Stage points could add new element of drama, chaos at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Alabama — With at least five of the remaining seven transfer spots to the next round set by points, drivers are eyeing stage points this weekend at Talladega Superspeeday and how that might carry them closer to a championship run.

Martin Truex Jr. already has clinched a spot to the next round after his win last weekend at Charlotte. Eleven other drivers are contending for the seven remaining spots in the Round of 8.

Stage points already have proved pivotal in the playoffs, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scored seven points in the first stage at Dover and that was enough to help him advance to this round

That’s led to the question of what Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) might be like and how aggressive drivers will be to gain stage points. 

“Stage points are huge,’’ said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend five points out of a transfer spot. “It really hurts you when you don’t get any of those points. I think a lot of teams are going to go out there and be pretty aggressive … trying to get some stage points. I know we’re going to have to be that way for sure.

“Last year or years before when you didn’t have stage points, you’d start off the race bad and get better and you’d be pretty happy with an eighth-place finish. Now, you run 25th in the first stage and ninth in the second stage and then finish eighth and you’re like, ‘wow, we really got hurt.’ You have to start off these races so good to try to run up there and collect those points.’’

So what does more aggressive mean?

“Just think there will be more cars in the crash,’’ said Matt Kenseth, who is one point out of the final transfer spot.

The race for points could make the laps near the end of Stage 1 (Lap 55) and the end of Stage 2 (Lap 110) more chaotic.

“The stages are important, but no it’s not worth wrecking yourself getting some stage points,’’ said Chase Elliott, who is fourth in the points entering this weekend. “If you can make it work then great, but ultimately I’d like to still be part of the event when it’s over.”

That’s easy to say but things can change quickly in the pack.

“I think what happens is when one guy starts to get aggressive, the guy around him has to get aggressive to start dealing with that guy,’’ Elliott said. “And then when that happens, the guy in front has to deal with it, and so on. I think that is what happens. If it shows up and that is the kind of race it is going to be, then we will see. I definitely think there is going to be some emphasis on running well in the stages. But I just hope that everybody will want to get to the end as much as they want to have stage finishes, too.’’

Kyle Larson, who is second in the points, said a strong finish in the opening stage could lead to a strategy change for him in the next stage.

“Maybe if we finish … high up there in the first (stage), maybe you can ride in the second one or race even harder, you know you can risk more for the second stage,’’ he said. “It’s a long time from the end of the second stage to the end of the race, you could probably just hang out behind the pack and just ride around and try to get a top 20 and that would be a solid day for my team.’’

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Christopher Bell wins first career Xfinity Series race at Kansas

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Christopher Bell passed teammate Erik Jones with four laps left in the Kansas Lottery 300, withstood contact from behind by Jones and went on to claim his first career Xfinity Series win.

Bell, driving the No. 18 Toyota, earned the win in his fifth career start. It comes in the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Jones had dominated the race until the pass by Bell. He led 186 of the race’s 200 laps and swept the first two stages. He finished 15th, one lap down due to damage from running into the back of Bell.

It is the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing since Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway, a five-race stretch. JGR has won 11 Xfinity races this season.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Erik Jones

STAGE 2 WINNER: Erik Jones

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. bursting with joy over thoughts of baby girl

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — They laughed.

When the doctor told Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy that Amy was pregnant, the couple laughed.

It wasn’t the kind of laugh one makes after a joke or a funny story. It was … well, let Dale explain:

“Something just comes out,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday at Kansas Speedway. “You just burst out like joy. It wasn’t funny ha-ha. It was a joyful moment.’’

And then they got to hear the heartbeat.

“Somebody says you’re wife is pregnant, that registers a little bit but, man, when you hear that heartbeat, it’s like yep, it’s real,’’ Earnhardt said. “This is a real thing in there. It’s here. My God, it’s happening. Just all this emotion pops out.’’

The prelude to the excitement was the waiting. It was almost too much for Earnhardt when they first went to the doctor’s office to confirm that Amy was pregnant.

