Flat Spot On: For a Hot Time, Consider Charlotte’s Roval

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, October 2 2019
Alex Bowman and Kevin Harvick lead a pack of cars through a corner at the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield oval. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Brian Cleary)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

The temperatures, cars, drivers and tempers were hotter than the Climate Change debate at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the first elimination race of the Playoffs. So, who should be punished?

First, let’s eliminate Climate Change, since Republicans all know it’s fake news and Democrats all know it’s a criminal conspiracy. The high of 96 degrees was one of the most severe temperatures for a race in Charlotte since Dale Earnhardt made his Cup debut in May of 1975, which proves that every half century or so it can get really hot down South—although it’s a little strange in October. 

What about the promoters, who used to run the fall race on Saturday evening in cooler climes before they built something called a roval? Don’t they deserve some blame for calling on drivers to run on a combined infield and oval circuit, which means lights and night racing are out of the question. Yet, the TV ratings, if not ticket sales, have improved compared with the Saturday night date, also known as avoid-clashing-with-the-NFL. Any time you can compete head-to-head with the NFL on a Sunday, it’s a good thing.

Maybe road racing is the problem. As demonstrated by Bubba Wallace, one driver can hold up another almost indefinitely due to all the twisty bits between the straights. On the other hand, two drivers, Chase Elliott and Wallace’s nemesis Alex Bowman, both went from the back to the front. Bowman did it twice, despite Wallace’s rolling chicane. No wonder Bowman was overwhelmed with near heat exhaustion once the 400-kilometer race was over.

The leading candidate for punishment, of course, is Bubba Wallace, who threw water in the face of Bowman as he sat back-to-his-car while getting medical attention after the race. Not good.

Daniel Suarez of Stewart-Haas Racing flies around a corner at the CMS roval. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Andrew Coppley)

The runner-up nominee, and also the second-place driver on this day, Bowman might not have advanced to the next Playoff round if he hadn’t plowed into Wallace at the exit of the back straight chicane on a march to the front. Deliberate contact that could wreck another driver—also not good.

These are serious issues and will be much discussed before the first race of the second round of the Playoffs. At least one of those discussions will include Wallace and NASCAR official Steve O’Donnell. But combined with Elliott’s crash and win approach, the race demonstrated a lot of passion, passing, spinning and driving expertise. Not a bad formula for NASCAR’s top series and the promoters in Charlotte.

If nothing else, the roval as an elimination race brought the passion back to the surface in NASCAR. See Ryan Neman’s Ford at the end, a mixed bag of crooked body parts earned while trying to stave off elimination. But pity his poor teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who was eliminated from Roush-Fenway Racing earlier in the week, which also brought some passion to the surface.

The team owners may not act like professionals. (Anybody with long-term dealings with Jack Roush knows there’s always two sides to that coin.)  But the drivers are the expected to hold up their end when it comes to their more prominent public role.

I would say Wallace’s offense falls somewhere between punching a driver sitting in his car with his helmet on (see Michael Waltrip) and punching a driver sitting in his car without his helmet on (see Jimmy Spencer). Neither of these two examples were particularly bright moves. What bothers me about Wallace was his inability to recognize making life difficult for Bowman as a payback had its limits. Hold him up, if you will, but don’t expect to keep a Playoff driver behind you indefinitely without getting a “chrome horn.”

Bowman, always a bright and talented driver, stepped up a notch in my book. Sure, he looks and sounds like a card-carrying member of the meritocracy who might not have made it to the Cup level without some help from his car dealer father. But Bowman earned his opportunity to get exposure with Hendrick as a simulator jockey and eventually earned the full-time job as a substitute for Dale Earnhardt Jr. His Saturday practice crash, which put him into a back-up car for the green flag, showed he’s a 10-tenths racer who takes nothing for granted. Ditto on Sunday.

Winner Elliott’s burnout at the same wall where he crashed earned kudos, along with his leaving a rolling car in his celebratory wake. What really impressed me was his physical demeanor after the race. He looked like he’d just driven over the Georgia mountains from Blairsville to Dawsonville, relaxed and ready to go another round, although certainly chagrinned by his mid-race mistake. Quite a contrast to Bowman’s exhaustion. Perhaps this will be the year Elliott will get to the final round in Homestead and revive those days of his daddy’s awesomeness.

Less than persuasive, once again, was Kyle Busch. I have witnessed hot days at Charlotte where drivers got second-degree burns on their feet due to a hot floorboard, but still finished the race. This was back in the day when firewalls did little to protect a cockpit or driver from engine heat and carbon monoxide and the exhaust pipes went right under a driver’s feet. I’ve seen 600-mile races in Charlotte when relief drivers were needed after the starter was pulled from his car looking like a rag doll and barely able to stand up.

After cars were stopped for a red flag to clean the track on Sunday, Busch was stuck with all the others in cars hot enough for the metal to creak and crackle—about 120 degrees on the track. Sure, it’s not fun driving a car with a broken anti-roll bar, especially on a road circuit. But by comparison with hot days in the past, the punishment wasn’t all that bad. Just when we thought and hoped he has become a full professional, Busch is resending the same old message. If I can’t win, I’m quitting. So, he walked away from the final restart. Wonder what his crew and teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing thought of that? 

(Editor’s note: Jonathan Ingram is a 43-year veteran of reporting on racing and the author of six books. CRASH! How the HANS Helped Save Racing, was just released. For more information, see www.jingrambooks.com.)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Wednesday, October 2 2019
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