Keeping score: Competitors learning the value of playoff points grows with each race

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With each race Kyle Busch fails to win, his chances of capturing a second Cup championship becomes more challenging.

Busch has led more laps than every driver this season except Martin Truex Jr., but is winless, costing him valuable playoff points and possibly a title.

When NASCAR introduced its new playoff format in January, Denny Hamlin noted that “every single race matters.’’

The new format rewards those who excel throughout a race and punishes those who don’t or encounter trouble at key times.

That’s a painful reality for Busch, who has lost the lead four times in the final 15 laps this season.

But that’s just some of Busch’s heartbreaks.

He lost a top-five finish at Las Vegas after contact with Joey Logano on the last lap, finished 22nd and suffered a cut forehead in a scuffle on pit road afterward. A commitment line violation with less than 25 laps left cost Busch a chance to win at Richmond, relegating him to 16th. Austin Dillon beat Busch on a fuel-mileage gamble to win the Coca-Coal 600.

It’s easy to see that Busch could have at least three to five wins this season, likely giving him more playoff points than any other driver.

Instead he has scored four playoff points — one point each for his four stage wins.

Truex has two race wins and 11 stage victories for 21 playoff points.

If the regular season ended today, Truex would be second in the season standings and gain 10 bonus playoff points, giving him 31 playoff points.

If the season ended today, Busch would have 11 total playoff points, including seven bonus points for finishing fourth in the standings. Under this scenario, Busch would start the playoffs 20 points behind Truex.

That difference could be critical with playoff points staying with the driver until they are eliminated or reach the season finale in Miami. Playoff points don’t carry over for the final four teams vying for the title there in November.

Busch might need to win in the playoffs, automatically advancing to the next round, to keep his title hopes alive if he continues to lose bonus points to his competitors

While Busch seeks his first victory this weekend at Daytona International Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC), there’s a furious battle for the points lead.

In previous years that wouldn’t matter, but those bonus points change things.

The top 10 in the standings after the regular season ends — the September Richmond race — will receive bonus playoff points. The regular-season champion receives 15 playoff points, the runner-up gets 10 playoff points. Third place earns eight playoff points and the points drop by one to 10th, which earns one bonus playoff point.

Kyle Larson has a 13-point lead on Truex in the season standings going to Daytona and admits he’s keeping a close eye on Truex.

BKyle Larson celebrates after winning at Michigan International Speedway last month (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

The regular season points have been a big priority of mine because it pays 15 points to be the leader at the end of Richmond,’’ said Larson, who has victories at Auto Club Speedway and Michigan International Speedway and five runner-up finishes this season. “(That) is a big deal, it’s like winning three races. (I’m) trying to stay as consistent as I can and race hard every race.

“I think in the previous points format if you get a win early on you can kind of cruise a little bit and lose your drive on wanting to win as much. Now, with the bonus points on the line every week, it is a big deal to run up front all throughout the races.”

There is just as intense a battle for the final playoff spots.

Ten drivers — Larson, Truex, Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Ryan Blaney, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon have secured playoff spots via a win. Joey Logano also has a win but it doesn’t count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after his Richmond victory in April.

With 10 spots filled, six spots are left for the playoffs. If the playoffs started today, those six spots would be filled (based on points) by Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Logano and Clint Bowyer.

That means missing the playoffs would be former champion Matt Kenseth, who is four points behind Bowyer for the final spot. Also missing the playoffs would be Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is in his final season driving full-time in Cup. Others who would miss out would include Kasey Kahne, rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne.

When the playoff format and stage points were announced before the season, Bayne knew his Roush Fenway Racing team would face quite a challenge.

“When they laid out the stage points, I said, ‘Man, this is really going to hurt us particularly when we run 15th because we’re not accumulating points,’” said Bayne, whose team has improved its average finish 2.6 spots to 17.3 this season. “We don’t have the ability right now to run top five.’’

