CONCORD, N.C. — Neither Martin Truex Jr. nor Jimmie Johnson needed victory as they fought for first place in the Roval 400 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Truex Jr. had already clinched NASCAR Cup Series advancement, and Johnson didn’t require a win to reach the Round of 12.
Still, they pushed each other down a final stretch chicane that Truex Jr. cautioned Friday could mangle careless cars. Sure enough, Johnson spun out and Truex Jr. lost control trying to avoid the veteran, which let Ryan Blaney claim an unlikely victory from his spot in third place.
The crash knocked Johnson out of the playoffs via tiebreaker. Truex Jr. — angry about the finish — rear-ended Johnson after the race was over. In all, the first-ever road and oval combination course provided plenty of buzz for a sport that had one of its worst-ever TV ratings last week in Richmond.
“This is new highlight footage for NASCAR,” said Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith. “This was way more exciting probably than any football game on right now.”
So much goodness right here.
Relive the final moments all over again! #NASCARPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/iaAtE9Nzim
— NASCAR (@NASCAR) September 30, 2018
Johnson, a seven-time champion, did not look back on the race quite as fondly. Despite lagging behind for much of this season, the most decorated active NASCAR driver had a chance to move on to the next round before his late lapse ended his campaign.
As Johnson prepared to face the media following the race, he yelled an expletive to himself. Later, he tweeted an apology to Truex Jr. for how the contest concluded.
Everyone makes mistakes… apologies to the 78 and all of their fans.
— Jimmie Johnson (@JimmieJohnson) September 30, 2018
“Wins are so important, and the veteran could have taken the safe route and didn’t,” Johnson said of himself. “We had such a good car, and it’s one of those split-second decisions to race for the win.”
Truex Jr. was also dejected after the race. He won at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2017 and felt good about his chances down the stretch Sunday.
”Johnson just over drove it and was never going to make it and used me as brakes and turned us both around,” Truex Jr. said. “We could have raced side-by-side off the last corner for a win and that would have been cool.
“The fans would have been digging it, but instead we finished 14th and he’s locked out of the playoffs. I guess that’s what he gets.”
Martin Truex Jr. has:
1. ) Advanced to the Round of 12
2.) Had enough of your sh-t#NASCAR #BofAROVAL pic.twitter.com/Y7JsQMBUgZ
— nascarcasm (@nascarcasm) September 30, 2018
Instead of Truex Jr. celebrating another win, Blaney capitalized on the crash with a first-place finish he had difficulty explaining.
“I don’t have the vocabulary to describe the feeling,” Blaney said. “I’ve never won a race like that before. I’ve never in any race … been in third and two guys wreck each other and I win the race.”
Added Clint Bowyer, who finished third: “Lucky little turd. That could have been me.”
It’s unclear what kind of long-term repercussions the wild finish and Roval experiment as a whole will have on NASCAR. Smith lauded the new-look course as a refreshing change for the sport, and he said the ending presented a much-needed viral moment.
Bowyer shared that viewpoint, telling reporters earlier in the week, “We’re trying something new. I’m happy our sport is doing that.”
But Roger Penske, Blaney’s car owner, acknowledged losing Johnson this early in the playoffs was a hit to the competition given Johnson’s historic success.
This likely isn’t the last Roval race — Truex Jr. said he’s sure there will be more road-oval combination races going forward regardless of his personal feelings toward the course. Others agreed.
“My metric [of success] is highlight-worthy moments,” Smith said. “We were full of them today.”