CONCORD, N.C. — Chase Elliott overcame a costly mistake that nearly wrecked his car to win a sloppy race in scorching temperatures on The Roval at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The Sunday showcase was the first elimination race in NASCAR’s playoffs and attention was focused on which four drivers would be cut from 16-driver championship field. Elliott recovered from an earlier gaffe when he was leading on a restart, locked his tires headed into the first turn and drove directly into a tire barrier.
"I couldn’t believe I did that. That was just so stupid," Elliott said. "I don’t know that you could have done anything more stupid leading this race than what I did right there. Luckily our car wasn’t too bad … fast enough to drive up through there, got the cautions at the right time, and just didn’t quit.
"If there’s ever a lesson to not quit, today was the example."
Behind him, the race was for the final spot in the second round of the playoffs with Elliott’s teammate, Alex Bowman, desperately trying to hang on to the 12th slot. He finished second in the race — in a backup car because he crashed in final practice — but his fate was out of his control because he trailed Ryan Newman in the playoff standings.
But Newman, racing Aric Almirola over the final few laps for a shot at advancing, missed a chicane with two laps remaining and the error cost him his shot at advancing. The point difference swung to Bowman, who slumped to the ground next to his car after the race as medical attendants tried to help him recover from heat-related issues.
As Bowman was sitting there, Bubba Wallace approached him for Bowman deliberately spinning him in the race. Bowman had said when he spun Wallace that Wallace had been flipping him the middle finger for several laps and the contact was his retaliation.
They exchanged brief words and Bowman appeared to laugh at Wallace right before Wallace angrily splashed his bottle of water in Bowman’s face. Bowman was later taken to the infield care centre for further treatment.
It was that kind of messy day on the hybrid road course/oval at Charlotte, where the championship chances ended for Newman, Almirola, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones.
A late caution led NASCAR to stop the race for a cleanup and the drivers had to sit inside their cockpits, where temperatures hovered around 120 degrees. NASCAR officials went car-to-car handing out water bottles, and Newman was among the many who radioed their crew asking for bags of ice to be waiting for him when the race ended.
Kyle Busch decided he wasn’t going to sit in the heat and drove his car to the garage, calling it a race with seven laps remaining. He was three laps down at the time and already locked into the second round of the playoffs.
Kevin Harvick finished third and was followed by Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, who was in danger of being eliminated from the playoffs but advanced with his fourth-place finish.
Brad Keselowski was fifth and followed by pole-sitter William Byron, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney as playoff drivers claimed the top eight spots.
The track, typically a standard NASCAR oval, was modified for this playoff race for the second consecutive year into a 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit that uses both the road course through the infield and the oval. The twists and turns around the circuit are marked with chicanes on the backstretch and frontstretch to slow the cars, and, potentially increase passing on the oval portion of the track. An added wrinkle from last year is an overhauled backstretch chicane revamped to make it a braking and passing zone.
NASCAR made it very clear in every communication with teams that skipping a chicane would be penalized, and Newman was one of many drivers to miss it and suffer a costly setback.
JONES FIRST OUT
Erik Jones was the first driver eliminated from the playoffs after a horrible opening round.
He had a mechanical issue at Las Vegas, but rallied last week at Richmond to finish fourth in a 1-2-3-4 sweep for Joe Gibbs Racing. Then NASCAR said Jones’ car had failed post-race inspection, and the 42-point penalty dropped him to last in the playoff field.
Jones was in a must-win situation at Charlotte to advance into the second round of the playoffs, but he went to the garage with damage to his Toyota at the end of the first stage and finished last. It officially knocked him out of the playoffs while the race was still going on.
"It’s frustrating not to even have a chance throughout the whole race, you know?" said Jones. "It’s unfortunate. We just had three really bad weeks and it’s some of our own doing and some not our own doing. I’d love to be moving forward here and challenging for the championship. I thought we could have went pretty deep this year, but it’s just the nature of the playoffs."
Kyle Busch decided not to finish the race when NASCAR stopped it with seven laps remaining to clean up debris on the track. Busch was three laps down at the time and temperatures in the cars were hovering around 120 degrees during the stoppage.
With nothing to gain when the race resumed, Busch threw in the towel and pulled off the track.
The opening race of the second round of the playoffs, Sunday at Dover International Speedway. Chase Elliott won last year.