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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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Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Kevin Harvick. His first oval win since Kansas Speedway a year ago validates the team’s 1.5-mile speed in the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Mark it down, he wins and advances to the next round to continue his quest for a second title.

Daniel McFadin

Martin Truex Jr. keeps his foot on the throat of the competition and gets his sixth win of the year at a 1.5-mile track.

Jerry Bonkowski

Kyle Larson is starting 13th but expect him to get to the top five within the first 20-30 laps. He needs a strong run to give him momentum heading into the Round of 8 and he gets it Sunday.

Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas – James “Jim” Watson, a fabricator for Furniture Row Racing, died Saturday night after suffering a heart attack, the team stated Sunday morning. Watson was 55.

A native of Greenfield, Wisconsin, Watson had been a member of Furniture Row Racing since February. He worked for Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-15 and spent last season with HScott Motorsports. He was a long-time racer, competing in dirt late models and asphalt super late models throughout Southeast Wisconsin.

Watson was with the team this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

He is survived by wife Laurie and daughter Brittany.

“On behalf of Furniture Row Racing we extend our deepest sympathies to Jim’s family,” said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “He was an outstanding and talented member of our racing family, whose life was dedicated to racing since his early days as a race-car driver in Wisconsin. Our thoughts and prayers go out to Jim’s wife Laurie, daughter Brittany and to his entire family and friends. Our No. 77 and 78 teams will be racing with heavy hearts today.”

Ryan Blaney ready to prove doubters wrong

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Ryan Blaney has a bit of a chip on his shoulder this weekend.

The 23-year-old driver for the Wood Brothers seeks to hold off three former champions today at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) for a spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs.

Even though former champions Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth trail Blaney in the points, some say Blaney won’t hold them off and advance to the Round of 8.

“I’ve heard that all week that we don’t really deserve to be here, so that kind of ticked me off a little bit,’’ Blaney said Friday after qualifying.

“They just say we’ve been kind of overachieving or they didn’t expect us to be here. Those little things kind of make you a little bit irritated because our guys do just as good a job as anybody. They deserve to be here. They work their tails off like anybody else. Hopefully, we can prove that Sunday.’’

MORE: Wood Brothers lifeline started with a phone call

Blaney’s job, though, will be more difficult. He will start last in the 40-car field because his car failed inspection after qualifying. Kenseth (third), Busch (seventh) and Johnson (13th) all start in the top 15 and should be able to work their way into the top 10 to score stage points by Lap 80 when the first stage ends. Blaney will be challenged to do so and could see his advantage on each shrink. 

There’s hope for Blaney because he posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s final Cup practice. But he ranked ninth in average over 10 consecutive laps — behind Busch and Kenseth.

“There’s definitely things we can improve on,’’ Blaney said after placing third in Saturday’s Xfinity race. “(In the Cup race) everyone is going to be kind of married to the wall pretty early in a run. It might be hard to pass. Hopefully, we can work the bottom. I think the Cup cars might wear the top out, might over-rubber it where we have to move down a little bit.’’

With starting in the rear of the field, changing weather conditions (the wind is not expected to be as prevalent today as Saturday) and facing an elimination race, it would be easy for the pressure build on a driver and team.

“I really don’t feel that it’s a different weekend,’’ he said, alluding to the battle for the final playoff spots. “More people are paying attention to it because it’s a big deal. There’s four cars pretty much going for two spots. We try to approach it as any other weekend. It will be more challenging coming from the back.’’

Along with starting at the rear for the penalty, Blaney’s team had to pick last for pit stalls for failing inspection after qualifying.

His team would have had the third pick and he would have had an opening either before or after his stall, making it easier to either enter or exit. Now, he’ll be sandwiched between Kasey Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Provided both stay on the lead lap, Blaney could face challenges squeezing into his stall throughout the race.

“It doesn’t help our situation for sure,’’ Blaney said. “Those are two good cars. We’ll kind of be pitched between them all day. Dale actually sent me a text. Teams work well with each other about that. That will be tough for us. That will be another challenge.’’

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Today’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, weather, TV/radio info

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It’s once again elimination time in the NASCAR Cup Series.

The playoff field will be cut from 12 to eight drivers following today’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. will be looking to earn his sixth win on a 1.5-mile track this year. He won the last visit to Kansas Speedway in May.

Here’s all the important info you need ahead of the race, which will air on NBCSN.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Jay Hernandez will give the command to start engines at 3:07 p.m. Green flag is scheduled for 3:16 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 267 laps (400 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 80. Stage 2 ends at Lap 160.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 30

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 9:30 a.m. Driver-crew chief meeting is at 1 p.m. Driver introductions are at 2:20 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Angie Rosner will perform the anthem at 3:01 p.m..

TV/RADIO:  NBCSN will broadcast the race at 3 p.m. Coverage begins at 1 p.m. on NBCSN with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 2:30 p.m. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race on radio and at mrn.com, starting with its pre-race show at 2 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com site predicts a temperature of 67 degrees and no chance of rain at race time.

LAST TIME: Martin Truex Jr. led the final 19 laps to win in May. He beat Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. Harvick is the defending winner of this race. He beat Carl Edwards and Joey Logano last October.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for starting lineup