Chase for playoff points looms larger with five races left in regular season

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As Kyle Busch and his team found so many ways to lose races, it wasn’t the lack of victories that proved worrisome but the loss of playoff points.

“It was a huge concern,’’ crew chief Adam Stevens said.

It’s not a stretch to believe Busch could have eight victories at this moment, giving him at least 40 playoff points and a path through part of the playoffs — if not all the way to the championship race in Miami.

Instead, he scored his first Cup win of the year Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He has 13 playoff points, trailing Martin Truex Jr. (29 playoff points) and Jimmie Johnson (16).

All those lost opportunities for Busch could impact the playoffs. Each stage victory is worth one playoff point. Each race win is worth five playoff points. Those points carry through the first three rounds as long as the driver remains in contention for the championship.

“I don’t think any of us truly understand how important (playoff points) are,’’ seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said.

They’ll begin to find out when the playoffs open Sept. 17 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Stage racing and playoff points have created extra layers in the races this season. Those changes have forced crew chiefs to plot differing strategies and drivers to be more aggressive. It was evident at Pocono. 

Martin Truex Jr. pitted from the lead Sunday shortly before the end of the second stage. He and crew chief Cole Pearn were going for the race win instead of the stage victory. Many followed. Clint Bowyer stayed out to win the stage and collect the one playoff point and 10 bonus points. Bowyer, who is not in a playoff spot, needs all those bonus points.

While teams created models on what it might take to advance in the playoffs, no one knows for sure. It’s reminiscence of 2004 when NASCAR changed the way the championship was decided by implementing the 10-race Chase instead of having the title determined over the entire season. There were many theories of how to run the final 10 races but no one knew what strategy would work.

Drivers and teams that have lost races worry how their missed opportunities this season might impact their title hopes.

Brad Keselowski was the leader for the final restart at Indianapolis last month. He lost the race — and five playoff points — to Kasey Kahne. Could those points be the difference in Keselowski advancing another round in the playoffs?

He rues missed chances for more playoff points this season.

“I wouldn’t say that it was just Indy that I felt that way,’’ Keselowski said. “I felt that way at Richmond and Vegas where we finished second, had a shot of winning, were leading and it fell apart at the end.

“There’s other races where we won. Atlanta, Kevin (Harvick) was probably the best car there. Sometimes you win when you shouldn’t have and sometimes you don’t win where you probably should have. You hope to be on the better side of that. Steal more than you have stolen. Never feels like you are. That’s the bigger picture look that I have at.’’

Another key will be the bonus points the top 10 teams in points receive after the regular season ends next month. Barring a collapse or severe penalty, Truex is on pace to win the regular-season title and collect 15 playoff points. He has 29 playoff points and the regular-season title bonus would put him at 44 — and five races remain for him to score more playoff points.

To put those 44 points into context, when the playoffs start, every driver contending for the title will have their point total reset to 2,000 and have their playoff points added. It’s possible that Truex will lead some drivers by more than 40 points before the opening round begins.

That likely will help him advance to the second round (if he doesn’t win a race in the first round). He would then carry all those bonus points with him after the point totals are reset to 3,000 for the remaining title contenders. Truex still could have a big enough cushion over some title hopefuls that he could advance to the third round even if he struggles some in those three races.

While Truex appears to be in a good spot, these next five races could be critical to Kyle Larson.

He was leading the points after Daytona last month but a 35-point penalty and four finishes outside the top 25 in the last six races has dropped him to second in the season standings with Harvick and Busch closing. Should both pass Larson and he finishes the regular season fourth, he will have lost eight playoff points by fading from first (15 playoff points) to fourth (seven).

Those eight points could be significant in the playoffs.

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Truck results, points following Atlanta race

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Brett Moffitt earned his second career NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win when he took the lead on a restart in overtime Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third and leads the points heading into next week’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sauter has a 31-point lead on Matt Crafton. Grant Enfinger is next, 33 points behind Sauter.

Click here for points report

Brett Moffitt takes advantage of Kyle Busch’s woes to win Atlanta Truck race

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Brett Moffitt went from third to first on the restart in overtime and powered his way to his second career Camping World Truck Series win Saturday.

Moffitt’s victory marked the first for Hattori Racing Enterprises, which made its debut in 2013. Noah Gragson placed second and Daytona winner Johnny Sauter was third at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

MORE: Race results, points report

A late caution for an incident involving Josh Reaume and Dalton Sargeant set in stage a series of events that cost Kyle Busch a chance to become the second driver in series history with 50 wins.

