Stage racing has made an impact but qualifying remains key to Cup success

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Even with how stages have altered strategy and the racing this year, the importance of qualifying remains evident in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Seven of the top 10 in points entering Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway rank in the top 10 in average starting spot. Points leader Martin Truex Jr. ranks second in average starting spot. Brad Keselowski, who has the best average starting spot (6.679), ranks seventh in the points.

Seven of the 13 races this season were won by a driver who started in the top five.

Qualifying at Pocono is scheduled to begin at 4:15 p.m. ET today.

The past two races have been won by a driver who started outside the top 10. Austin Dillon won the Coca-Cola 600 after starting 22nd. Jimmie Johnson qualified 14th last weekend at Dover but actually started at the rear after the team made a gear change before the race.

Rookie Ty Dillon, who had a strong run going until he was collected in the overtime crash last week at Dover, said qualifying remains a focus for his team.

Qualifying has probably been our toughest challenge all year just making sure we get good track position,’’ said Ty Dillon, whose average starting spot of 22.077 ranks 24th in the series. “We start anywhere from 20th to 28th every week. It’s just not been our strong suit, but we have raced really well. 

“The thing about qualifying is it is raw speed. It’s just a different level when you come to the Cup Series and qualify. It’s harder than anything you ever do.’’ 

Rookie Daniel Suarez, whose average starting spot of 15.846 ranks 16th in the series, says he sees progress with his team in the area.

“Track position is important,’’ Suarez said. “I feel like last week we made some gains. I honestly feel like every weekend we have been getting better and better. We are still a new team, a growing team, and I really feel like every weekend we are getting stronger and stronger and racing in the top 10.’’

Here is a look at how drivers rank based on their average starting spot this season:

(Some drivers, such as Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson, among others, are further down the list because they’ve missed qualifying after failing to get through inspection and started toward the rear, impacting their average.)

6.679 — Brad Keselowski

8.308 — Martin Truex Jr.

8.769 — Kevin Harvick

9.769 — Kyle Busch

9.846 — Jamie McMurray

9.923 — Matt Kenseth

10.000 — Ryan Blaney

10.154 — Chase Elliott

11.154 — Denny Hamlin

11.154 — Joey Logano

11.615 — Kurt Busch

12.308 — Kyle Larson

13.769 — Ryan Newman

13.846 — Clint Bowyer

13.923 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

15.846 — Daniel Suarez

16.000 — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

17.692 — Erik Jones

17.769 — Trevor Bayne

18.692 — Austin Dillon

20.154 — Kasey Kahne

20.385 — Jimmie Johnson

20.538 — Paul Menard

22.077 — Ty Dillon

23.923 — Danica Patrick

24.308 — AJ Allmendinger

25.846 — Michael McDowell

27.308 — Landon Cassill

28.308 — Matt DiBenedetto

28.923 — Chris Buescher

* Aric Almirola, who is out after his injury from a May 13 crash at Kansas Speedway, has an average starting spot of 22.363.

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