We went to the doctor and I’m still thinking man, I’m not believing crap until this doctor tells me,’’ Earnhardt said. “So, we’re sitting in there for like 20 minutes. And they’re talking woman language and I’m not understanding. They are just talking about things and I’m like well, when is she going to say it? I want to hear it from the doctor’s mouth that she’s pregnant, so we can rejoice.

“It took them a while. I was scared to speak up. Finally, they said something that confirmed it for me and I was like, awesome. And then we had the ultrasound and got to hear the heartbeat and all that right there, and that was great. We go back for another checkup here soon, in a couple of days, and those are awesome. They are so much fun because it’s like the closest you can get to it before they’re born and I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.”

Earnhardt said on his podcast this week that the baby is due May 2.

“I know that Amy has changed my life a lot, and I imagine this baby is going to have the same impact and just can’t wait to meet her,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday. “It’s just taking forever.”

Earnhardt says he understands the excitement friends and family have had with their children.

“I guess the thing that hits me is I’ve watched all my friends, a lot of them, have kids and my sister have kids,’’ he said. “I was happy for those milestones in their lives, but I had no idea what that really meant. And as we found out and were going through these little moments through the pregnancy it’s just hitting home how impactful that child has been in all the lives of my friends and family. And I just really didn’t understand or appreciate, I guess, how incredible that moment must have been for them and how their lives completely changed. I saw it from a completely different point of view when I wasn’t experiencing it myself. 

“I look at my friends completely different. I look at my sister completely different knowing what I know now and what I’m learning as I go. And I know there is more to be exposed to and more enlightening and more eye-opening experiences that will make me not only appreciate what me and Amy, what we have, but what my friends and family and folks that I am very close to have and what they have experienced. 

“Because I thought I knew, childbirth is exciting, it’s awesome to have children and everybody says it changes your life and everybody says it’s the greatest thing ever, but you just don’t know until you really go through it.’’

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Ryan Blaney fastest in final Cup practice at Kansas

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Ryan Blaney was fastest in the final NASCAR Cup Series practice at Kansas Speedway.

Blaney, who will start last Sunday after failing post-qualifying inspection, posted a top speed of 182.057 mph.

He was followed by Kyle Busch (181.143), Kevin Harvick (181.720), Danial Suarez (181.665) and Matt Kenseth (181.543).

Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. was 12th fastest.

Harvick posted the best 10-lap average at 180.120 mph.

Jimmie Johnson, who was 15th fastest, recorded the most laps with 53.

There were no accidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

Tyler Reddick wins pole for Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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Tyler Reddick claimed his first career Xfinity Series pole Saturday at Kansas Speedway, winning the top spot with a speed of 181.117 mph.

Rounding out the top five are Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Austin Dillon

William Byron was the highest qualifying playoff driver in sixth, but he will start from the year because of unapproved adjustments.

Reddick’s pole comes in his 17th Xfinity start. It also continues an impressive stretch for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Both Reddick and Alex Bowman earned their first Xfinity wins in the last three races. Reddick won at Kentucky Speedway. Bowman won at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago.

“This cooler weather might be helping us,” Reddick told NBCSN. “We were really tight yesterday. I think that’s going to help us in the race.”

The pole also comes the week after one of his grandmothers, Carolyn Joyce Brown, passed away. Her name is on the roof of his car.

“The last two weeks have been rough,” Reddick said. “She was battling health for a long time and just finally lost the battle. She watched every single race and ever lap on track. She was there watching it at the race track or at home. Hopefully we can do something special for her. This will be the first race she hasn’t been here to see.”

Here is where the playoff drivers qualified:

William Byron – sixth

Cole Custer – seventh

Matt Tifft – eighth

Brennan Poole – ninth

Daniel Hemric – 10th

Elliott Sadler – 11th

Justin Allgaier – 13th

Ryan Reed – 15th

Click here for the qualifying results.