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Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott are kings of NASCAR Cup stages

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With five NASCAR Cup races in the book in the 2017 season and in the stage racing era, one thing is for certain.

While race wins are still the most important thing, stage wins and finishing a stage in the top 10 are having a significant impact upon the driver standings.

Starting this season, NASCAR broke the races into segments of varying length (depending on the race and track). Just as in a full race, the most important thing for a driver is to finish as high as possible in each of the first two stages to maximize points.

A stage winner earns 10 points and one playoff point. The second- through 10th-place finishers in a stage earn, in descending order, nine points down to one point (which count toward the regular season).

Sunday’s race winner Kyle Larson is atop the NASCAR Cup point standings and also has amassed a series-high 70 stage points through the first five races.

Those 70 points make up nearly a third of the 243 total points Larson has earned this year.

Chase Elliott is second with 63 stage points. Heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway, Elliott has 214 overall points, so his stage points also account for nearly a third of his total.

“I think we’re realizing how important it is to continue to stack up those points throughout the day,” Team Penske competition director Travis Geisler told NBC Sports. “Like Brad (Keselowski) did this weekend, he finished second, but we still lost points to everybody we’re around (because he didn’t do as well in the first two stages).

“The 78 (Martin Truex Jr.), the 24 (Elliott) and especially the 42 (Larson), they all were at the front of the stages, and they ended up putting up a bunch of points between you. That’s a tough situation, but it’s the reality of it, and I think we’re all realizing that you have to be good all day long.

“You can’t just finish well. That’s a change of mindset (from years past).”

Geisler pointed to Joey Logano’s run two weeks ago at Phoenix, where the driver of the No. 22 started from the pole and earned 10 points for winning Stage 1.

Logano wrecked late in the race and finished 31st in the 39-car field, but his stage win helped him salvage some of the day with 16 total points.

“(Logano) won a stage, we got points, we got a catastrophic ending to the day, but it wasn’t as bad as what you would normally have,” Geisler said.

Going back to Larson, if he had not earned any stage points, he likely would be ranked fifth in the standings heading into Martinsville. It would be even worse for Elliott. Without stage points, he likely would be in seventh place in the overall Cup standings.

Rounding out the top 10 in stage points earned are Brad Keselowski (58 points), Truex (53), Kevin Harvick (40), Joey Logano (38), Kyle Busch (36), Jamie McMurray (35), Ryan Blaney (31) and Ryan Newman (19).

But their rankings in the overall Cup standings is slightly different: While Larson (243 points) and Elliott (214) are 1-2, Truex is third (205 points), followed by Keselowski (179), Logano (174), McMurray (162), Blaney (157), Clint Bowyer (143), Harvick (137) and Kyle Busch (136).

Then there’s the total flip side, namely, Kurt Busch.

This year’s Daytona 500 winner has earned just eight stage points.

That’s a major reason why Busch is ranked 16th in the stage points standings and 14th in the NASCAR Cup standings (125 points) – the lowest of any race winner thus far this season.

“I think that’s becoming more clear to us as the races go on that the stage points mean more than anybody gave credit to just because of the way the math adds up,” Geisler said.

“If you knock out 20 points right there in the first two stages, it’s a huge difference if you can get just a base hit for the end of the race. If you finish in the top 10, it’s a great day at that point.”

Top 10 stage points earned in 2017:

  1. Kyle Larson (70)
  2. Chase Elliott (63)
  3. Brad Keselowski (58)
  4. Martin Truex Jr. (53)
  5. Kevin Harvick (40)
  6. Joey Logano (38)
  7. Kyle Busch (36)
  8. Jamie McMurray (35)
  9. Ryan Blaney (31)
  10. Ryan Newman (19)
  11. Jimmie Johnson (18)
  12. Erik Jones (16)
  13. Clint Bowyer (14)
  14. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12)
  15. Denny Hamlin (11)
  16. Kurt Busch (8)
  17. Danica Patrick (7)
  18. Austin Dillon (5)
  19. A.J. Allmendinger (5)
  20. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (4)
  21. Matt Kenseth (2)
  22. Trevor Bayne (1)

Dustin Long contributed to this story.

