stage points

Long: Lack of stage points could end Jimmie Johnson’s bid for 8th title

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Jimmie Johnson’s spotter says he’ll be “crossing my fingers” this weekend at Kansas that the mistake he made at Talladega doesn’t keep Johnson from advancing in the playoffs.

Should the seven-time series champion fail to move on to the Round of 8 — he holds the final transfer spot entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway — it won’t be because spotter Earl Barban told the team it could work on Johnson’s car before NASCAR had withdrawn the red flag at Talladega, incurring a penalty that ended the team’s race.

No, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team can look at their failure to collect as many Stage 1 points as their competitors. Even if Johnson advances, his lack of stage points could keep him from racing for a championship if he doesn’t win a race in the Round of 8.

Johnson goes to Kansas with a seven-point lead on Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by eight points.

Before the playoffs began, Johnson was asked if there would be more of a penalty for his summer slump that cost him stage points.

“I really think so,’’ he said. “We know our qualifying average doesn’t lead to a Stage 1 opportunity.’’ 

Johnson’s struggles in qualifying have put him in a mid-pack spot and made it difficult to score many points in the opening stage. His average starting spot of 17.0 this season is worst among the remaining playoff contenders

The result is that Johnson has scored 59 Stage 1 points in 31 races this season — fewest among all but one of the remaining playoff contenders. Johnson has scored only 35.8 percent of his 165 total stage points in the opening stage. To compare, Kyle Busch, who has an average starting spot of 7.1, scored 58.7 percent of his 315 total stage points in the opening stage. 

Johnson’s difficulties in the playoffs have been as pronounced.

Johnson’s average starting spot of 15.2 in the postseason is only better than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16.2 average starting spot in playoffs) and Jamie McMurray (18.2).

Johnson’s 27 stage points are more than only Stenhouse (14) and McMurray (13) in the playoffs.

Johnson also has scored 37 percent of his total stage points in the opening stage — the lowest percentage among the remaining title contenders in the playoffs. 

To compare with Busch, he has an average starting spot of 4.8 in the playoffs. That’s allowed Busch to score 63.5 percent of his 52 total stage points in the opening stage.

Add it together and Johnson could face quite a challenge to stay in title contention.

Having to hold off Busch won’t be easy, provided Busch doesn’t run into problems.

In four of the first five playoff races, Busch has scored five or more stage points than Johnson in the opening stage. If Busch does that Sunday, he will be in position to pass Johnson for a spot in the next round over the final 187 laps of the 267-lap event.

That’s a likely scenario. Busch has outscored Johnson 80-41 in stage points in the season’s eight races on 1.5-mile tracks.

If Busch moves into a transfer spot, Johnson likely will have to beat Ryan Blaney to have a chance to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships. Blaney has a two-point lead on Johnson.

Blaney has scored 108 Stage 1 points compared to Johnson’s 59 for the entire season. Blaney has outscored Johnson 196-165 in total stage points this season. In the playoffs, Blaney has a 10.2 average starting spot (compared to Johnson’s 15.2). Blaney has outscored Johnson 28-27 in total stage points in the postseason.

The challenges could be difficult for Johnson this weekend.

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NASCAR America: Measuring success under the new points format

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With seven races in the books and a weekend off from racing, it’s allowed NBC Sports analyst Steve Letarte time to examine the stage format and figure out which drivers have been most successful under it so far.

“For years, it was always average finishing position,” Letarte said on NASCAR America. “Where did you run? If you run the top 15, the top 10. If you finished in the top 15, top 10 you found success and you were playoff bound. But when I looked at the numbers this year, average finishing position didn’t work. I had to find a new way to measure success.

“What seems clear to me is points earned per event.”

Letarte determines this through the average points earned by a driver in the first two stages of the race and their finishing position.

In the first two stages, 10 points are given to the stage winner, nine to second place, eight to third place and down to 10th place earning one point.

Kyle Larson leads the point standings with 315 points and an average of 45 points per event.

“When I came up with points per event, it seemed clear to me the goal was 45 points,” Letarte said. “But then I was a little lost about what 45 points meant. How do you score 45 points in an event?”

Here’s a look at two ways to reach 45 points.

Letarte also looks at Dale Earnhardt Jr and his average of 19 points per event.

Watch the video to see more of the discussion between Letarte and analysts Greg Biffle, including drivers who have won races, but not stages and vice versa.

 

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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