BOA Roval 400 Preview

I can already feel the suspense and intensity of Sunday's Bank of America ROVAL 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and haven't even a seen a practice on the new 17-turn, 2.28 road course/oval yet. Aside from drivers all being a bit skittish themselves about the new venture combining the fast speeds around the high banks of the oval with the tight right and left turns on the infield road course, this is also the final race of the Round of 16 in NASCAR's Playoffs. Four drivers are going to be eliminated from championship contention.

In other words, we've got NASCAR drama from all angles.

Before we get started on who the best candidates to win are and which of the four drivers outside looking into a Playoff transfer position, let's talk more about the difficulties of this new layout. The series did a couple days of testing on the Roval in July and it was a smash-fest, as in almost every participant had some issues. Think about the layout and the high speeds gained racing on the high banks of Charlotte and then having to slow completely down to enter the infield for Turn 1.

“That Roval cutoff race is going to be gut-wrenching for plenty of different reasons," said Kurt Busch who is currently 11-points above the transfer position. "The extra stress that is going to come with the Roval, that one’s going to be a tough one.”

When Kyle Busch won the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte on the 1.5-mile layout, his first win ever at Charlotte in Cup 29 starts, his pole-winning speed was 191 mph which took 28.14 seconds for the lap. In one of the July tests on the 2.28-mile Roval he had the top speed at 106 mph which took one-minute, 16 seconds to complete a lap.

“I think the whole track is treacherous, there are places that you could bust your tail at any moment being over aggressive," said Austin Dillon who is 6-points above the transfer spot. "(It) can gain you speed but also can take you out from jumping a curb."

Dillon has never finished better than 16th in any of his 10 Cup starts on road courses, which is part of the reason the Westgate Las Vegas Superbook has his odds to win are a whopping 300/1. Transferring into the next round for Dillon also seems like a long shot.

The crew chiefs have a dilemma here in deciding where they want to be fastest at: on the infield with a road course set-up used twice already this season at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, or go for the high banking balance 1.5-mile set-up to be fastest on the oval portion. It would seem more ground could be gained on the infield portion, but I'm sure several teams will try some different packages and when a team finds something during practices, others will attempt to copy.

In the end, I believe this race could be more volatile in the Playoffs than Talladega. It's got lots of speed mixed in with skills and I'm looking forward to it. And congrats should go out to NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway for throwing some kind of mix in the Playoffs to add some more excitement. Two of 26 races on roads in the regular season, but none in the Playoffs? That's the way it was. NASCAR is still weighted with too many races 1.5-mile tracks during the Playoffs, but they're at least open to diversifying.

So who is going to win? I think the volatility of the layout makes this a much more wide open list of candidates to win than a regular road course where we have a select group of road specialists. Unlike the other two road courses, there's hardly any elevation change, and wow, 17 turns. The guys that turn left and right the best should be weighted to the top as best candidates to win while also mixing in those consistently fast on 1.5-mile tracks.

Obviously, Kyle Busch should be the favorite just because of his road skills -- he leads active drivers with four road wins, his three wins on 1.5s, and also because of his top speed during July testing.

Then we have Martin Truex Jr. who has three road course wins, including two of the last three raced. Truex also has a win on a 1.5-mile track this season. He's already clinched a spot into the next round so this is like a free-roll to him.

“Yippee!” Truex shouted with a beaming smile after learning he was set for the next playoff round. “Not having to worry about the Roval to advance is a giant relief. We’re going to go there and have some fun and see if we can get some more (playoff) points. I feel really bad for the guys who are going to go in there and have to do something (to advance).”

One of those guys is Denny Hamlin sitting dead last in playoff points, 29-points behind the transfer position currently held by Ryan Blaney. Hamlin's road course set-up has been incredible the past three seasons where he's averaged a 5.6 finish in six starts, including a 2016 Watkins Glen win. He's an attractive odds to win play because of his desperation. He'll knock any driver out of the way to get a win. No friends here. No teammates here. What's also attractive is his 15-to-1 odds offered by the Westgate.

“I learned a lot at the road course test, but I don’t know if I have a better feeling about how the race is going to go," Hamlin said. "The track has countless areas for bad things to happen; things will just end your day. So passing zones are going to be extremely difficult to figure out, I think it’s going to be a day about really minimizing your own mistakes and you’ll be able to maintain track position pretty well. But, it’s going to be crazy.”

After that, you have to look at Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, and Kevin Harvick. Elliott won at Watkins Glen in August, which is the faster of the two roads which would apply to the Roval more. But Elliott is not exactly thrilled about this being the transfer race to the next round since he's only 6-points above 12th-place.

“Yeah, it’s not the ideal situation, for sure," said Elliott who is 8/1 to win Sunday. "I think that survival will be key there and hoping that you can just not crash by yourself. I mean, heck, I spun out a couple of times by myself and a lot of guys have gone off track not even racing anybody. Just lining up and getting in line and making laps and trying to be solid. I don’t know, we will see where we stack up pace-wise when we get there and then we can adjust how we want to approach the race.”

Kurt Busch has an 8.1 average finish in his last six road starts and his teammate Harvick is just fast everywhere winning at Sonoma last season and runner-up there in June.

And then after that, you might look at Brad Keselowski just because he's on a roll winning three of the past four races, as well as his Penske teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney.

The best long shot of the bunch is Daniel Suarez, who is apparently racing for a job somewhere else as Truex is expected to take over the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19. He's got two top-five finishes in four Cup road races.

As for the bottom four of Hamlin, Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson, and Erik Jones, it's not do-or-die for all of them, but it's almost that way for Hamlin. I think Hamlin will race like a bat out of hell this week and get a top-five finish, but I don't know that he has the type of speed on the banking like Truex and Kyle Busch will have. But it's that type of desperation with Hamlin and the others that add intrigue to this first ever type of race in NASCAR.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #78 Martin Truex Jr (5/1)
2) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (3/1)
4) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
5) #9 Chase Elliott (8/1)