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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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Team Penske’s appeal hearing to be rescheduled

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Team Penske’s hearing before the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer, which was to have been held Wednesday night, is being rescheduled by the appeals administrator, NBC Sports has learned.

No new date has been set for the hearing, the final appeal avenue for Team Penske in this matter.

NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe for three races and fined him $65,000 and docked Brad Keselowski and Team Penske 35 points each because Keselowski’s car failed the Laser Inspection Station after a fifth-place finish March 19 at Phoenix Raceway.

The team sat Wolfe out at Auto Club Speedway, counting toward one of the three races the penalty called for him to miss, but he was back on the pit box for Martinsville — where Keselowski won — Texas and Bristol as the matter went through the appeals process.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR’s penalty after an April 12 hearing.

A hearing before Final Appeals Officer Bryan Moss was scheduled for 6 p.m. ET today before a need to reschedule arose.

Car owner Roger Penske said after Keselowski’s win at Martinsville that the team was challenging the consistency of NASCAR’s procedures. The team claims that it was permitted only one attempt to pass post-race inspection on the LIS platform while others have gotten multiple attempts previously.

“I think that consistency is really important to me from an officiating perspective,’’ Penske said April 2 at Martinsville. “We’ll have a chance to go and talk about our side of the story. We might get nothing, but I think at least maybe we can make the sport better.”

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Hendrick Motorsports: No timeline for filling Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 ride

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A Hendrick Motorsports executive said Wednesday there is no timetable – or concern – for finding Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement in the No. 88 Chevrolet.

“Obviously it’s an important decision for us, and one we’re going to take our time, and we’re going to find the right person, the right fit for all the factors that go into that,” Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said during “The Morning Drive” on the SiriusXM NASCAR channel. “We really don’t have a timeline on that. I feel real fortunate in the talent we have around us, and so I feel like we’re going to be in a good spot no matter where we land. We’re going to take our time and make the right decision for that car, the sponsors and the fans.”

In the release announcing Earnhardt’s retirement after the 2017 season, Hendrick said it would “announce plans for 2018 team alignment at a later date.” Asked to elaborate on those plans Tuesday, Hendrick said, “we’ve got a lot of people to consider, meaning (sponsors), and we’ve just been talking to them. Priority one is to get everything prepared, get the day over with, and then we’ll take time to decide what we do there.”

There would seem to be a short list of internal and external candidates depending on the direction that the team chooses with the ride. There also are the options of weighing a long-term deal vs. a one-year stopgap.

It appears that a new driver might have to be accompanied by a new sponsorship deal. Nationwide said it’s re-evaluating its contract with the No. 88 beyond the 2017 season at Hendrick (though it plans to continue the business relationship with Earnhardt), but Duchart said the plan is to run four cars next season regardless.

“I haven’t heard any conversation like that at all,” he said of cutting back to three cars next year. “On the sponsor search side, we’re really happy with the partners we have, and we think they’re happy with us. We’re going to sit down with them and work thought the transition so we’re optimistic about that. I haven’t heard any sort of dialogue like that.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. succeeded in desire to ‘leave some kind of mark’ from Hendrick tenure

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the moments before explaining his retirement from the NASCAR Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a quick stroll through his 18-year career.

Wearing a suit and a striped tie, Earnhardt had to walk by four large portraits depicting high points of Cup career.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

The first two represented his eight full seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the second pair his 10 seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.

First, there was Earnhardt and his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., smiling after his victory in the 2000 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Then came a shot of  Earnhardt hoisting the trophy following his emotional Pepsi 400 win at Daytona International Speedway, five months after his father’s death on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

The third portrait, the largest of the four, showed one of his recent wins in a Daytona 500 qualifying race. Next to it, a picture displayed Earnhardt’s joyous celebration of his lone Martinsville win in 2014.

Not pictured was the win Earnhardt believes allowed him to “leave some kind of mark” on the team he joined in 2008: the 2014 Daytona 500.

The moment marked the end of a very long winter for Earnhardt. It was only his third win with Hendrick in seven years and his first outside the state of Michigan since 2006.

“Winning the Daytona 500, I always kind of wanted to leave some kind of mark here,” Earnhardt said. “Jimmie Johnson‘s got them all over the place. He’s marking up this joint left and right.”

“This joint” is the Team Center on the Hendrick Motorsports’ campus, where Earnhardt’s announcement was held.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

As Earnhardt made his remarks, facing him on the opposite side of the room were 16 red, tie-shaped banners. One for each national NASCAR series title Hendrick Motorsports has earned since 1995.

