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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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Driver-to-Driver with Jimmie Johnson: ‘I’ve got a lot to prove still’

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Jimmie Johnson is in his 17th year of full-time Cup racing and is in the midst the longest winless streak of his career at 42 races.

But the seven-time champion’s competitive drive is as strong as ever.

Johnson sat down with NBC Sports’ Dale Jarrett to discuss his career at this point in the latest edition of Driver-to-Driver.

“I can honestly say I spend more time now than I did my rookie year focusing on my job,” Johnson said. “I think that the support I have from my wife (Chandra), my kids are 7 and 4, to have them watch me be passionate about something has another meaning I didn’t anticipate coming. I’m lovin’ what I’m doing. I wish the results were a little better than what we have right now, but the process of what I’m going through is really fun.”

Hendrick Motorsports as a whole is in a slump. The team is in the middle of the second longest winless streak in its history at 35 races.

Johnson admits it’s hard to know when the right time will be for him to retire.

“The thing I can pull out of it is, don’t pick a number, make sure that fire’s gone out and that fire hasn’t gone out,” Johnson said. “The other thing that’s weighing on me, I don’t want to go out not at my fullest potential and not on my terms. The last thought that’s going to run through my mind is to walk away or, ‘Oh, it’s not going right, time to stop.’ Uh uh. I know I still got it. I’m going to go down swinging. I’ve got a lot to prove still.”

Watch the above video for more.

 

New Hampshire Cup race in rain delay

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The Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway is in a rain delay.

The race was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. ET. The start time had been moved up from 2 p.m. ET due to the threat of weather.

Kurt Busch is on the pole and Martin Truex Jr. will start second.

Check back for more.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at New Hampshire

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver rediscovers his magic here and locks into the playoffs.

Dustin Long

Martin Truex Jr. wins back-to-back races for the first time in his career.

Daniel McFadin

Kevin Harvick earns a career-best sixth win of the season.

Dan Beaver

Martin Truex Jr. is getting into the same groove he had last year. This week he catches Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. Next week, he starts to pull away,

Today’s Cup race at New Hampshire: Start time, lineup and more

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The Cup Series holds its only race of the year at New Hampshire Motor Speedway today with the Foxwoods Resort & Casino 301.

Kurt Busch starts on the pole and Martin Truex Jr. starts second.

Here’s all the info you need for today’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Jean Swift, treasurer of Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Counsel, at 12:51 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 1 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is scheduled for 301 laps (318.46 miles) around the 1.058-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 75. Stage 2 ends on Lap 150.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 35

PRERACE SCHEDULE: Garage opens at 7:30 a.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 11 a.m. Driver introductions are at 12:05 p.m.

NATIONAL ANTHEM: Vanessa Salvucci will perform the anthem at 12:45 p.m. The Canadian National Anthem will be performed by Kirk Young at 12:42 p.m.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will broadcast the race beginning at 1 p.m. Coverage begins at noon with Countdown to Green on NBCSN. Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at noon p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for a high of 70 degrees and a 78 percent chance of rain and storms at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Denny Hamlin won this race last year over Kyle Larson. Kyle Busch won the playoff race over Larson.

TO THE REAR: Landon Cassill (backup) and Michael McDowell (backup).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the complete starting lineup.