AJ Allmendinger held off a hard-charging William Byron to win his first Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday, Oct. 8. Finishing behind them were Kyle Busch, Ty Gibbs and Joey Logano to round out the top five.
It was only Allmendinger’s third career Cup Series win and Kaulig Racing’s second.
But What Really Happened?
Sunday’s ROVAL feature wasn’t the barnburner we have seen at the hybrid track in the past, but it certainly wasn’t boring, either.
And above everything else, it was unique.
Hear me out.
I know. The last two Coca-Cola 600s on the regular Charlotte oval have been spectacular and arguably the best races of each season. You’ll hear few arguments against that.
But the Charlotte ROVAL is something unique and without a second Charlotte oval race, the 600 is now an even more unique race in itself as well.
Above all, let’s not allow recency bias to cloud our judgement. Before 2022, the ROVAL was the best Charlotte race on the calendar each year, even if it wasn’t by much sometimes. But ever since the Next Gen car has introduced the vanilla road-course racing we have seen the last two years, fans have desired to be rid of the hybrid track.
Hold your horses.
There will come a time when NASCAR will fix the Next Gen car on both road courses and short tracks. Why? Because it really can’t afford not to.
A whole 14 out of 36 races on the Cup Series schedule consists of short tracks or road courses. That’s a lot of races for the United States’ most popular motorsport to be allowing a decrease in quality. So there’s a good chance that sometime, and sometime soon, there will be a change made to the Next Gen rules package.
And when it does happen, only then will we see how great the ROVAL will perform.
Who Stood Out?
There were quite a few stories near the front of the pack at the end of Sunday’s feature and for a few moments even after the race, the story was the four unfortunate drivers that had just been eliminated from the playoffs.
That is, until 41-year-old and new father Allmendinger, tears streaming down his face and eyes still bloodshot from his emotional cooldown lap, did his post-race interview with NBC.
You’ve got to love it.
Before Sunday’s race — and hell, probably even after — there were talks of whether or not the former open-wheel racer was going to continue his full-time Cup Series venture in the Kaulig No. 16 after this year or if he was going to return to the NASCAR Xfinity Series, a division where he had been successful enough to earn 15 wins in the last five years.
It was starting to look that way, too. After all, Allmendinger was meant to be Kaulig’s ace driver heading into 2023. After earning three top fives and eight top 10s in only 18 starts last year, the Californian road racer had a great Cup Series outlook and with six road courses on the schedule this year, he was a legitimate contender to make the playoffs.
Yet as of Sunday morning, Allmendinger had only earned two top fives and five top 10s in the 31 Cup races so far this season.
It was a bit of a fall from his promising 2022 season — a season that was now looking like a fluke.
And then he shut everyone up.
Allmendinger didn’t just win on Sunday, he dominated. The driver of the No. 16 led a race-high 46 laps throughout the day. That’s the most he’s led in a NASCAR Cup Series race since Bristol Motor Speedway in 2012 and the first time he’s led the most laps in a Cup race since Watkins Glen International in 2014.
It was also more laps than he has led in each entire Cup Series season since 2015.
In other words? The ‘Dinger was able to earn a career-defining win.
And he couldn’t have done it at a better time.
Who Fell Flat?
No driver was farther from the playoff Round of 8 cutline than Busch, and yet, at the same time, none were as close.
But perhaps the most tragic thing is that when it was time for Rowdy to be Rowdy, he decided not to.
Let’s paint the picture. Entering the event, Busch was already in a difficult position when it came to the playoffs. After a tough event at Texas Motor Speedway and another at Talladega Superspeedway, Busch entered the ROVAL 26 points below the cut line.
It wasn’t a must-win situation at first, but after two stages in which Busch earned only four points, he was more or less in one.
For a number of restarts late in the going, however, the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet had to line up within a row of the leader Allmendinger, and at times, next to him. A win wasn’t exactly a tall order, especially for a driver as talented — and aggressive — as Busch.
However, even in those chaotic restarts that ended with a yellow flag because of some skirmish in the middle of the pack in the infield portion of the course, Busch would still race Allmendinger, and those around him, fairly cleanly.
It would have been an unpopular move to move to turn Allmendinger for the win, but since when does Busch care about what the fans think? In a situation where KFB had the golden opportunity to keep his championship hopes alive, shouldn’t he have done whatever it takes to do so?
In the end, his complacency would result in him finishing third, only two positions shy of a Round of 8 walk-off win. Busch was among those eliminated from the playoffs.
Better Than Last Time?
There was less competition at the front of the field than there was last year, but that’s only because Allmendinger held such a monopoly on the race lead in the final stage.
Last year’s ROVAL event also saw Christopher Bell earn a fascinating walk-off win that put him on a playoff path that took him all the way into the Championship 4. This year wasn’t a triumph for a playoff driver, but rather one for a driver that was fighting for a reason to keep competing among the best in the world.
Which is better for you?
There were also more late-race cautions than last year and three more all race in total. That constant bunching up of the field kept things interesting at the front of the field for sure, even if it was only one step away from the ROVAL demolition derbies we’ve seen in the past.
But I will keep beating this dead horse until NASCAR comes and takes it away: Fix the damn Next Gen car.
Road courses are fun. The years before the Next Gen had proved that and it’s great to see so many new venues introduced into the sport. However, as long as this car keeps road-course racing vanilla, the more and more fans will want to see them done away with (hence this article’s headline).
Sunday’s race wasn’t bad and maybe only a tick better than last year, but it’s still far from what it can be and far from what it used to be.
Paint Scheme of the Race
It was a close battle between two things I take very seriously: bright, vibrant paint schemes and pancakes.
Aric Almirola‘s brand new IHOP scheme, which features a bright blue livery for the beloved pancake diner brand, displayed a new primary sponsor activation and the third major recognizable brand activation for Stewart-Haas Racing within the span of two weeks.
It was cool to see and not so bad to look at, either.
There is something about the colors and artistic style of Daniel Suarez‘s Minute Maid juice car.
It’s unfortunately rare nowadays to see Coca-Cola featured as a primary sponsor, but it’s even more rare to see one of their secondary brands featured as one.
In this case, not only is it welcomed, but it should also be celebrated.
It was a bright sunny day in Charlotte, and seeing a collage of colorful fruits on the sides topped with a sky-blue color made it all the more appealing on Sunday.
The Round of 8 begins.
The Cup Series returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first race of the penultimate playoff round. Qualifying for the South Point 400 will be live on Saturday, Oct. 14 at 1:20 p.m. ET, with the race televised live on Sunday, Oct. 15 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
About the author
Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. Currently, he is the lead writer for the weekly Thinkin' Out Loud column and one of our lead reporters. Beforehand, he wrote for IMSA shortly after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.
Follow Dalton on Twitter @PitLaneLT
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