Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR: Truex Looking to Sweep Opening Round

In earning his second consecutive victory last week at Richmond Raceway, Martin Truex Jr. became the fourth driver since NASCAR implemented the Playoffs to win the first two races of the sport’s championship drive.

No one has won the first three Playoff races (Joey Logano did sweep the second round – Charlotte, Kansas, Talladega – in 2015), but there’s a good case to be made about Truex’s ability to do so in Sunday’s Bank of America Roval 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Truex took the lead at last year’s Roval race following a 14-car incident with five laps to go. He was leading when a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson challenged him on the last corner of the final lap. The pair spun exiting the turn only yards in front of the finish line and third place Ryan Blaney blazed past to take the victory. Truex recovered to finish 14th and Johnson finished eighth.

Johnson ultimately missed advancing to the second round of the Playoffs by a mere three points. Truex did advance and ended the season runner-up to champion Joey Logano – just missing the chance to become the first back-to-back champion since Johnson won five consecutive titles from 2006-2010.

Truex returns to the Roval locked into the Round of 12 by virtue of his two wins.

Especially later in his career, Truex has proven to be one of the best road course racers in the series. He has wins at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen. In fact, his three Sonoma victories are most among active drivers and he’s won the last two races there. Truex’s lone win at The Glen came in 2017 and he’s finished runner-up the past two seasons to back-to-back Glen winner Chase Elliott.

And just for good measure, Truex has an especially noteworthy resume at Charlotte Motor Speedway – on the oval speedway course used each May. He has won three of the last six races on the speedway course and in 2016 won the Memorial Day Coca-Cola 600 classic from pole position, leading a record 392 of the 400 laps.

Blaney back to defend
For obvious reasons, many people remember Ryan Blaney’s stunning “right time, right place” victory in last year’s inaugural race on the Charlotte Roval. He was running third on the last lap when race leader Martin Truex Jr. and second place Jimmie Johnson tangled approaching the finish line, allowing Blaney to drive through the mayhem and claim his only trophy of the season.

What some don’t remember is that Blaney actually led 15 laps earlier in the race and was a frontrunner most of the afternoon. The driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford would absolutely love that skill-fortune combo again this weekend. He’s ranked 10th in the championship standings with only a six-point cushion on 12th-place William Byron as the series competes in the first Playoff eliminator of the season. The top 12 of 16 Playoff drivers will advance to the next round following the outcome of Sunday afternoon’s Roval race.

Blaney has been competitive on the Cup road courses this season, finishing third at Sonoma, Calif. and fifth at Watkins Glen – both career bests for the fourth-year Cup driver.

He has a NASCAR road course win in the 2014 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Bowmanville, Ontario, and he has a Charlotte Motor Speedway oval configuration win in the Xfinity Series in 2017.

Blaney’s Monster Energy Series victory on the Roval also capped off a strong weekend for Ford. Chase Briscoe won the Xfinity race a day earlier in a Ford and former Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driver Kurt Busch started from pole position in the Cup race.

Harvick continuing to shine
Kevin Harvick’s rise up the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship standings has been noteworthy inside and outside the garage. He’s won three of the last nine races and dominated the regular season finale – leading 118 of the 160 laps from pole position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway three weeks ago.

He’s scored top 10s in the opening two Playoff races – runner-up to Martin Truex Jr. at the Las Vegas opener and seventh last week at Richmond. He trails Truex – whose won both Playoff races – by 21 points heading into Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL race this Sunday, but he has already clinched a spot in the Round of 12 based on points.

A victory at the Roval – where he started 19th and finished ninth in last year’s inaugural – would be his 49th Cup win and put him in a tie with his team owner and good friend Tony Stewart at 14th place on the all-time Monster Energy Series wins list.

Harvick has won at both of the current, traditional NASCAR road course venues. He won at Sonoma in 2017 and finished runner-up in 2018. Harvick’s No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford was sixth there this summer and he’s led 65 percent (62 of 95 laps) of his total laps led at Sonoma in just the last four races.

Harvick also has a win (2006) at the historic Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course and has finished among the top 10 in the last two races there.

Because the series only races three times on a road course, drivers prepare differently than for the ovals they see more frequently. And for Harvick and his Ford teammates, the simulator is a key component in getting them up to speed.

“For me, it is just because I’m a big kind of visual person,’’ Harvick said this week. “So that repetition for me is good, just to get a visual and have the memory of curbs and direction of the track and all of the things you remember from last time stored in your memory bank as you use those simulators. So we’ve actually started to use it more this year than we have in the past.’’