» CHASE ELLIOTT WINS AT ROVAL
CONCORD, N.C. — Chase Elliott got his revenge on the turn in the end, indulging in perhaps the first victory lap in the history of racing that ended in a deliberate crash. This time, when Elliott failed to make the sharp left turn that marks the beginning of Charlotte’s Roval road course and drove straight into the wall, it was entirely intentional, part celebration, part tip of the helmet to a superior foe.
That turn nearly cost Elliott his entire race when he drove too deep into the corner, locked up his brakes while leading the field into the turn after a restart and skidded straight into the wall with half the race still to go. With the best car, he managed to fight his way back through the field to the lead, but even Sunday’s winner couldn’t figure out how to make it around that corner when the green flag dropped.
“I don’t know you could have done anything more stupid leading the race than what I did right there,” Elliott said.
That’s entirely by design: Putting a road course, even this hybrid course that puts all the twists and turns in the infield while still making use of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s sweeping banked turns, at such a pivotal point in the season inserts an element of uncertainty and challenge that can trip up even the best.
The contours and chicanes of the road course are dangerous enough, but it’s the restarts that pose the most severe test, the field allowed to skip the hairpin bend painted onto the head of the frontstretch, tearing out of the corner a full 20 miles per hour faster than it would on a normal lap — especially on a day when the savage heat put a slippery sheen on everything.
You’d think, after two years of the Roval 400, the best stock-car drivers in the world would have figured out that they’re not accelerating into a typical lap around the oval but into a sharp left so dangerous it even got its own sponsorship deal: Tums paid to put its name on the “heartburn turn.”
And just as Brad Keselowski wrecked on the lead last year, Elliott went skidding into the wall this year, one of two serious crashes in that corner among several spins and near-catastrophes. Elliott raced the rest of the way with a front end that looked like it was salvaged from a teen parallel-parking academy, somehow working his way through the entire field and back to the front.
It’s a strange thing indeed to see the best at something in their profession struggle with what seems so elemental, like watching Phil Mickelson whack his ball around the green at Shinnecock or Mackey Sasser get the yips throwing the ball back to the pitcher. You’d get it if these drivers struggled with the right turns, but at least this is a left.
But that’s the idea of the Roval. Get these guys out of their comfort zone, turn a superspeedway into something vaguely European — shake everything up. And in the middle of the Chase for the Cup no less, with careers hanging in the balance as the playoff field was trimmed from 16 drivers to 12. Winning owner Rick Hendrick called it the sport’s most “treacherous” track. Mario Andretti was there Sunday, having consulted on the construction of this course imposed upon the infield, and his opinion was echoed by many.
“I’ve never been a fan of road courses within an oval, quite honestly,” Andretti said, “but I’m a fan of this one.”
The layout pushes everyone to their limit with hair’s-breadth passes and, more than anything, the restarts, letting the drivers come out of what’s normally Turn 4 and cross the finish line like they were shot out of a cannon, only to have to slow to a crawl immediately and navigate the corner. Not surprisingly, even after a week of practice, the first restart of the afternoon lasted all of 10 seconds under a green flag when traffic backed up going into the corner like a rushhour fender-bender. William Byron, who dominated the first 24 laps, let Kyle Larson whip past to win the first stage.
“I was so scared about the Turn 1 wall, I kind of gave up the stage on the restart alone,” Byron said.
When it was over, Elliott came back across the finish line the second time, pointed his car straight into the corner and let it cruise straight in again, driving right over the skid marks he left 43 laps earlier. He conducted the traditional burnout in that unusual corner.