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Kevin Harvick wins first stage of Atlanta Cup race, Brad Keselowski second, Chase Elliott third

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Kevin Harvick was the winner of the first 85-lap stage in the Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The pole-sitter for the race, it’s the second race in a row that Harvick has won a segment. Along with his Stage 2 win in the Daytona 500, Harvick has scored a series-high 37 stage points this season.

The top 10 in the segment:

Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Denny Hamlin, Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson.

There were no cautions in the first 85 laps.

The second stage is 85 laps and the final stage is 155 laps.

Danica Patrick is the last car on the lead lap.

Kasey Kahne (18th) and Kyle Busch (20th) are both a lap down.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is two laps down in 28th after being caught speeding on his first green flag stop and then pitting again on Lap 70 with a flat right-rear tire.

Matt Kenseth is a lap down in 23rd after also being caught speeding on his first pit stop.

 

Here’s your primer heading into second half of NASCAR Cup playoffs

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If you thought the first five races of the NASCAR Cup playoffs were intense, you haven’t seen nothing yet.

As the 10-race playoffs move into their second half, the final five races will likely be more competitive than the first five.

That’s particularly true in Sunday’s cut-off race at Kansas, where the current field of 12 remaining playoff contenders will be cut to eight after the checkered flag falls.

And then there will be the Round of 8 cut-off race at Phoenix in four weeks that will set the four-driver field for the championship race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Thanks to our friends at RacingInsights.com, here’s some of the top playoff insights that will help fans better understand where we are in the playoffs heading into Kansas:

  • Playoff drivers have won all five races in the 2017 playoffs.
  • The last time a driver who didn’t make it into the playoffs won a playoff race was Denny Hamlin at Homestead in 2013.
  • The last playoff race won by a playoff driver who was previously eliminated from the playoffs was Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in 2015.
  • Tony Stewart in 2005 is the only driver to go on to win the championship without winning a race during the playoffs.
  • Four of five playoff races so far this season have been won from a qualifying position of sixth or better.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega driving a Ford, ending a four-race playoff winning streak by Toyotas. Also, prior to Talladega, Toyota drivers had won all four poles and all four races in the 2017 playoffs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the pole at Talladega, but finished seventh.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega with a last lap pass for the win, it was the eighth playoff race won with a last lap pass and the only one in the last 29 races.
  • There were 11 cautions at Talladega, the most cautions in the last 18 playoff races.
  • There were a combined 21 cautions in the last two playoff races, the same number as the previous four playoff races combined.
  • Talladega last week: 14 cars running at the finish, 26 total DNFs (including 24 DNFs due to wrecks), three red flags and only two playoff drivers finished in the top 10 – all records for a playoff race.
  • A Chevrolet driver has finished runner-up in each of this season’s first five playoff races.
  • Chase Elliott has finished runner-up three times so far in the playoffs. The record for most runner-up finishes in the playoffs in a season was four by Jeff Gordon in 2014 and Jimmie Johnson in 2006. Elliott has also finished runner-up at both 1.5-mile tracks so far, with three more 1.5-mile tracks still left in the final five races (Kansas, Texas and Homestead-Miami).
  • Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the only drivers still playoff-eligible that have scored stage points in every playoff race.
  • The best average finish by a driver in all 10 races of the playoffs is 4.9 by Carl Edwards in 2011. Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the championship, but Stewart won on the first tiebreaker – more wins (five to Edwards’ one).
  • Martin Truex Jr. has led the playoff standings through the first five races of the playoffs, tying Matt Kenseth in 2013 for the most races led by a driver to start the playoffs. Truex also won at Kansas in May.
  • Three drivers have won races during the playoffs in all three years of the elimination format entering 2017: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson all three drivers have yet to win in 2017.
  • Only two of the 135 playoff races were won by drivers getting their first NASCAR Cup win: Clint Bowyer in 2007 at New Hampshire and Brian Vickers in 2006 at Talladega.
  • Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win a race in every season of the playoffs entering 2017. Entering Kansas, Johnson remains winless in the 2017 playoffs.

Long: Lack of stage points could end Jimmie Johnson’s bid for 8th title

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Jimmie Johnson’s spotter says he’ll be “crossing my fingers” this weekend at Kansas that the mistake he made at Talladega doesn’t keep Johnson from advancing in the playoffs.

Should the seven-time series champion fail to move on to the Round of 8 — he holds the final transfer spot entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway — it won’t be because spotter Earl Barban told the team it could work on Johnson’s car before NASCAR had withdrawn the red flag at Talladega, incurring a penalty that ended the team’s race.

No, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team can look at their failure to collect as many Stage 1 points as their competitors. Even if Johnson advances, his lack of stage points could keep him from racing for a championship if he doesn’t win a race in the Round of 8.

Johnson goes to Kansas with a seven-point lead on Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by eight points.

Before the playoffs began, Johnson was asked if there would be more of a penalty for his summer slump that cost him stage points.

“I really think so,’’ he said. “We know our qualifying average doesn’t lead to a Stage 1 opportunity.’’ 

Johnson’s struggles in qualifying have put him in a mid-pack spot and made it difficult to score many points in the opening stage. His average starting spot of 17.0 this season is worst among the remaining playoff contenders

The result is that Johnson has scored 59 Stage 1 points in 31 races this season — fewest among all but one of the remaining playoff contenders. Johnson has scored only 35.8 percent of his 165 total stage points in the opening stage. To compare, Kyle Busch, who has an average starting spot of 7.1, scored 58.7 percent of his 315 total stage points in the opening stage. 

Johnson’s difficulties in the playoffs have been as pronounced.

Johnson’s average starting spot of 15.2 in the postseason is only better than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16.2 average starting spot in playoffs) and Jamie McMurray (18.2).

Johnson’s 27 stage points are more than only Stenhouse (14) and McMurray (13) in the playoffs.

Johnson also has scored 37 percent of his total stage points in the opening stage — the lowest percentage among the remaining title contenders in the playoffs. 

To compare with Busch, he has an average starting spot of 4.8 in the playoffs. That’s allowed Busch to score 63.5 percent of his 52 total stage points in the opening stage.

Add it together and Johnson could face quite a challenge to stay in title contention.

Having to hold off Busch won’t be easy, provided Busch doesn’t run into problems.

In four of the first five playoff races, Busch has scored five or more stage points than Johnson in the opening stage. If Busch does that Sunday, he will be in position to pass Johnson for a spot in the next round over the final 187 laps of the 267-lap event.

That’s a likely scenario. Busch has outscored Johnson 80-41 in stage points in the season’s eight races on 1.5-mile tracks.

If Busch moves into a transfer spot, Johnson likely will have to beat Ryan Blaney to have a chance to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships. Blaney has a two-point lead on Johnson.

Blaney has scored 108 Stage 1 points compared to Johnson’s 59 for the entire season. Blaney has outscored Johnson 196-165 in total stage points this season. In the playoffs, Blaney has a 10.2 average starting spot (compared to Johnson’s 15.2). Blaney has outscored Johnson 28-27 in total stage points in the postseason.

The challenges could be difficult for Johnson this weekend.

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NASCAR video: A.J. Allmendinger could be spoiler at Kansas

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It’s admittedly been a rough season for A.J. Allmendinger.

In the first 31 races, Allmendinger has one top-five finish and five top 10s.

He’s 26th in the NASCAR Cup point standings, which is on pace to be the worst full-time season of Allmendinger’s Cup career.

But there’s a bright spot for Allmendinger in this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Allmendinger has recorded two top-10 finishes in the last three races at the 1.5-mile track.

And he’s ready to go for another top-10 Sunday.

“In the last few races, the track has widened out for three-wide racing,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a fun race track, run the bottom, middle or top. It’s a place we’ve had success at, we’re ready to go do it again.”

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. on last run at ‘Dega, thoughts on rising new stars (videos)

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In a way, Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway was another example of the changing of the guard in NASCAR.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. took his last ride around the place, starting from the pole and finishing a respectable seventh.

As a special guest on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America on NBCSN, Junior recalled the thrill of his final Cup race at the sport’s longest racetrack, the emotion that went with it and how he felt his day went overall. Check out the video above for his thoughts.

At the same time, Earnhardt also said Sunday’s race was a good example of how some of NASCAR’s young up-and-coming stars like Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney are really starting to make their presence felt in the sport.

When Earnhardt retires at season’s end, it’ll be up to drivers like Elliott, Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Austin and Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and others to keep the sport advancing and growing.

Earnhardt also revealed on the show that he had a “passing the baton” moment at Talladega with both Elliott and Blaney.

He also noticed that in addition to the sell-out crowd cheering him on as it has for the last 18 years, a large number of fans cheered loudly and noticeably when Elliott took the lead.

Will many of Junior’s fans ultimately gravitate to start following drivers like Elliott and others as he closes in on retirement at season’s end?

Check out his thoughts in the following video, as well.