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Upon Further Review: Top qualifiers gaining extra reward

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A trend is developing, actually being rewarded, with the advent of stage points.

Qualifying is playing a significant role in who scores points in the first stage of NASCAR Cup races.

More than 60 percent — 61.9 percent to be exact — of drivers who reach the final round of Cup qualifying go on to score points in the first stage of a race. That could play a big factor at the end of the regular season when bonus playoff points are awarded.

“Qualifying definitely for that first stage has been very important,’’ said points leader Kyle Larson, who is tied with Martin Truex Jr. with a series-high 45 points in Stage 1. “Qualifying before in a 500-mile race, if you spin out like Jimmie Johnson did and start in the back, you’re not really that concerned. Now with the stage points, if you spin out, you’re upset. Not only do you get a bad pit stall, the odds of you making stage points isn’t that great.’’

The driver starting on the front row has won the first stage five times this season, collecting 10 points and one playoff point. Three times — Kevin Harvick at Atlanta, Joey Logano at Phoenix and Larson at Auto Club Speedway — the pole-sitter won the opening stage.

Pole winners are scoring an average of 6.9 points in the opening stage. Only twice have they finished outside the top four in the opening stage.

Those points are meaningful. When the regular season ends in September, the top 10 in points will receive playoff points that carry through each round. The regular-season winner will receive 15 playoff points. Second place earns 10 points, third earns eight playoff points and it decreases by one after that to one point for 10th.

Teams are noticing the value of stage points, particularly Stage 1 and how it relates to qualifying.

Doug Duchardt, general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, told NBC Sports last month that qualifying was an area the team needed to improve because of the Stage 1 points they were not scoring. Johnson has scored 64.9 percent of his 37 stage points in Stage 2. The reason for the disparity is that he has not advanced to the final round of qualifying this season.

Team Penske’s Travis Geisler told NBC Sports last month that the team was realizing how important stage points have become, noting that when Brad Keselowski finished second last month at Auto Club Speedway, he scored fewer points than seven other drivers that day because of the difference in stage points.

Truex has benefitted from good qualifying efforts. He has scored 61.7 percent of his stage points in Stage 1.

Kyle Busch has scored 61.1 percent of his stage points in the opening stage, followed by Ryan Blaney (59 percent) and Jamie McMurray (58.8 percent). Busch is the only one among those four who does not have an average starting spot of 12th or better. His average is 13.6.

McMurray’s crew chief, Matt McCall, says qualifying well has provided numerous rewards.

“It builds confidence with our team and our driver,’’ McCall said. “Confidence sometimes overrules everything. We’re trying to keep that going.’’

McMurray’s 6.4 average starting spot ranks second this season to Keselowski’s 4.4 average start. Keselowski has been in the final round of qualifying all six times (Martinsville qualifying was rained out) and his 44 Stage 1 points are second only to Larson and Truex.

Others who have not fared well have noticed. Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch has yet to score a point in Stage 1.

“When I heard the stages and the points the way they were going to be awarded, I immediately thought that qualifying was going to be more important,’’ said Busch, who has failed to advance to the final round of qualifying three times. “If it’s a 60-lap stage, 85 laps, it’s hard to make it from the back because everybody is running that much more aggressive to gain those points in that first segment.

“Qualifying can almost hand you a stage win if you’re up front and able to hold that track position.’’

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Yes, there is NASCAR racing Sunday: Xfinity entry list for Road America

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Who says there’s no NASCAR racing this weekend?

Sure, the NASCAR Cup and Camping World Truck Series will enjoy the weekend off, but not the Xfinity Series.

Drivers in that series will be competing Sunday at what has become one of the most challenging and popular road courses on the Xfinity schedule: the twisting 4.048-mile road course at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.

A total of 42 cars are listed on the preliminary entry list released Monday.

Only 40 cars will qualify to race in Sunday’s Johnsonville 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBC). This will be the third road course the series has raced on in the last four races.

One driver position and one crew chief position remain to be filled.

  • Team JD Motorsports has not named a driver for the No. 15 Chevrolet.
  • And the No. 172 Chevrolet, driven by John Jackson and owned by James Carter, has yet to name a crew chief for the race.

This will be the eighth Xfinity race at Road America since the series first visited there in 2010.

The winners since then have been Carl Edwards (2010), Reed Sorenson (2011), Nelson Piquet Jr. (2012), A.J. Allmendinger (2013), Brendan Gaughan (2014), Paul Menard (2015) and Michael McDowell last year.

Click here for the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Xfinity race at Road America.

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NASCAR America: Erik Jones ‘has to be put on the radar for Darlington, Richmond’ (video)

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Like a stealthy cat sneaking up on a mouse, Erik Jones has been riding under the radar the last four races.

Few may realize that he’s had a pair of top-10s (8th at Pocono; 10th at Watkins Glen) and back-to-back career bests in his last two starts (tied his previous career best with a 3rd-place finish at Michigan, and then was runner-up Saturday at Bristol).

“It’s just been a consistent upward trend from the start of the year,” Steve Letarte said on Monday’s NASCAR America.

Not only did Jones finish second to winner Kyle Busch at Bristol, he also started from the pole and led 260 of the 500 scheduled laps (while Busch led 156).

