Stage racing has made an impact but qualifying remains key to Cup success

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Even with how stages have altered strategy and the racing this year, the importance of qualifying remains evident in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Seven of the top 10 in points entering Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway rank in the top 10 in average starting spot. Points leader Martin Truex Jr. ranks second in average starting spot. Brad Keselowski, who has the best average starting spot (6.679), ranks seventh in the points.

Seven of the 13 races this season were won by a driver who started in the top five.

Qualifying at Pocono is scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. ET today.

The past two races have been won by a driver who started outside the top 10. Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 after starting 22nd. Jimmie Johnson qualified 14th last weekend at Dover but actually started at the rear after the team made a gear change before the race.

Rookie Ty Dillon, who had a strong run going until he was collected in the overtime crash last week at Dover, said qualifying remains a focus for his team.

Qualifying has probably been our toughest challenge all year just making sure we get good track position,’’ said Ty Dillon, whose average starting spot of 22.077 ranks 24th in the series. “We start anywhere from 20th to 28th every week. It’s just not been our strong suit, but we have raced really well. 

“The thing about qualifying is it is raw speed. It’s just a different level when you come to the Cup Series and qualify. It’s harder than anything you ever do.’’ 

Rookie Daniel Suarez, whose average starting spot of 15.846 ranks 16th in the series, says he sees progress with his team in the area.

“Track position is important,’’ Suarez said. “I feel like last week we made some gains. I honestly feel like every weekend we have been getting better and better. We are still a new team, a growing team, and I really feel like every weekend we are getting stronger and stronger and racing in the top 10.’’

Here is a look at how drivers rank based on their average starting spot this season:

(Some drivers, such as Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson, among others, are further down the list because they’ve missed qualifying after failing to get through inspection and started toward the rear, impacting their average.)

6.679 — Brad Keselowski

8.308 — Martin Truex Jr.

8.769 — Kevin Harvick

9.769 — Kyle Busch

9.846 — Jamie McMurray

9.923 — Matt Kenseth

10.000 — Ryan Blaney

10.154 — Chase Elliott

11.154 — Denny Hamlin

11.154 — Joey Logano

11.615 — Kurt Busch

12.308 — Kyle Larson

13.769 — Ryan Newman

13.846 — Clint Bowyer

13.923 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

15.846 — Daniel Suarez

16.000 — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

17.692 — Erik Jones

17.769 — Trevor Bayne

18.692 — Austin Dillon

20.154 — Kasey Kahne

20.385 — Jimmie Johnson

20.538 — Paul Menard

22.077 — Ty Dillon

23.923 — Danica Patrick

24.308 — AJ Allmendinger

25.846 — Michael McDowell

27.308 — Landon Cassill

28.308 — Matt DiBenedetto

28.923 — Chris Buescher

* Aric Almirola, who is out after his injury from a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway, has an average starting spot of 22.363.

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NASCAR America: The challenges of Martinsville Speedway

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What Martinsville Speedway lacks in size compared to other tracks it makes up in difficulty say drivers and NASCAR America’s analysts.

Landon Cassill joined Carolyn Manno, Parker Kligerman and Jeff Burton on Thursday’s show and discussed the challenges of the half-mile paperclip track.

“It can be fun when it’s going well,’’ said Cassill, who will make his Cup season debut this weekend in the No. 00 for StarCom Racing. “That place, if you’re car is not handling well, you can end up going backwards and just by the time you’ve got some clear race track the leader is right behind you. So it can be frustration. I tend to like Martinsville.’’

Kligerman calls racing in the pack at Martinsville Speedway “the most aggressive racing I’ve ever been a part of in my life.’’

Jeff Burton said: “It’s … one of the hardest race tracks we go to period because you have to do it lap after lap after lap and it’s so easy to get, quite simply, just really, really mad at the guy you’re racing with because he’s hitting you and he’s banging on you.’’

Cup drivers have their description of the track. See what NASCAR America’s analysts and Cup drivers have to say about the track that hosts Sunday’s Cup race in the video above.

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Richard Childress Racing reinstates Xfinity crew chief Nick Harrison

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Richard Childress Racing has reinstated Nick Harrison to crew chief  of the No. 3 Xfinity team after he served a five-race suspension for a violation at Daytona International Speedway. 

Harrison’s first race back will be April 8 at Texas.

Harrison was suspended after the No. 3 car of Austin Dillon had a rear suspension violation in pre-qualifying inspection. Harrison and the team’s car chief were ejected by NASCAR after the violation. RCR imposed the suspension.

“I’m looking forward to being back with my team and winning races after my five-race suspension,” Harrison said in a statement from the team.

Brandon Thomas served as the interim crew chief while Harrison was out. Austin Dillon finished a season-best fourth for the team last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

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NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Martinsville breakdown, Aric Almirola and Bubba Wallace

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and features host Carolyn Manno and Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut, and Jeff Burton and Landon Cassill from Burton’s Garage.

Among the topics today:

  •  Prepare for paint swapping, bent fenders, and bruised egos. It’s time to go short-track racing at Martinsville Speedway! Jeff, Parker and Landon will tell you what to expect this weekend at the famous half-mile. We’ll also see what it takes to succeed there, as Parker takes us for some quick laps in the NBCSN iRacing Simulator.
  • After making the switch to Stewart-Haas Racing in the offseason, Aric Almirola is off to the best start of his Cup Series career. Currently 10th in the standings, he’ll tell Marty Snider about his early season success.
  • Since finishing second at the Daytona 500, rookie driver Bubba Wallace has cooled off. Now he faces his first Cup Series start at Martinsville in the iconic No. 43 car, and he’s feeling confident — it’s where Wallace scored his first truck series win nearly five years ago. We’ll examine the struggles he might have to work through this season and also hear his reflections on his early years of racing in the latest edition of “A Driver’s Drive.”

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/ 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 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Weekend schedule for NASCAR at Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR returns to its backyard this weekend after the three week West Coast swing.

The Cup and Camping World Truck Series visit Martinsville Speedway in Southern Virginia.

The weekend is capped off by Sunday’s STP 500. It will be the first Cup race broadcast on Fox Sports 1 this year.

Here’s the full weekend schedule complete with TV and radio info.

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, March 23

8:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck garage opens

11:05 – 11:55 a.m. — Truck practice (No TV)

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Truck practice (Fox Sports 1)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Final Truck practice (FS1)

Saturday, March 24

7 a.m. – 8 p.m. — Cup garage open

7:30 a.m. — Truck garage opens

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

11:05 a.m. — Truck qualifying; multi-truck/three rounds (FS1)

12:15 p.m. — Truck driver-crew chief meeting

12:30 – 1:20 p.m. — Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

1:30 p.m. — Truck driver introductions

2 p.m. — Alpha Energy Solutions 250; 250 laps/131.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

5:10 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 25

9:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Driver-crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Driver introductions

2 p.m. — STP 500; 500 laps/263 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)