but it’s not a track where drivers can let their guard down for a second.
It’s much easier to look at 12 drivers and identify small weaknesses than it is when just eight remain. Conversely, it’s harder to identify distinct advantages. Crazy thought, but maybe this is where the playoffs should begin — with just the eight best drivers.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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