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Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott are kings of NASCAR Cup stages

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With five NASCAR Cup races in the book in the 2017 season and in the stage racing era, one thing is for certain.

While race wins are still the most important thing, stage wins and finishing a stage in the top 10 are having a significant impact upon the driver standings.

Starting this season, NASCAR broke the races into segments of varying length (depending on the race and track). Just as in a full race, the most important thing for a driver is to finish as high as possible in each of the first two stages to maximize points.

A stage winner earns 10 points and one playoff point. The second- through 10th-place finishers in a stage earn, in descending order, nine points down to one point (which count toward the regular season).

Sunday’s race winner Kyle Larson is atop the NASCAR Cup point standings and also has amassed a series-high 70 stage points through the first five races.

Those 70 points make up nearly a third of the 243 total points Larson has earned this year.

Chase Elliott is second with 63 stage points. Heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, Elliott has 214 overall points, so his stage points also account for nearly a third of his total.

“I think we’re realizing how important it is to continue to stack up those points throughout the day,” Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler told NBC Sports. “Like Brad (Keselowski) did this weekend, he finished second, but we still lost points to everybody we’re around (because he didn’t do as well in the first two stages).

“The 78 (Martin Truex Jr.), the 24 (Elliott) and especially the 42 (Larson), they all were at the front of the stages, and they ended up putting up a bunch of points between you. That’s a tough situation, but it’s the reality of it, and I think we’re all realizing that you have to be good all day long.

“You can’t just finish well. That’s a change of mindset (from years past).”

Geisler pointed to Joey Logano’s run two weeks ago at Phoenix, where the driver of the No. 22 started from the pole and earned 10 points for winning Stage 1.

Logano wrecked late in the race and finished 31st in the 39-car field, but his stage win helped him salvage some of the day with 16 total points.

“(Logano) won a stage, we got points, we got a catastrophic ending to the day, but it wasn’t as bad as what you would normally have,” Geisler said.

Another note about the importance of stage points for Larson. In the unlikely scenario that he hadn’t earned stage points in the first five races (meaning a finish of 11th or worse in both stages in each of the season’s first five races) while everyone else has scored the same number of stage points, he would be ranked fifth in the standings heading into Martinsville.

Rounding out the top 10 in stage points earned are Brad Keselowski (58 points), Truex (53), Kevin Harvick (40), Joey Logano (38), Kyle Busch (36), Jamie McMurray (35), Ryan Blaney (31) and Ryan Newman (19).

But their rankings in the overall Cup standings is slightly different: While Larson (243 points) and Elliott (214) are 1-2, Truex is third (205 points), followed by Keselowski (179), Logano (174), McMurray (162), Blaney (157), Clint Bowyer (143), Harvick (137) and Kyle Busch (136).

Then there’s the total flip side, namely, Kurt Busch.

This year’s Daytona 500 winner has earned just eight stage points.

That’s a major reason why Busch is ranked 16th in the stage points standings and 14th in the NASCAR Cup standings (125 points) – the lowest of any race winner thus far this season.

“I think that’s becoming more clear to us as the races go on that the stage points mean more than anybody gave credit to just because of the way the math adds up,” Geisler said.

“If you knock out 20 points right there in the first two stages, it’s a huge difference if you can get just a base hit for the end of the race. If you finish in the top 10, it’s a great day at that point.”

Top 10 stage points earned in 2017:

  1. Kyle Larson (70)
  2. Chase Elliott (63)
  3. Brad Keselowski (58)
  4. Martin Truex Jr. (53)
  5. Kevin Harvick (40)
  6. Joey Logano (38)
  7. Kyle Busch (36)
  8. Jamie McMurray (35)
  9. Ryan Blaney (31)
  10. Ryan Newman (19)
  11. Jimmie Johnson (18)
  12. Erik Jones (16)
  13. Clint Bowyer (14)
  14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12)
  15. Denny Hamlin (11)
  16. Kurt Busch (8)
  17. Danica Patrick (7)
  18. Austin Dillon (5)
  19. A.J. Allmendinger (5)
  20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (4)
  21. Matt Kenseth (2)
  22. Trevor Bayne (1)

Dustin Long contributed to this story.

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NASCAR America: Comparing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season to Usain Bolt’s

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With Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearing the end of his Cup Series career, NBC Sports analysts Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist in track and field, discussed how the twilight of Earnhardt’s career compares to that of Usain Bolt, whose running career recently ended with a hamstring injury in the last race of his career.

“I think there are a lot of similarities,” Boldon said. “I think a lot of people would have loved to have seen Junior having a better year in this his final season. It’s the same thing that happened in London. That place was sold, 60,000 people, because we wanted to see how Usain Bolt would go out. The fans were hoping he would go out with a win.”