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Upon Further Review: Martinsville could provide relief for famed teams seeking victory

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No big deal that Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing both haven’t won a Cup race yet?

Maybe, but consider this — the last time both teams had yet to win by the season’s fifth race was 1994. That’s before Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott was born, before Jeff Gordon had won his first championship and two years after Richard Petty’s final race.

While this season celebrates five different winners in the first five races, including Stewart-Haas Racing’s first Daytona 500 triumph and Richard Childress Racing’s first Cup win since Nov. 2013, it also notes what hasn’t been done with Hendrick and Gibbs failing to reach Victory Lane.

Most wins at Martinsville Speedway in last 30 races there (since 2002).

Of course, that likely will change Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Hendrick and Gibbs have combined to win 80 percent of the last 30 races (See Chart at right) at the historic half-mile track, dating back to 2002. Hendrick Motorsports has 16 wins during that time, including last fall with Jimmie Johnson.

Executives from both organizations told NBC Sports this week that they’re not fretting about their starts to the season.

“I don’t sense any extra pressure,’’ said Doug Duchardt, general manager at Hendrick Motorsports. “There’s no meeting saying we’ve got to win or anything like that.’’

Said Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing: “I don’t put a timestamp on it, we’ve got to win by our fifth or sixth race. I feel like that we need to be competitive  week in and week out and then we tweak from there. I know our guys are capable of winning.’’

Duchardt notes the speed Chase Elliott’s car has had this year as a sign of the potential for each Hendrick team. While questions have been raised about Jimmie Johnson’s start to the season, Duchardt sees the matter differently.

“The 48 team obviously hasn’t had the finishes that we wanted,’’ Duchardt said. “Other than this past weekend (21st at Auto Club Speedway), I feel like at Atlanta they had a top-five car. At Vegas, they did, kind of got behind in strategy there on that one second stage. In Phoenix, they were running top five and the way things ended we ended up (ninth). This weekend obviously was not what we wanted. I think up to this weekend, I thought they were, obviously not as strong as (Elliott), but were pretty good.’’

Duchardt said one area he’s looking for improvement is in qualifying, feeling that has hindered some of the teams in scoring stage points. Elliott has 63 stage points, while Johnson has 18, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 12 and Kasey Kahne has yet to score a stage point this season.

“Overall I think the company, we’re good relative to the competition, but obviously we’re going to have to continue to work and make the next step as far as speed in the cars,’’ Duchardt said.

Joe Gibbs Racing entered this season having won 26 of the previous 67 races (38.8 percent), but its Toyota ally, Furniture Row Racing, has made it to Victory Lane first this season with Martin Truex Jr.

“Obviously, we didn’t start off as strong as we thought we were going to be,’’ Makar said. “I guess this package has hindered us more than we thought compared to other teams. We’re a little disappointed in that.

“We’ve had to go to work. Atlanta kind of gave us the first glimpse of it. We’ve improved on all of our races since then. I feel good about that. That’s a positive that we’ve been getting better week in and week out, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve gotten in contention to win a few of these races. I still feel like we’re still a little behind the eight-ball on the way our cars driver compared to the field.’’

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What drivers said after the Auto Club 400

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Kyle Larson stayed in control during an overtime restart to win Sunday’s Auto Club 400 for his second Cup Series win.

Here’s what Larson and the rest of the field had to say after the fifth race of the season.

KYLE LARSON – winner: “I was staying as calm as I could be but also (was) frustrated at the same time.  It seems like every time I get to the lead at the end of one of these things, the caution comes out, and I’ve got to fight people off on restarts.  Our Target Chevy was amazing all day.  We were able to lead a lot of laps today.  (Martin) Truex was better than us that second stage by quite a bit.  We were able to get the jump on him the following restart and led pretty much the rest of the distance.  I had to fight them off there after the green-flag stops, and that was a lot of fun. … This is just amazing.  We have been so good all year long, three seconds in a row.  I’ve been watching all the TV like, ‘He doesn’t know how to win,’ but we knew how to win today, so that was good.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished second: “Just great perseverance by the No. 2 team here with the Wurth Ford Fusion. I wanted to win, but I got out of the car and looked at the damage, and this thing is torn to pieces. I feel lucky to get second. Curious to see what we could’ve done if we weren’t torn up. But great day for us to really persevere. You’re just going to have that in a 36-race season.”

