William Byron was the bridesmaid in qualification twice on road courses this year. But with a lap of 103.198 mph, he grabbed the top spot on the Bank of America Roval 400k at Charlotte Motor Speedway grid to earn his first pole on this track type.
Finding a single fast lap has not been a problem, but sustaining his track position over the course of an entire event has eluded the driver. This June his outside pole at Sonoma Raceway came before he faded to 19th at the checkers. He was performing much better in the Go Bowling at the Glen until hotter heads prevailed and he was goaded into wrecking his car on Kyle Busch’s bumper after an incident during the race. Byron fell to 21st at the end of that race.
Danger lurks around every corner of the Roval and it is hard to imagine that Byron will be able to keep his track position until the end. The good news is that he should be able to hang in the top 10 until the end of Stage 1; the bad news is that he will almost certainly lose place-differential points for the fifth time in six road course races.
For all the chaos last year, qualification matters. Eight of the top-10 finishers started their day on one of the first five rows including the winner Ryan Blaney who started ninth and second-place Jamie McMurray from eighth on the grid. In fact all eight of the drivers on rows four or better ended their day among the top 10.
Last week Alex Bowman ended the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway in the 23rd position after sustaining damage in an incident with Austin Dillon. He fell two points below the cutline – 13th in the standings. Bowman cannot allow himself to be distracted by the controversy surrounding his less than flattering description of Richard Childress’ grandson.
Bowman has not been uniformly good on road courses, but the one race during his career in which he put together a complete effort of qualification and race trim was on the Roval last year. He started third and finished fourth. A top-five is likely what it will take to advance him to the Round of 12.
Joey Logano is not in the same dire straits as Bowman where playoff advancement is concerned, but he still needs a solid road course effort. After being a perennial threat to win a few years ago, he has scored only one top 10 finish in the last seven road course races. That was a 10th on the Roval last year after he started 15th.
Jimmie Johnson was the best among non-playoff drivers this week. His lap of 102.893 mph puts him fourth on the grid and gives Hendrick Motorsports three of the top four spots this weekend. Fantasy owners should take that as a good omen because he started sixth in this race last year and was battling for the lead on the final lap.
Clint Bowyer rounds out the top five. He is another of the Bubble Boys who needs a solid run that will allow him to make up four points on 12th in the standings to advance this week. Last year Bowyer qualified seventh in this race, which was his only top-10 start since 2015. He finished third.
The defending pole winner of the BoA Roval 400k Kurt Busch did not have the same luck this year. He failed to advance into the second round of qualification and will roll off the grid 23rd. Busch does not need a perfect race in order to advance, but he really can’t afford to give up much ground since he is 15th in the standings and 14 points out of 12th.
Chase Elliott started in the top 10 in seven consecutive road course races prior to this weekend, including a pole winning run at the Glen. Last year he qualified fourth at the Roval. On Friday, he was well on his way to advancing into the second round of qualification until he spun in the frontstretch chicane. At the time, Elliott was trending more than a tenth of a second to the good for a transfer spot even after making a mistake on the backstretch chicane.
Elliott cooled his tires, but they may have also been flat-spotted. He posted the 19th fastest lap and will roll off the grid mid-pack. This will make him a great value in the Draft Kings game because he is going to earn positive place-differential points when he finishes in the top 10.
Denny Hamlin crashed in Friday practice and rolled out a backup car. He used this as a practice session and should be watched for signs of speed on Saturday. His official starting spot will be 28th, but he will have to drop to the rear of the field in a backup car.
Kyle Larson has now earned top-10 starting positions in all but one of 14 road races. The bad news is that he has lost place-differential points every time he started among the top 10 so far. Last year he qualified fifth at the Roval and was running well before he was involved in a late-race crash.
Kyle Busch entered the weekend with nine top-10 starts in his last 10 races. The one race for which he failed to qualify well was this one last year when he posted the 14th-best time. He was worse this week with a 17th-quick time of 101.871 mph.