Watch the rest of the video for Boldon’s take on NASCAR, which he is discovering this year as a member of the NASCAR on NBC team.

 

Brad Keselowski Racing to cease operations in Truck Series after this season

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Brad Keselowski Racing announced Thursday it will cease operations after this season, ending a run in the Camping World Truck Series that began in 2008.

The two-truck team fields entries for Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric.

“The Truck Series is truly special to me given my family’s ties to the history of the sport, and this decision comes with much contemplation. But, for a number of reasons, and as I plan for the long-term future, I’ve decided not to field a team in 2018,” Brad Keselowski said in a press release.

“My goal with BKR was to create a top-tier team which would allow me to give back to the sport by creating opportunities and quality experience for others, whether they be drivers, mechanics, engineers, or support personnel. With outstanding leadership from BKR GM Jeremy Thompson, assistance from Team Penske, and the support of our long-time partners Cooper Standard and Horizon Global, we were able to successfully achieve this goal. I am very proud of this and intend to do my best to help my BKR team members stay and grow in the sport. I am also incredibly appreciative of the great relationships we have developed with our partners over the years.”

The team has earned nine series wins – none this year.

“The team has also provided me with meaningful experience as a team owner,” Keselowski said. “I’ve never made it a secret that I would eventually like to be an owner at the top-level of the sport. And, while this is many years down the line, I want to start to prepare for that possibility now. Part of that preparation is seeking to develop an advanced engineering and manufacturing company that would be housed out of our 78,000 square foot facility in Statesville and ultimately help to support this vision.”

Soon after the announcement, Keselowski published a blog about the decision. He said having to tell his team it was shutting down was “one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.”

Keselowski went on to share how his time driving for Roger Penske has shaped his outlook on his future ownership goals.

“One of the things I’ve learned from Roger Penske is the importance of having a successful core business outside of motorsports,” Keselowski wrote. “If you have a successful business venture outside of motorsports, you can kind of roll with the ebbs and flows of the sport as an owner. That’s the position I want to be in, and that I’ll need to be in to be an owner who lasts in NASCAR.”

BKR joins Red Horse Racing in ending its operations in the Truck Series. Red Horse Racing competed in the first five races of the season before shutting down. The teams combined to have two of the eight drivers in last year’s Truck playoffs.

Keselowski’s decision comes after he’s repeatedly talked about the costs of owning a Truck team.

“It’s a money loser,’’ Keselowski told NBC Sports earlier this year. “Big time.’’

In 2014, Keselowski told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long his team lost $1 million that season. Keselowski also said when he would know it would be time to no longer own a Truck team.

“I’m not interested in being involved in the Truck Series if I don’t feel like we can be competitive,” Keselowski said. “My breaking point is two areas – it’s going broke and not being competitive. We have to walk that line every day with every decision we make.”

Four drivers have earned BKR’s nine wins. Ryan Blaney (four wins), Tyler Reddick (three wins), Joey Logano (one win) and Keselowski (one win). Keselowski won his only Truck Series race in 66 starts in 2014 at Bristol.

Drivers who have competed for BKR include NBCSN’s Parker Kligerman (37 races), Ryan Blaney (58 races), Dave Blaney (one race), Logano (six races), Reddick (62 races), Ross Chastain (14 races), Daniel Hemric (23 races), Austin Theriault (10 races) and Alex Tagliani (two races).

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Bristol preview and more

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to analyze this weekend’s races at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts from Stamford, Connecticut. Slugger Labbe joins here from NBC Charlotte and Parker Kligerman and Ato Boldon join from Bristol.

On today’s show:

· From London to Bristol … fresh of his duties at the IAAF Track & Field World Championships, Ato Boldon joins us live from Bristol Motor Speedway. He’ll recap his introduction to NASCAR earlier this year, including a ride along at Daytona. He’ll also share what’s on his docket this weekend in Thunder Valley.

· We’ll recap last night’s Truck Series race won by Kyle Busch, as well as both sessions of today’s Xfinity Series practice.

· American Flat Track star Shayna Texter also stops by to discuss her journey to the top level of flat-track motorcycle racing.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Kyle Busch fastest in Final Xfinity practice at Bristol (video)

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Kyle Busch was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session for Friday’s Food City 300.

Busch posted a top speed of 124.315 mph around Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is attempting to sweep all three NASCAR races this weekend after he won last night’s Truck Series race.

Following Busch were Joey Logano (123.865), Brennan Poole (123.586), William Byron (123.372) and Justin Allgaier (123.308).

Tyler Reddick recorded the most laps in the session with 105.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 17th fastest in the session.

Click here for the full report.