The bad news for William Byron and Alex Bowman is that they’re seeded 11th and 12th among the 12 drivers hoping to stay alive in NASCAR’s 10-race Playoff Series. The good news is that both have enjoyed good runs on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, scene of this weekend’s race.
Sunday afternoon’s 109-lap, 249-miler is the third and final stop in Round 2 of the four-round championship series. Denny Hamlin and seven others will advance to Round 3, with its upcoming races at Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, and Martinsville Speedway. That mini-series will trim the championship field from eight to four, leaving four finalists to race for the championship on November 7 at Phoenix.
Hamlin is assured of advancing into Round 3 based on his Sept. 26 victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Second-ranked Kyle Larson is 22 points above the cut line, Joey Logano is plus-21, and Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. are 20 points to the good. Ryan Blaney, the 2018 Roval winner, is 15 points above the line. Kyle Busch and 2019-2020 Roval winner Chase Elliott are nine above the cut line. Kevin Harvick is ranked ninth, nine points below the line.
The final three are the most vulnerable: Christopher Bell is 28 below advancing, Byron is 44 below the line, and Bowman is minus-52. With a maximum 60 points available, the only realistic chance for Byron and Bowman to reach Round 3 is to win on the 2.28-mile oval/road course. Officially, the 11 drivers ranked behind Hamlin remain eligible to advance. They’ll make it either with an outright victory or by any number of complex and convoluted finish scenarios that involve all 12 drivers.
Bowman has been fourth, second, and eighth in his Roval starts. Byron was 34th in the inaugural race in 2018, then sixth and sixth the last two years. Bell was 24th last year (his only Roval start) and Harvick has been ninth, third, and 11th in his three starts. Busch has the worst Roval record of the Playoff drivers: 32nd, 37th, and 30th.
Not surprisingly – all drivers, of course, expect the best – Byron feels his No. 24 Chevrolet team can beat the odds. That means winning the race outright (an automatic pass into Round 3) or earning maximum stage points and finishing top-5. (Even that might not be enough, depending on the fortunes of the drivers ranked ahead of him).
“There are some tracks—like Richmond—where if we were going into an elimination race, I’d say we had no opportunity to win,” the young Liberty University student said on Wednesday. “But with this track, we’ve continued to get better. I’ve had a pole here and I’ve led a bunch of laps here the past two years. So, it’s not a track where I feel we can’t win. We’re really capable of doing it. It’s a lot better than the alternative; it could be a track where we don’t feel we could win.”
In his elimination position, Byron can enjoy the luxury of not worrying about points. “There’s really nothing to lose for us,” he said. “We’re 44 out, so we’re not going to make it on points; we’ve got to win. We’ll be disappointed if we don’t make it through this round. We can make up for (bad luck) on Sunday, and we’re very capable of that. So, we’ll go in with nothing to lose. We either win or get out of the Playoffs.”
Bowman is in much the same situation, so he and crew chief Greg Ives are approaching the Roval with a similar mindset. “Going out and winning is key, the number one goal no matter what situation you’re in,” Ives said. “Here, it’s definitely (important) to make that happen to transfer to the next round. I feel we are up to the challenge (because) Alex has a tendency to find that little bit more or that extra percentage that we need to get it done.
“I’m excited for the team. I’m excited for us to get that opportunity and see what we have to show for it.”
Using NASCAR’s “metric” qualifying formula, Hamlin will start from the pole for the 2 p.m. race. The next five will be Keselowski, Logano, Bell, Truex Jr., and Blaney, then Harvick, Elliott, Busch, Larson, Byron, and Bowman. Based on his recent victory at Talladega, non-Playoff driver Bubba Wallace will start 15th.
NASCAR Round of 12 Playoff Standings
(Bottom 4 After Sunday’s Race at Charlotte Will Be Eliminated)
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