Clint Bowyer – Third: “It was a good weekend for us.  We never showed the speed in practice, but I wasn’t worried about it because I knew the car was really comfortable on the long run and things like that.  I was proud of the effort that Buga and all the guys give me each and every week.  I’m proud to have Rush Truck Centers on our car this weekend.  It’s just a great sponsor and a fun guy.  I’m just having fun again.  That’s what it’s about.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Fourth: “We were right there all day long. I felt like (Kyle Larson) had everybody covered. It was just a matter of who got out front and got clean air. Toward the end, we had a little trouble in the pits. We didn’t take tires, everybody else did, and we were at a big disadvantage those last couple restarts. Definitely happy to come out of here with a fourth with the tires we had on the car at the end. It was a good day, and we have fast cars, and we’ll continue to work on them.”

Joey Logano – Fifth: “It was up and down for sure.  Our car was really good on the short runs just like yesterday. Our car was good on the short runs and not good on the long runs. We would lose too much time. We tried to short-pit them and got caught with the caution and got stuck down a lap with 20 to go or so.  We were able to recover, and at one point, I thought we were going to win the race and had some trouble on pit road and lost some spots again, but we were able to make some of them back up and end up with a top five out of it with the Auto Club Fusion. It was up and down to say the least for the whole weekend for me.”

Jamie McMurray – Sixth: “Our team and our whole organization has done an amazing job to get to the point that we are. It’s not one thing; it’s hundreds of small things. I’m so happy for all the guys at our shop that have worked hard. In our sport, every team works hard; and you’re not always rewarded for it. It’s awesome to be rewarded for all the work.”

Daniel Suarez – Seventh: “I think the result is very good. That’s exactly what we are here for, but we have to keep working the race in general. I feel like we were not great – we were just OK – and then in the last couple of rounds in the last couple adjustments, the car was much, much better. I wish it was like that the whole race, and if it was going to be like, we were going to be running in the top 10 like we finished the entire race. We have to keep working. I know that there is room to improve it still, but for now we’ll take the top 10.”

Ryan Blaney – Ninth: “I thought we were not great at the beginning, kind of faded at the end of the first stage.  I thought at the beginning of the first stage, we were really good.  We drove up there. In the early part, we seemed to fade late in runs. In the middle part, we had equipment leave the pit box, and that put us in a big hole back there, but we did a good job fighting back, putting ourselves in a decent position to have a good finish and a decent shot at (the win). Most restarts worked in our favor except the last one. We just got put three wide there and kind of got hurt. Overall not a bad day for us coming back from that pit-road penalty. That was pretty good.”

Chase Elliott – 10th: “We were just trying to do something different. I thought (the unscheduled late pit stop) was going to give us the best chance of winning. (Crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) did as well. We had a good NAPA Chevy, and we were on the same page. He made the right call. And you can’t control when the caution comes out. So that’s just part of it.”

Austin Dillon – 11th: “I wish we could have done more with the position we were in with tires. On the outside lane, we cannot fire off the first couple of laps.  We struggle with that, and I’m going to start practicing it and figuring out why we can’t turn. I’m proud of my guys, but I guess we just wanted more.”

Erik Jones – 12th: “We were fast. We just don’t complete the races that well, so we have to go to work and get a little bit better and figure out how we ran all day.”

Kevin Harvick – 13th: “I feel like we won. Those are the days that championships are made out of right there. To wreck before we even get to the start-finish line, I don’t know exactly what happened in front of me, but, obviously, we got a caved-in grille. They did a great job fixing it. We got some wavearounds and made the car better and made something out of the day. That’s why these guys are who they are and won championships and races because they can make days like that happen.”

Denny Hamlin – 14th: “Race was pretty good. Our cars were a little bit slow overall. I mean, that’s the biggest thing now is that our car’s just slow. We’ve got to work on that and try to get our balance a little better and get out engines a little bit better, and we’ll be all right.”

Ryan Newman– 15th: “It was a tough and long day for us. We got a hole in the front nose on the first lap that cost us our track position. Then we battled an extremely tight-handling car that put us a lap down. We finally raced back onto the lead lap with 19 to go. It certainly wasn’t the finish we wanted, but it was a decent recovery.”