Busch led a parade down pit road for fresh tires. Busch’s team planned to take four tires but problems on the right front led to the team telling Busch to pull out of his pit stall after the right front was secured. Only problem was that the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. Busch didn’t get too far beyond pit exit before his left rear tire rolled off. Busch finished 21st.

Stage 1 winner: Noah Gragson

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

How Brett Moffitt won: He restarted third in overtime behind Myatt Snider, who had taken only two tires. Moffitt had four. Snider had no chance. Moffitt got around Snider cleanly and surged to the lead.

Who else had a good day: Daytona winner Johnny Sauter finished third to give him back-to-back top-five finishes to open the season. Sauter has finished no worse than third in each of the last six Truck races, dating back to last year. … Noah Gragson bounced back from a 23rd-place finish at Daytona to place second at Atlanta.

Who had a bad day: Justin Haley had a flat right rear tire nine laps before the end of the first stage. He lost two laps on the green-flag stop. Haley never made it back on the lead lap and finished 22nd. … The audible by Kyle Busch’s team on a slow pit stop before overtime proved disastrous. Busch took off as told after both ride-side tires were changed but the lug nuts on the left rear were removed. The left rear came off shortly after Busch exited pit road.

Notable: Jesse Little finished a career-high eighth. His previous best in 13 previous series starts was ninth.

Quote of the day: “This is unbelievable to be in a race car at this point, let alone in Victory Lane,’’ said winner Brett Moffitt, whose deal with the team came shortly before the season started.

Next: Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Xfinity race results, point standings following Atlanta

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Kevin Harvick won the Rinnai 250 at Atlanta Motor Speedway to snap a 22-race winless streak in the Xfinity Series.

Harvick led 141 laps and swept both stages.

He beat Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for race results.

Elliott Sadler leads the points standings after two races. He’s the only driver to start the year with two top-five finishes.

Sadler has a four-point lead over JR Motorsports teammate Tyler Reddick.

Completing the top five are Ryan Reed (-14), Ryan Truex (-21) and Spencer Gallagher (-22).

Click here for the point standings

Kevin Harvick wins Xfinity race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

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Kevin Harvick dominated to win Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, earning his fifth series win at the track.

Driving the No. 98 Ford for Biagi DenBeste Racing, Harvick led 141 laps and won both stages of the 163-lap race after starting fifth.

Harvick led Joey Logano, Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek and Elliott Sadler.

The win is Harvick’s 47th in the Xfinity Series and his 98th overall in NASCAR’s three national series. It snaps a 22-race winless streak for Harvick in the Xfinity Series.

“It’s just been a really good place for me, obviously getting my first Cup win here (in 2001) and being able to run good cars throughout the years,” Harvick told FS1. “The race track has stayed very similar to what’s it been for a number of years. I think if you look at the techniques and things that I do in the car and they give me what I want in the car as far as the field, it applies here.”

Nemechek’s top five comes in his first career Xfinity Series start driving the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing.

Chase Briscoe, also making his first Xfinity start, finished 15th in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 60 Ford.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kevin Harvick won after zooming from 10th to first in a one-lap shootout after pitting for four tires.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kevin Harvick

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAG A GOOD DAY: Joey Logano earned his third straight runner-up finish at Atlanta in Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford … Elliott Sadler is the only driver to have top-five finishes in the first two races of the year … Ryan Truex (ninth) and Ryan Reed (10th) earned their second straight top-10 finishes to begin the year.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Cole Custer wrecked out on Lap 11 when contact with a swerving John Hunter Nemechek sent his No. 00 Ford into the outside wall before the start-finish line. He finished 39th. … Kaz Grala finished 23rd after he lost power because of a battery problem during the Stage 2 break … Ty Dillon finished 13th, one lap down after receiving a pit penalty for his crew going over the wall too soon with 35 laps to go … Daytona winner Tyler Reddick finished 19th, two laps down after losing his right-rear tire with 25 laps to go.

NOTABLE: Harvick, 42, is the second-oldest driver to win at Atlanta in the Xfinity Series (Harry Gant, 54). … Harvick is the 14th different winner in the last 15 Xfinity races.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Kevin’s just really good at it. Doesn’t matter what car he’s driving or what. He’s really good at Atlanta, and apparently we’re second best to that.”- Joey Logano to FS1 after finishing second.

WHAT’S NEXT: Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 4 p.m. ET on March 3 on FS1.