CONCORD, N.C. — Charlotte native William Byron will lead the field to green at home track Charlotte Motor Speedway with his championship chances on the line.
The playoff field of 16 drivers will be cut by four at the end of Sunday’s race and Byron sits in the final transfer spot. He holds a two-point advantage over Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman, who was in danger of elimination even before he crashed in final practice and had to go to a backup Chevrolet.
Bowman had qualified second for an all-Hendrick Motorsports front row, but going to the backup car requires him to forfeit his starting spot and go to the back of the field.
He’ll be joined by playoff drivers Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. at the back. Hamlin went to a backup after crashing Friday, while Truex needed an engine change. Truex has already advanced to the second round by winning the opening two playoff races.
Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch have locked themselves into the second round on points. Brad Keselowski would advance with a 34th-place finish, Hamlin moves on by finishing 33rd and Joey Logano only needs to finish 29th.
Chase Elliott, winner on the road course at Watkins Glen in August and fastest in final practice, needs to finish 16th or better.
The bottom four in most danger of elimination are Bowman, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones, and Jones almost certainly needs to win to overcome a 42-point penalty levied when his car failed inspection last weekend.
The track, typically a standard NASCAR oval, has been modified for this playoff race for the second year in a row into a 17-turn, 2.28-mile circuit that uses both the road course through the infield and the oval.
The Roval uses twists and turns around the circuit marked with chicanes on the backstretch and frontstretch to slow the cars, and, potentially increase passing on the oval portion of the track. An added wrinkle from last year is an overhauled backstretch chicane revamped to make it a braking and passing zone.
The backstretch chicane last year acted more as a slalom and drivers didn’t have to brake hard enough in that area, which was 32 feet wide at its widest point. Track officials began work on rebuilding the chicane immediately after the Coca-Cola 600 in May and the revision has made it a true sharp left, with a hard right to get into it. The width has been expanded to 54 feet, and drivers have more flexibility on how aggressive they’d like to be in that portion of the track.
The chicane was only finished last week, so drivers are still adapting, and NASCAR has made it clear that skipping the chicane and driving over it will be penalized — even if the move was made to win the race.