A.J. Allmendinger – 17th: “We definitely started off really loose which, kind of thought we might just go into the race just trying to get on the other side of it.  I was still a little bit tight trying to roll the center, which is kind of where we have been struggling a little bit, but made good adjustments and thought we got the car as good as we could have gotten it.  It was kind of right in that area.  I thought we maximized the speed of the car today and wish we would have had one less yellow.  I really thought I had made a good move and gotten clear of the next group behind me and thought maybe we would pick off a couple more.”

Ty Dillon – 18th: “My No. 13 Chevrolet team fought hard all day. We really struggled with the balance in the first two stages. I was tight through the center and loose on exit. Crew chief Bootie Barker worked with different adjustments to get us where we needed to be. Our Chevy SS was the best it had been all day there in that last segment. We made a strategy call and stretched our gas mileage to try and make it with only one green-flag stop to end the race while the leaders would need another, but late-race cautions kept that from working. We battled hard and, despite handling issues, it was a good end to the day.”

Aric Almirola – 19th: “We struggled. We just don’t have the overall grip and speed in our cars, but we’re working hard. Everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports has been working really hard.  It’s a big improvement from Atlanta.  We gained on it when we went to Vegas and then we’ve kind of gotten flat and stagnant and we haven’t been making as many gains and strides since Atlanta, so we still have some work to do.  I’m proud of the effort. We just have to dig deep.  We have to keep working hard and get speed in our car and more grip in our car so we can go and compete.”

Jimmie Johnson – 21st: “Man, we definitely didn’t have the fastest car out there today. I think we used up all the good luck in the season finale last season. We battled all day long to get back on the lead lap, but we have got some work to do.  I’m looking forward to spending the week with my girls and heading to Martinsville next weekend with this Lowe’s team.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – 22nd: ”It’s just unfortunate. Our Fastenal Ford started out tight early on in the runs but would come around later in the run, and we were able to pass some cars. Overall we had a solid day, and the pit crew did a great job on pit-road just unfortunate we didn’t get the finish we deserved.”

Trevor Bayne –  23rd: “I hate that that happened at the end of the race. We had a really fast AdvoCare Ford all race long and were able to really make some gains and passes out there. It’s just unfortunate that our day ended the way it did. We’ll recover from this and get after it next week in Martinsville.”

Chris Buescher – 25th: “It was a long afternoon in our No. 37 BUSH’s Beans Chevy. We got a decent starting spot but got shuffled back early and struggled to gain spots back. Then on the last restart, everyone got fanned out from another car getting in the wall, and we just lost all momentum. Next week, we’ve got a completely different setup as we go short-track racing, and I’m looking forward to racing with the short-track program at JTG Daugherty Racing.”

Matt Kenseth – 36th: “Yeah, I’m fine. I just didn’t do the best job getting through the gears, and I think (Jamie McMurray) got stuck outside of me, so I was trying to leave room for him on the top, and then I just got hit in the left-rear quarter panel off of Turn 2 and got spun out, and I was just kind of along for the ride.”f

Kyle Larson extends points lead after California win

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Kyle Larson padded his points lead Sunday after winning the opening stage, finishing second in the second stage and then winning the NASCAR Cup race at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson has a 29-point lead on Chase Elliott heading to next Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway. Martin Truex Jr. is 38 points behind Larson, Brad Keselowski is 64 points behind Larson and Joey Logano is 69 points behind Larson.

Larson scored 59 of a maximum 60 points Sunday.

Click here for NASCAR Cup points

 

Martin Truex Jr. has commanding performance in Stage 2 win at Fontana

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Martin Truex Jr. has taken over as the most dominating driver in today’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

After pole-sitter Kyle Larson won the first 60-lap stage, Truex won Stage 2. During the session, Truex’s car showed supremacy with nearly a seven-second lead in the closing laps of the stage.

Truex has now won three of the last six stages, having captured both stages two weeks ago en route to his overall race win at Las Vegas.

Larson is in second place, followed by Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski.

There has been just two cautions in the race – both coming in Stage 1.

We now move to the final stage, an 80-lap shootout to determine the race winner.

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