Unable to finish stages in the top 10 has impacted his team. Bayne has 15 stage points. Kenseth, the first driver outside the playoffs, has 82 stage points. That difference has helped Kenseth build an 86-point lead on Bayne in the season standings. 

“We know we have to win to get into the (playoffs) at this point,’’ Bayne said. “I can go out there and lay it on the line like I could do in the 21 car when we ran a part-time schedule. I maybe got a reputation for being a little erratic and wild but that’s because I had no points on the line. You go out there to win. If you wreck, you wreck. If you win, you win. That’s the situation we’re in now.’’

Logano also feels the pressure. He leads Kenseth by 11 points.

“It is on my mind,” Logano said of having a encumbered win that doesn’t qualify him for the playoffs. “I would be lying if I said it wasn’t, but it isn’t something I am very concerned about. I feel like this team is strong enough to get through it. We just need to get through it, build momentum.

“The way these stages are, you can gain points pretty quick. We have proven we can lose them pretty quick. A couple good races of scoring stage points and a great finish will put you right back to close to where we were. We have to be able to string three or four solid races together like we know how to.’’

Season by the Numbers

1 – Laps led by Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch (he has led six laps all season)

2 – Wins by Richard Childress Racing, the most since 2013

5 – Runner-up finishes for Kyle Larson

9 – Top-five finishes, a series high, by Brad Keselowski

10 – Races left until the playoff field is set

11 – Stage wins by Martin Truex Jr.

18 – Race winless drought for Joe Gibbs Racing

32 – Race winless drought for Kyle Busch

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Darlington celebrates NASCAR’s 70th birthday by revealing 4th throwback weekend details

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Darlington Raceway on Thursday celebrated the 70th birthday of NASCAR in a big way, announcing details for the fourth annual NASCAR throwback weekend.

The track revealed the 2018 edition of the throwback weekend will celebrate “Seven Decades of NASCAR,” to be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2 at the legendary 1.366-mile track.

The weekend will include the Cup Series’ Bojangles’ Southern 500 and the Xfinity Series’ Sports Clips Haircuts VFW 200.

NASCAR held its first of several organizational meetings on Dec. 14, 1947, at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. That ultimately led to the official formation of NASCAR on Feb. 21, 1948.

The throwback weekend will honor and feature highlights of some of the biggest moments in the sport’s history over its first 70 years.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for Darlington Raceway and the NASCAR industry to celebrate the sport over a seven decade period during our 2018 throwback weekend,” Darlington Raceway President Kerry Tharp said in a media release.

“We have been era specific the past three years,” Tharp added, “so we felt it was important to recognize the 70th anniversary of NASCAR with our ‘Seven Decades of NASCAR’ celebration next season and give the teams, sanctioning body and others a wider brush to paint a picture capturing memorable moments we might not have celebrated in year’s past.”

Memorable moments to be celebrated include several that took place at Darlington itself, including Ned Jarrett’s record-setting 14-lap victory in the 1965 Southern 500, Ricky Craven’s record-setting photo finish win over Kurt Busch in 2003, and Jimmie Johnson’s 2012 Southern 500 win, which gave team owner Rick Hendrick his 200th career victory, among others.

Cup winners of the first three throwback weekends have been Carl Edwards (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2016) and Denny Hamlin (2017).

As has been the case for the first three throwback weekends, the track will once again issue commemorative tickets for the Southern 500.

“We have produced commemorative tickets for our fans every year of the throwback program, which is an important part of our platform,” Tharp said. “We appreciate how much the fans have supported Darlington Raceway and want them to walk away from our weekend with a special keepsake that recognizes our rich history and honors the stars of our sport.”

Front Row Motorsports adds Michael McDowell, expands technical alliance with Roush Fenway

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Front Row Motorsports will field entries for David Ragan and Michael McDowell in 2018 while expanding its technical alliance with Roush Fenway Racing, the team announced Thursday.

