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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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Christopher Bell takes pole for tonight’s Xfinity race in Iowa

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Christopher Bell will start from the pole in tonight’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa Speedway. It marks Bell’s first NASCAR Xfinity Series pole in only his second career start in the series.

Bell, who is currently ranked second in the Camping World Truck Series, covered the .875-mile oval with a best lap of 133.305 mph. Kyle Benjamin was a close second (133.294), followed by defending winner Sam Hornish Jr. (133.260), Elliott Sadler (132.990) and Justin Allgaier (132.89).

Sixth through 10th were William Byron (132.520), Dakoda Armstrong (132.286), Brennan Poole (132.186), Matt Tifft (132.059) and Ty Majewski (131.998).

A total of 40 cars made qualifying runs.

Click here for the full qualifying results.

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Carl Edwards surfaces, doesn’t miss racing: ‘I’m enjoying life and it’s good’

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Cancel the APB, take his face off the milk cartons.

Carl Edwards has been found. The former NASCAR Cup star surfaced Saturday at Sonoma Raceway – representing a former sponsor at an event that had been previously scheduled.

Edwards is happy, hale and hearty.

Yet if you think that returning to a racetrack means Edwards will be getting behind the wheel of a race car once again, forget about it.

But he hasn’t lost his wicked sense of humor, either.

“I’ve been talking to a bunch of people and weighing my options — no, just kidding,” he said with a laugh, according to JeffGluck.com.

Then Edwards got serious.

“I haven’t talked to anyone and I haven’t even considered coming back,” Edwards said. “Not right now.

“I think it’s pretty clear if I really want to do something, then I would do it. But like I said in January, I would talk to Coach (Joe Gibbs) first — and I haven’t had any conversations about that.”

Gluck noted that Edwards did write a thank-you note to Gibbs recently that reiterated the opportunity to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing and that the organization supported him when he decided to leave racing after last season.

Given that racing has been part of his life for more than half his life, it was interesting to hear Edwards, who turns 38 in August, say he hasn’t kept up much with NASCAR nor watched many races since he walked away from the sport.

But he is doing some good. He’s continuing to fly medical patients to treatment in his private plane.

Saturday was the first time Edwards has been at a racetrack since Atlanta Motor Speedway in early March.

He then added, per ESPN.com, “I’m probably happier and more content [than in March],” Edwards said. “You know how change is. You make a change, and there always is good and bad and there’s uneasiness. But, man, I’m enjoying life and it’s good.”

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Kyle Larson Express earns second straight pole, Danica Patrick to start sixth

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Kyle Larson continues to lead the way in NASCAR — both literally and figuratively.

The current NASCAR Cup points leader will also start Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 race at Sonoma Raceway from the pole for the second straight race, having done so in last week’s eventual win at Michigan International Speedway.

“This is cool to get a pole on a road course in my home state,” Larson told Fox Sports 1. “This is the closest track to Sacramento and Elk Grove, where I grew up, so lots of friends and family here.”

And to make things even sweeter, Larson (qualified with a field-best speed of 95.295 mph) will start Sunday’s race alongside Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray, who qualified on the outside of the front row with his own effort of 95.204 mph.

“I thought I did a really good job,” McMurray told FS1. “I don’t feel like I gave up, or that there was a corner that stuck out. Overall, it was a really good lap, but Kyle just got a little bit more.”

It was also Larson’s third pole of 2017; he also started from the front at Fontana (where he also won) in March.

Here’s the rest of the top 10 qualifiers:

Row 2: Martin Truex Jr. will start third, alongside Kyle Busch, still searching for his first Cup win since last year’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Row 3: A.J. Allmendinger starts fifth alongside Danica Patrick, who had the best qualifying effort of all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers.

It was Patrick’s best Cup qualifying effort since starting fourth at Charlotte in May 2014, and her third-best Cup qualifying effort ever. It also marked the sixth time since she joined SHR that she out-ran all of her teammates, per RacingInsights.com.

“I feel like I can drive this place in my sleep just because I’ve driven so many laps here over the years,”Patrick told FS1. “Man, I hope Sunday’s good and everything falls right. It’s great, it’s nice, it’s been a tough go of it this year. It feels good to have a good starting spot and let’s hope we start clean and have a smooth day.”

Row 4: Ryan Blaney will start seventh, next to Chase Elliott, who was forced to go to backup car after wrecking in practice Friday.

Row 5: Chris Buescher starts ninth, his best career qualifying effort, alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Only 38 cars are qualified for Sunday’s race. Matt Kenseth didn’t get an attempt in Saturday, so he’ll start from the back of the pack.

Click here for the full qualifying field results.

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Trevor Bayne: ‘The hardest it’s ever been to leave home to come to the race track’

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Yes, Trevor Bayne wants to win, but he can’t wait to get back home after Sunday’s race and see his family and newborn son.

“This was probably the hardest it’s ever been to leave home to come to the race track,’’ Bayne told reporters Saturday before qualifying at Sonoma Raceway.

His son, Levi Jensen Bayne, was born June 20 after a challenging birth.

Bayne and wife Ashton went to the hospital at 6 a.m. on June 19 to induce so their son would be born before Bayne left for this weeknd’s Cup race in Northern California.

Hours later, the baby still hadn’t arrived.

“We induced Monday at 6 a.m. and at midnight still hadn’t had a baby,’’ Bayne said. “She labored all day, and he kind of stopped progressing. I guess … at about 8 o’clock that night, the nurse was checking to see how dilated she was and he grabbed her hand. His hand was above his head and grabbed the nurse and she freaked out. She moved his hand and thought that would helped him progress. At midnight that hadn’t happened. So they decided to do a C-section.

“It’s so hard when you love somebody and you want the best for them, but you’re not in control. Not being in control in the operating room was wearing me out. I just had to keep going back and praying and saying, ‘Lord, I trust you, you’ve brought us this far and whatever good you have for us, I’m going to leave him in your hands.’

“They got (Levi) out and gave him to me, and Ashton was like falling asleep in the middle of it. I couldn’t watch them do the incision, but I watched them sew her back up and that was probably a bad idea. She’s tough, I’ll tell you that much. They found (Levi’s) umbilical cord was around his neck and that’s why he didn’t progress, so it’s a really good thing they did the C-section.

“The next day .. we brought our little girl (18-month-old Elizabeth Kate Bayne) in and she was loving on him and smiling like crazy. Ashton obviously was recovering. This was probably the hardest it’s ever been to leave home to come to the race track. Thursday morning, we left the hospital at 7:30, got home and spent two hours getting them sorted, and I had to leave to fly here. I wanted to stay home. Offseason babies are awesome because you can stay home for a couple of months.

“Everybody is good. Can’t wait to get home to them.’’

Before he does, he has Sunday’s race. Bayne enters this weekend 18th in the points. His best finish is 23rd in two previous races at Sonoma.

Loaded em up and got them all home! Now it gets real! @ashtonbayne lookin good 2 days after birth!

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