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.
Another note about the importance of stage points for Larson. In the unlikely scenario that he hadn’t earned stage points in the first five races (meaning a finish of 11th or worse in both stages in each of the season’s first five races) while everyone else has scored the same number of stage points, he would be ranked fifth in the standings heading into Martinsville.
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:
- Kyle Larson (70)
- Chase Elliott (63)
- Brad Keselowski (58)
- Martin Truex Jr. (53)
- Kevin Harvick (40)
- Joey Logano (38)
- Kyle Busch (36)
- Jamie McMurray (35)
- Ryan Blaney (31)
- Ryan Newman (19)
- Jimmie Johnson (18)
- Erik Jones (16)
- Clint Bowyer (14)
- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12)
- Denny Hamlin (11)
- Kurt Busch (8)
- Danica Patrick (7)
- Austin Dillon (5)
- A.J. Allmendinger (5)
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (4)
- Matt Kenseth (2)
- Trevor Bayne (1)
Dustin Long contributed to this story.