Four belong to Jeff Gordon and the last seven belong to Johnson.

None has Earnhardt’s name.

On the wall to his left was the “Milestone Wins” display.

Under graphics of the outlines of Daytona, Darlington Raceway, Charlotte and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, each win by a Hendrick driver in the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Brickyard 400, Coke 600 and Bank of America 500 is listed.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

Among 47 victories observed, Earnhardt’s only contribution is that Daytona 500 win under the lights, which launched a career resurgence with seven wins in two seasons.

And Earnhardt is OK with that.

“I wanted to leave some kind of mark that somebody would know I was here,” Earnhardt said. “When we won that Daytona 500, that made me feel good about my impression on the company. It’s always fun to win with Rick, because like I said, that’s what he loves the most.”

There’s still 28 races left in Earnhardt’s Cup career. Twenty-eight chances to have fun. Among them are the Coke 600, Brickyard 400, Southern 500 and Bank of America 500.

And a few entries on the “Milestone” wall could lead to a banner on the ceiling.

Eventually, stage hands took down those four pictures.

But Earnhardt’s mark on the wall – and the sport – remain.

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Kevin Harvick addresses how he will know when it is time to retire

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement that he’ll retire from the Cup series at the end of this season has the focus turning to other drivers age 40 and over and when they might leave the sport.

Former champion Kevin Harvick, who is 41, addressed how much longer he’ll race on his show “Happy Hours” Tuesday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“I can tell you that I have four more years left on my contact at Stewart-Haas Racing,’’ said Harvick, who signed a contract extension last year with the organization. “To me that would be the time when you sit back and re-evaluate things as to what you do going forward, just for the fact of where is (son) Keelan at in school? It’s very important for us to be involved as parents That’s my main priority to be the father figure in his life and make sure he’s progressing and doing the things he needs to do moving forward. There’s definitely a family aspect of that decision and where we are as a family and how the sport is affecting our life.

“I think from a competition side of things, that’s what drives me. I love the fact of the challenge that comes with, ‘Alright, we’re not running good, what have we go to do to fix things?’ When you’re running good, how do you maintain those things.

“That competition of pulling into that garage every week and looking over at the guy next to you and saying, ‘Man I want to kick that guy’s butt, and I want to run good this week,’ and the motivation of showing up at the shop and being a part of the team — when that goes away that’s probably when I’ll just say adios.’’

Harvick was on the show with wife DeLana and she talked about how their plans have changed over the years.

“The funny thing is when Kevin first started and we got married (in 2001), we both agreed it was going to be 40,’’ she said of when he would retire from racing. “That was our drop-dead date, he was going to retire at 40 no matter what had happened. We passed that.

“When you’re younger, you sort of try to put things into perspective. We never thought we’d be 40 when we were in our 20s. Now we’re here in our 40s. Part of the reason that we waited to have Keelan so much later is that Kevin wanted to be a part of those things. I don’t know if he actually knows that because I ask him all the time with everybody with Jeff, Tony and Carl and now obviously with Dale Jr. I kind of try to poke and prod a little bit and I don’t get very far with him because I’m not sure that it’s something these guys ever really like to think about. That was a question I have for you Kevin when you see your peers starting to do this is it something that becomes more present in your mind, do bad days make it worse or how do you sort of compartmentalize as it comes to your career?’’

Said Harvick: “I think when you look what you think about, I think you’re always thinking about, when do you retire, when is the right time to retire especially when you get into a certain part of your life. I think performance definitely has a lot to do with it.

“As you look at running good or running bad, you look at a situation like (Greg) Biffle had, it all just timed out wrong and he wound up not doing anything this year and out of the car. Dale announcing his retirement. I think when you look at Tony’s situation, there were a number of things that happened that led up to Tony saying I’m done with it, maybe had something to do with in the car, out of the car, but there were some things that led up to that. I think when you looked at Jeff, I think he just said ‘OK I’m going to retire here because of whatever reasons. I think it’s different for everybody.

“When you look at my situation, I’m kind of a late bloomer on the racing side of things because we’ve had so much success over ether last three years at Stewart-Haas Racing, winning a championship That’s the performance that I’ve wanted my whole career. It’s not like we didn’t perform well at RCR, but we didn’t win a championship. We won races, but we’ve done it consistently over the last three years. For me that’s the most fulfilling part of what I do and what I put into my career.’’

Harvick, the 2014 champion, enters this weekend’s Cup race at Richmond International Raceway ninth in the points after his third-place finish on Monday at Bristol.

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