McDowell joins the Bob Jenkins-owned team after four years of driving the No. 95 Chevrolet for Leavine Family Racing before being replaced by Kasey Kahne.

The native of Phoenix, Arizona, McDowell replaces Landon Cassill as Ragan’s teammate.

McDowell, 32, has 249 Cup starts since 2008, but only two full-time seasons under his belt. He made one start for Front Row at Watkins Glen in 2013.

“Since I first drove for Bob at Watkins Glen, we’ve kept in touch and have felt like there might be an opportunity to work together again, and the timing worked out perfectly,” McDowell said in a press release. “It’s been a while since I’ve had a teammate, so I’m really looking forward to working with David, whom I’ve become pretty good friends with over the years. As a team now, we go into the season knowing we have five or six races that put us in position to get a win and earn a spot in the playoffs.”

Ragan returns to Front Row for his fifth season. Ragan earned the organization its first Cup victory in 2013 at Talladega. Ragan has two wins, 15 top fives and 39 top-10 finishes in his Cup career.

“Bob Jenkins and I have developed a good relationship over the years, both professionally and personally,” Ragan said in a press release. “I believe in this team and am proud to have been part of its growth and its successes. I’m excited that Bob and Ford have agreed to take the program to the next level, and I’m happy I’ll be here to help the team continue to grow.”

Crew chief assignments have not been finalized. FRM will announce sponsor partners and driver car numbers at a later date.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ‘Last Ride’ diecast is Lionel Racing’s bestselling ever

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a new benchmark for Lionel Racing’s most purchased diecast in its 25-year history.

Lionel Racing, NASCAR’s official diecast producer, has announced that the diecast of Earnhardt’s “Last Ride” No. 88 Chevrolet in the Cup season finale last month is now its bestselling diecast in company history.

The “Last Ride” car is based on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove in his rookie Cup season in 2000.

The previous bestseller was another Earnhardt diecast, for his 2014 Daytona 500 win.

Lionel Racing says that QVC’s “For Race Fans Only” show that featured Earnhardt and unveiled the car helped contribute to sales. But even without QVC, sales of the “Last Ride” diecast outpaced the 2014 Daytona 500 diecast by more than 10,000 units.

“The demand for this car has been simply astounding,” Lionel Racing President Howard Hitchcock said on the company’s website. “The fan response to this diecast is a true measure of how much Earnhardt has meant to both casual NASCAR fans and serious diecast collectors.”

Lionel Racing has also revealed the top-10 selling diecasts for the year, which you can find below. Earnhardt has six cars on the list. Chase Elliott has two and Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney each have one.

Casey Mears likely to split 2018 between NASCAR, Global Rallycross and Stadium Super Trucks

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Casey Mears still plans to compete part-time in NASCAR in 2018, but he’s also looking to expand his racing horizons.

The veteran NASCAR driver told The Checkered Flag recently that he also expects to race in the Red Bull Global Rallycross series, as well as Robby Gordon’s Stadium Super Trucks series.

“Right now I’m talking to a few NASCAR programs to do maybe limited stuff,” Mears told The Checkered Flag. “I don’t have anything that would be a full-time ride in a NASCAR series.

“I’ve been speaking with Robby Gordon in the Stadium Super Truck program. I think that’s a really cool up-and-coming-series and I’d definitely like to be involved with the GRC. It looks like a lot of fun.

“I think there’s enough difference between all those that it could leave room for doing a bit of both so we’ll see how it works out.”

Mears did not race in the Cup Series in 2017, having lost his ride at the end of 2016 to Ty Dillon in the No. 13 Geico Chevy. He has amassed 488 starts and one win (2007 Coca-Cola 600) in his Cup career, along with 13 top fives and 51 top 10s.

However, he did compete on a part-time basis in 2017 in the Xfinity Series, making 14 starts, with season-best finishes of ninth place at both Richmond and Road America. He also has 107 Xfinity starts with one win, 16 top fives and 34 top 10s.