“I thought he did such a good job,” Jeff Burton also said on Monday’s episode of NA. “He didn’t lose the race because of a mistake, they just got out-run by someone who’s real, real good at Bristol.”

With Darlington and Richmond still ahead to make — or miss — the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Letarte said Jones can readily win either of those races.

“We’re forced to put him on our radar for Darlington,” Letarte said. “Maybe, maybe not, it’s a tough race track. We’ll see, first time there in a Cup car.

“But Richmond, this is a short track racer going to a short track. I don’t know if Erik Jones can be ruled out at any of the upcoming two tracks.”

If the young Michigan native, who is also the leading candidate for NASCAR Cup rookie of the year, does win at either Darlington or Richmond, he could ultimately have a profound impact on the playoffs.

A win at either track would serve to potentially eliminate the likes of Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and maybe even Chase Elliott, who are all above the cutoff line to make the playoffs.

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Long: Love him or hate him, Kyle Busch is what NASCAR needs

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For as much as Kyle Busch’s sweep of the Truck, Xfinity and Cup races at Bristol Motor Speedway turned some fans off, it was what NASCAR needed.

Even better, Busch understood.

After he won Saturday night’s Cup race, Busch goaded booing fans by putting his fingers to his ears, prompting more catcalls.

He walked to the back of his car and raised three fingers — for his three wins last week — as the boos (and cheers) grew louder.

And he smiled, a winner’s grin but also one of somebody who proved the doubters wrong. Again.

Part superstar, part showman.

The good guy to his fans, Busch also can be cast as the villain to the rest of the fanbase. He’s accepted that role, embraced it and learned how to egg on the haters in the stands and the trolls on social media. 

Sports is about us against them. While fans have their favorite drivers and teams, there remains the need to root against someone or some team. Without that distinction, sports would be as anticlimactic as a youth game — pick the sport: baseball, football, basketball, etc. — where no score is kept. That’s called recess.

Without Kyle Busch, who would make sane people insane and cause alcohol-fueled fans to do things they tell their children never to do? The new drivers haven’t been around long enough to anger the fan base. Maybe Kurt Busch could fill the role because anyone with the name Busch is more inclined to be booed. There are other drivers who have their detractors but not as much as Kyle Busch based on the visceral reaction he gets at many tracks.

“The best of the best that have won here have been booed … for a long, long time,’’ Busch said after his second Cup win of the season. “So I’m fine with that.’’

Busch follows a history of drivers that fans loathed (and some loved). Before Busch, it was Tony Stewart. He inherited the mantle after Dale Earnhardt, who took it from Darrell Waltrip and so on.

Earnhardt made the image of a villain into a cottage industry. For every boo and middle finger he received, he just smirked and kept on winning, infuriating his haters and thrilling his fans.

When Earnhardt was introduced before races, many fans didn’t sit. They stood to cheer or show how much they despised the seven-time champion.

Rarely was the anger as intense as the 1999 Bristol night race when Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte out of the lead on the final lap. Earnhardt said he “meant to rattle his cage.’’ Didn’t matter. Boos cascaded down the packed stands. Several minutes later, the track replayed the radio broadcast of the final laps on the P.A. system and when it came to the moment Earnhardt turned Labonte, a heavy chorus of boos reverberated throughout the stands from fans not yet ready to leave.

At 32 years old, Busch can grow more into such a role for years to come. And win more than his one championship.

Having not yet reached his prime, Busch is likely to keep winning — Saturday was his 40th Cup victory to tie Mark Martin for 17th on the all-time wins list. At his current rate, Busch will climb into the top 10 wins list before he retires. Busch can further irritate fans by also winning Truck and Xfinity races.

Us against them.

Yes, Busch will make fans cheer and boo for years to come.

“I’m sure they’re still booing, whining and crying all the way home tonight,’’ Busch said well after his win Saturday night. “They’re driving home mad, so people be careful.

“But, you know, my people get to go home safe and secure and slow and steady and patient because they get to celebrate.’’

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NASCAR America live 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Kyle Busch sweep recap, Erik Jones

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Today’s edition of NASCAR America airs from 6 to 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Kelli Stavast joins Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte from NBC Charlotte.

On today’s show:

  • For just the second time in NASCAR history, a driver was able to win in all three national series in a single race weekend. In both occurrences, the feat was performed by the same driver, Kyle Busch, and at the same venue, Bristol Motor Speedway. Busch collected his first sweep in 2010, and came back to do it again this past weekend at the World’s Fastest Half-Mile. We’ll hear from Kyle after his victory on Saturday and examine how this affects the current playoff picture.
  • Erik Jones did everything in Saturday’s Bristol Night Race but win. It was a great weekend for the rookie NASCAR Cup driver from Furniture Row Racing. The leading contender for Cup rookie of the year earned his first pole, led a race-high 260 laps, but finished second to Kyle Busch. How soon will it be before Jones gets to victory lane? Our panel discusses that.
  • Eclipse fever has spread to NASCAR. We’ll take a look at how drivers and tracks appreciated this natural phenomenon today.
  • We interview Kyle Larson at today’s announcement of a new sponsor at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

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 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.