Like an intrepid explorer charting new territory, or a doctor tracking the symptoms of an unknown disease, we crave diagnosis.
We crave understanding.
And while the link between adventurers, physicians and race car drivers might be a bit of a stretch, at least for this weekend it’s an appropriate comparison.
On Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series will run its inaugural race on CMS’ new Roval course.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
The half-oval, half-road course hybrid track is 2.28 miles long and features 17 turns, over hills and around blind corners and, of course, half a regular NASCAR oval on the back end.
Teams have tested the course over the past year, NASCAR has made subsequent changes, and finally, after lots of tinkering, race weekend is here.
And we have absolutely no idea what to expect.
No sense of understanding, you could say.
“Nobody knows what’s going to happen when we get in this thing,” Austin Dillon said Friday.
But instead of flatly buying into the Roval hysteria at CMS this weekend, instead of accepting chaos for chaos’ sake, there’s another, more insightful option to lean into:
Listen, there is no singular reason the Roval is unpredictable. Rather, it’s a series of things — hairpin turns, no margin for error, and a lack of course exposure — that coalesce to lay the foundation for mayhem.
Understanding all those things will be essential to whichever driver emerges victorious on Sunday.
‘You can really screw up’
If there’s any one thing most drivers could agree on about this irregular Roval, it’s where to find the most daunting stretch of the course. It’s the backstretch chicane.
On the new Roval course, that’s Turns 11 and 12 — near Turn 3 on the normal NASCAR oval.
But the challenge with it is inherent. On a track with narrow lanes, lots of walls and few opportunities to really, you know, go fast, the back straightaway is one of the few chances to lean on the throttle.
So naturally, the track limits that.
The chicane, a cutaway curve in the road, serves to slow drivers before they go into the second straightaway (with its own chicane) and then ultimately back onto the infield road course section of the track.
But on that backstretch chicane, which is too narrow for cars to drive through side-by-side, there’s also a tire wall jutting out from the left.
And for cars that do go through that chicane too fast, or get loose when doing so, that wall is there to stick them.
“The chicane on the backstretch is the biggest deal,” Martin Truex Jr. said Friday. “I mean, it’s the fastest part of the track. For the speed and how narrow it is, that’s the big one.
“Your plan is to come out of that chicane and be as close to that tire wall as you can be because that’s where the speed is. So if you get in the middle of that chicane and all of a sudden the back of the car steps out a little bit, which we’ve seen a couple of guys have to do (Friday), and you’ve gotta catch it, you find your left front tire in that tire wall.”
Austin Dillon had exactly that happen to him during practice on Friday. Dillon, 10th in the Cup Series standings, lost some control in the back of his car, and as he tried to correct, he plowed right through that tire wall and shredded his left front bumper.
And while Dillon didn’t say that was the toughest part of the course, he did acknowledge that the margin for error there is practically nonexistent.
“It’s a place where you can really screw up,” Dillon said. “If you are smart about it, it’s not a hard corner. It’s just if you are trying to find lap time speed, you are going to try and get a little too much, and you do what I did.”
A little rub on that tire wall, like what happened to Ryan Blaney, can cost a driver a couple of seconds. A harder, more direct hit such as Dillon’s can do some serious damage to the car, and potentially force a driver to pit road or behind the wall.
But hitting that wall dead on, or running straight into it? Joey Logano put it best:
“That’s gonna destroy some cars.”
‘That’s not gonna work’
So the initial diagnosis is that that backstretch chicane is the toughest part of the course to handle.
It’s far from the only difficult bit, though.
Take, for instance, the entire road course section. Comprised of eight turns, including sharp transitions from oval to road course and back again, there are several sticking points for trouble on that coil of track.
“Turn 1 is pretty tough as is,” Blaney said, referencing the initial turn from the oval into the road course. “A couple cars have wrecked there trying to go through there by yourself, and now you’ve got 40 cars trying to go through there side-by-side?”
Turn 1 is also particularly challenging because it lines up with pit road.
That means there’s a chance that two drivers are side-by-side entering that turn off the oval, funneling into a much narrower stretch of road. Add a third car there coming out of the pits?
There just isn’t room for all of them.
“That’s three cars in a really tight spot — that’s not gonna work,” Blaney said. “There might have to be a little give-and-take there because it’s almost a blind corner pretty much.”
Then there’s the rest of the actual infield.
Drivers so far have shown a propensity for spinning out on Turn 3, as both Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Bubba Wallace had happen during Friday’s practice. And given that the turn leads into a hard uphill climb, some 30 feet in elevation, there’s reason to expect more of the same on Sunday.
“We saw a lot of guys get in trouble, spin out, particularly in Turn 3,” Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will be on the broadcast Sunday for NBC, said earlier this week. “That downhill, to the right-hand Turn 3 on the infield seems to be one of the more challenging parts of the course.”
Then you’ve got Turn 8, when drivers re-join the oval out of the infield. What should be an easy turn in theory becomes complicated because drivers are shifting to their top speeds as quickly as possible.
That means sometimes they lose control as well.
Patience, Dillon said, will be crucial.
“You are downhill, you can’t see, you come up the hill, you want to carry more throttle it’s so easy to push your front tires,” Dillon said. “I would say that is probably the toughest.”
‘Won’t ... be surprised by anything’
So the Roval track presents an overwhelming array of symptoms.
The backstretch chicane, the infield, getting into and off of the road course — heck, that’s 10 of the 18 turns in the conversation as “the most difficult” or “the toughest.”
That probably doesn’t bode well for a clean race Sunday.
Even Kurt Busch and A.J. Allmendinger, who will start on the front row for the inaugural Bank of America Roval 400, said it’s difficult to pick out one particular part of the track as especially nerve-wracking.
Rather, they said, the difficulty lies in the accumulation of challenging turns, cutaways on both straightaways, and the drivers’ overall lack of exposure to this track.
With that all said, what’s a reasonable expectation for Sunday’s race?
Some drivers will play it safe, hang back and let the guys ahead of them wreck themselves. Then, they’ll scoot through the carnage and try to salvage a decent finish from there, especially considering this is a playoff cutdown race.
Others won’t be so patient. They’ll go full-steam ahead, charging with speed and ferocity into every tight turn and every blind corner. They’ll narrowly try to skate past those walls without, you know, becoming one with them.
And with all the different obstacles, all the different strategies and circumstances for each individual driver?
“I don’t know that I’m expecting chaos,” Earnhardt said, “but I won’t certainly be surprised by anything.”