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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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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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