Aric Almirola would have been happy if he had slipped into the NASCAR playoffs’ round of 12 by one point. That would have been enough for him.
Turns out he didn’t even need that
Almirola’s 19th-place finish in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, dropped him from sixth place into a three-way tie with Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson for the final two spots in the 12-driver second round.
Almirola and Larson — by virtue of their better finishes in the three first-round races — won the tiebreaker, eliminating seven-time champ Johnson.
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“I was hoping to just get in by plus-one point,” a relieved Almirola said. “Turns out it was plus-zero points.”
Johnson was running second on the final lap before he and Martin Truex Jr. wrecked approaching the start-finish line. Denny Hamlin, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon were also eliminated from the original playoff field of 16 drivers.
As much drama as the Johnson-Truex wreck provided at the front of the field, drivers such as Almirola and Larson were driving as hard as they could in the middle of the field, their playoff lives depending on every pass they made.
Starting the race seventh in the standings and 17 points clear of the cut-off point, Larson appeared to be cruising into the second round earlier in the race.
Larson, who led a race-high 47 laps, was among the leaders when he suffered significant damage on a restart that took out race-leader Brad Keselowski with six laps left.
That made the final portion of the race as much a math calculation as anything for Larson and crew chief Chad Johnston.
Larson thought he needed to move up one place by passing Jeffrey Earnhardt to give him that one, last valuable point to get him into the top 10.
“I had kind of given up there the last lap,” Larson said. “I saw the No. 88 (Alex Bowman) made a couple of passes and that’s who it sounded like we were in the points battle with. I knew I was screwed.
“And then they said (Johnson and Truex) were all crashing and it had to have been 45 seconds by the time I got back over there.
“I could see the No. 96 (Earnhardt) and I knew I needed that point to get to the tie-breaker. Thankfully, we got the tie-breaker.”
Larson said he saw on a television monitor after the race that he had not made the cut. He quickly found out that in fact he was in.
“The TV said we were behind by one,” Larson said. “I said, ‘Whatever, there’s nothing to do about it.’ But then I saw we were in.”
Johnson said going for a victory rather than protecting his points position was the wrong strategy.
“Ultimately, we were in a transfer position and didn’t get it,” said Johnson, who was 14th in the standings entering the race. “I was just going for the win. Wins are so important. And the veteran could have taken a safe route and didn’t, and unfortunately took us out of the playoffs and took out the No. 78 (Truex, Jr.).”
Dillon, who qualified for the playoffs by winning the season-opening Daytona 500 (his only victory of the season), was 10th in the standings entering the race. But he went out with 45 laps to go, ending his day and his chances of advancing to the second round.
Dillon said the uncertainty of racing on the Roval played a part in his demise.
“It’s just hard to hold back in a treacherous race,” Dillon said. “And I guess I didn’t do what we needed to do.”
Having a playoff cutoff race on an unpredictable track like the Roval was something for which the drivers couldn’t fully prepare.
“I think it’s good for the sport to have a ‘wild card’ going into the next round,” Larson said. “I think it was a decent event. But we’ll see what the fans think.”
Said Almirola: “I felt like I had less control all weekend. I wrecked in the first practice. I was really anxious and nervous all weekend about the track and about what adversity would be thrown at us..”