Hallman: Charlotte’s Roval generating buzz

September 27, 2018

You’ve got to hand it to NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Without going an inch out of their way, the sanctioning body and the racetrack have generated the biggest buzz about a new stock car racing event in nearly a quarter of a century.

The last time there was this much talk/excitement/consternation over a new place for the Cup Series to put tire to pavement was 1994 when the tour made its first appearance on the hallowed asphalt at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Just to underscore how much time has passed, not one of the 40 drivers entered in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte was among the 43 drivers who started the inaugural Brickyard 400 at Indy.

Before that, to find this much interest in a new racing surface, you might have to go back a full 30 years to 1988 and Richmond Raceway’s reopening as the circuit’s only ¾-mile track.

Charlotte has ramped up the interest in its fall race not as a new locale or by demolishing one track and building another on the same site. Rather, the speedway has captured the racing world’s imagination by forsaking its traditional 1.5-mile oval, the most common configuration on the Cup tour, and setting up to run on the facility’s road course.

It’s called the Roval — a word trademarked by Charlotte though it has been common parlance for some time referring to any oval that has carved out a road course as well. The Charlotte oval has held races since 1960. The road course was added in 1971 and has been used by sports cars and prototypes.

The 2.28-mile course the Cup cars will use Sunday incorporates most of the oval, with a couple of chicanes added to complicate matters for the heavy stockers, and snakes its way through the infield inside what would be Turn 1 and Turn 2 of the oval.

Marcus Smith, president and CEO of the speedway, said in a recent NASCAR SiriusXM interview that he began contemplating putting stock cars on the Charlotte road course three years ago.

He said he realized the track had no trouble promoting its quirky NASCAR all-star race or its annual Memorial Day Weekend 600-miler, the tour’s longest event. But for the speedway’s fall race, “We just didn’t have the same pizazz.”

He looked out his office window across the speedway and “I thought, ‘You know what, there’s so much chatter about there not being a road course in the playoffs; there’s a lot of chatter about there being too many intermediate mile-and-a-halfs. I could kill two birds with one stone here. Let’s change it up and run the Roval.’ ”

Smith called NASCAR and they opened the conversation that would eventually lead to this Sunday’s 400-kilometer race. It’s the first playoff road-course race and the third overall this season. The other two were waged at the traditional road courses in Watkins Glen, N.Y., and Sonoma, Calif.

Now that the Roval race is about to become a reality — time trials Friday, an Xfinity companion race on the road course Saturday, the Cup event Sunday — some competitors and observers question the wisdom of this departure from the way things always have been done.

The race is an elimination event. The pool of championship-eligible drivers will be cut from 16 to 12 after Sunday’s race. Some say it is foolish to run such a crucial race on a course with which the drivers aren’t familiar.

Recent testing on the course did not allay those concerns. Several drivers had problems negotiating the chicane on the backstretch, which slows the cars for a tricky left-right before they charge onto the sweep of the oval’s Turn 3 and Turn 4.

Besides the course itself, the event presents different challenges for different drivers. The four who enter the weekend at the back of the 16-car playoff bunch — Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones and Denny Hamlin — will need to be aggressive, either to win for an automatic berth in the next round or to pile up enough points to shoulder their way into the top 12.

Some of the non-playoff drivers want to play spoiler and win a playoff event just to show their sponsors they’re worth the investment. The tour also has drivers who are finishing out their contracts with race teams, possibly ending their Cup racing careers. They will want to win — some for the first time, others one more time. Among those end-of-contract drivers is A.J. Allmendinger, whose road-racing skill could make him a serious contender.

Other drivers — the ones who are locked in or nearly locked in for the next round of the playoffs — will want to be more judicious, taking care of their equipment, avoiding anything catastrophic.

So there will be varying philosophies and varying pit and tire strategies in play. Some drivers will go all out from the moment the green flag waves. Others, those unwilling to risk too much, may find themselves in the way of the hellbent.

That’s enough to have me tuned in. That’s just what Marcus Smith wanted when he thought, “Let’s change it up and run the Roval.”

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