NASCAR Preview: Elliott NASCAR’s Indomitable Threat at Roval

Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet, races at Charlotte Motor Speedway September 2019

Chase Elliott’s need for a repeat victory on the Charlotte Roval fluctuated over a few hours when his top-5 finish at Talladega was stripped for driving out of bounds, then reinstated after NASCAR judged his action was forced, not deliberate. This alleviates pressure for playoff sustainability and should allow him to compete, unfettered, for the win this Sunday.

Elliott’s position leading into the end of the quarter-final round

He’s currently 44 points safe from the cutoff prior to the finale of the quarter-final round, but the existence of a cushion might not diminish the odds of him duplicating last year’s feat. Elliott’s No. 9 car ranked as the fastest in all of NASCAR on road courses in 2019. It also served as the fourth-fastest vehicle in the only completed road course event this season on Daytona’s winding circuit, where he scored the victory. He’s among the NASCAR betting favorites to win this weekend in Charlotte, though underlying speed numbers suggest he’ll have his hands full with the best Joe Gibbs Racing has to offer.

The Joe Gibbs Racing favorites

Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, race during  NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500

The two primary title favorites from JGR’s stable – Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex – descend on the Charlotte Roval fresh off of an ideal outing in Talladega. Hamlin earned the win – his third in the last eight races on drafting tracks – while Truex’s Stage 2 victory served as the first stage-point bounty he’d collected from Talladega since the 2018 fall race.

By virtue of the win, Hamlin will advance to the semi-final round of the playoffs regardless of his result this Sunday. Truex, earning the 14th-most points in a race in which he earned a 23rd-place finish, has sufficient padding in the event his efforts on the Roval go south, which based on his speed and recent road course history, would be surprising.
Truex had the fastest car, per timing and scoring data, on the Daytona road course in early August. This comes as no shock; his No. 19 car ranked as the second-fastest machine on road courses in 2019, trailing only Elliott’s – but he left points on the table that day, relinquishing leads by pitting in advance of stage ends to have good track position for the ensuing restarts. While that’s a tried-and-true road course strategy for likely race-win contenders, Truex’s crew chief, James Small, hadn’t calculated that a car with good speed could actually compete for points in all scenarios. Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson not only collected a stage win and the valuable playoff-eligible point it provided, but also proved a fast-enough car could claim those points and earn the outright race win.

You need to adapt your racing strategy on the fly

A pack of cars during NASCAR Cup Series YellaWood 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in October 2020

Whether Elliott’s successful gambit served as an epiphany for his closest competition is unknown. However, Elliott believes much of stage-centric strategy on road courses occurs on the fly.

“I really don’t know that you can ever plan for that or know exactly how to attack it,” said Elliott this week. “I think once the race starts, you kind of have to feel out who the players are and how fast or slow you are, kind of compared to the competition, and figure it out from there.”

Key in Elliott’s 2019 Roval win were the seven positions his team earned from Gustafson’s strategic designs on the race’s lone green-flag pit cycle, in reaction to the driver’s accident on lap 66. This gain assisted in the driver’s recovery, setting up his winning charge from ninth to first.

“I think it depends on what position you’re in from a points perspective on how you want to approach the race,” continued Elliott. “It’s tough, and like I said, I don’t really know that you can plan for that ahead of time until you start the race, kind of see where you stack up, and get a first look at what your day is looking like.”

If Elliott’s suggestion of improvisation is true, it likely doesn’t benefit the teams of JGR, who showed no willingness to deviate from its game plan last month at Darlington Raceway. A bad outing by chief championship rival Kevin Harvick could’ve been cemented during the final stage if JGR had audibled from its plan to make one pit stop across the final 180 miles. Instead, Harvick’s short-pitting strategy put him on fresh tires and provided him with quicker lap times. Not only did Harvick salvage a night in which he was trapped in dirty air with an ill-handling car, but he also ended up winning the race.

This is unfortunate for Truex, who will likely advance to the next playoff round but holds just one race win this season and, as a result, a smaller cache of playoff points against the likes of Harvick (nine wins) and Hamlin (seven wins), who appear locks to qualify for the championship race in Phoenix on Nov. 8. Truex could stand to benefit from a dual focus on stage wins and the outright race win this weekend, now entirely plausible based on Elliott’s Daytona effort.

The fastest cars on the track

Chase Elliott, driver of the #9 Unifirst Chevrolet, leads the pack of cars during NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 in September 2020

For sure, both Elliott and Truex have enviable speed on the road courses, and this should provide each a leg-up this Sunday. Hamlin and fellow JGR driver Kyle Busch, whose cars ranked second and third in speed on Daytona’s road course, could also prove impenetrable for slower cars, especially without much repercussion on the clunky 2.28-mile Roval course in Charlotte.

Elliott insisted brake fade, a scourge of fast cars on most road courses, won’t be much of a factor.

“I felt like the worst spot was probably into the backstretch chicane. That was probably about as hard as we would brake in a straight line,” said Elliott. “The rest of the track is kind of just awkward. The Turn 4 area coming into that little chicane on the front stretch is kind of curved, so it’s hard to use max brake pressure through that section.”

“The rest of the track is just really kind of slow, to be honest.”

When those with the best speed on road courses don’t have to worry about an overreliance on that speed coming to roost, it further separates the haves from the have-nots. That gap from Elliott, Truex and the usual road course favorites is wider as a result, reflected in the latest odds.

David Smith is a writer and analyst for MotorsportsAnalytics.com and the co-host of Positive Regression: A Motorsports Analytics Podcast. Prior to BetMGM, he was a contributor for The Washington Post, NASCAR.com and The Athletic. He previously served 13 years as a NASCAR driver talent scout on behalf of sports agencies MMI, Spire and RSMG.

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