Cup drivers in uncharted territory – stage racing on a road course

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For the most part, stage racing has brought added excitement and different forms of strategy to NASCAR Cup competition in the first 15 races of the season.

But how stage racing will impact Sunday’s road course race at Sonoma Raceway remains a mystery that won’t be answered until the checkered flag falls in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

First of all, the first stage ends on Lap 25 and the second stage ends on Lap 50 of the 110-lap race.

How those stages change the pit stop strategies devised by crew chiefs can range from little impact to radical changes.

While much of the strategy onus will fall upon crew chiefs, Cup drivers are also concerned how much stage racing will impact their race. Here’s what some of them are thinking about:

Sonoma polesitter, Cup points leader and Michigan winner Kyle Larson: “Yeah, I think stage racing or the stages will play into effect. I still haven’t talked to my engineers about it. We will have a pre-race meeting (Sunday) and kind of go over what their race plan is, as far as how many stops we are going to do and stuff like that. I don’t know yet, how it will affect it, but I’m sure it will be interesting.

“I don’t think it would turn into a four-stop race, but possibly a three-stop race rather than typically being a two-stop race, but I don’t know. I would have to talk to the engineers, they are smart. I just pit when they tell me to pit.”

Outside pole sitter Jamie McMurray: “The fact that we have a good starting spot at the beginning is going to be big. The stages are going to be interesting to see how that affects the race or if it does. But, yeah, got a good car and just ready for (Sunday).”

Denny Hamlin: “With the stages and everything that goes into play, the field’s going to be flip-flopped all day long and we just hope to be on the right end of it at the right time.”

Brad Keselowski: “The stages are going to throw these races … the road course and tracks like Pocono where you can pit and not lose a lap. … it throws these races a complete curve ball. I think you’ll see that here.”

Martin Truex Jr.: I feel like if you win the first stage, you’re probably not going to have a chance to win the race at the end. I think you’re going to see a lot of guys pit before the first stage is over. … I don’t play strategy, I don’t do strategy, I’ll leave that up to Cole (Pearn, crew chief), and hopefully he’ll figure it out. But it’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s going to be a lot more difficult, I think, to call this race than it has in years past. In the last few years we’ve seen tires play such a big role in winning this race that I think it’s been since about 2013 since this was won on two stops, or maybe actually 2012. So it’s been a long time since anyone done it on a one‑ or two‑stop strategy, and tires are going to be a big deal. So I think everybody stopped a least four times last year, and we’ll see what this year brings.”

Clint Bowyer: “It will certainly change a lot about this track. Who knows? That (stage racing) has been such a big thing and a good thing I guess for our sport. If there ever was an exception to that rule you hope it is not here. You make those rules to try to ramp up the competition everywhere across the board and sometimes there are race tracks that maybe didn’t need it. This is one of those places where you didn’t need anything but obviously you have to make rules to be good for everywhere. … I think the strategy side will kind of go by the wayside and you will have to push as hard as you can. We have been pretty easy on our equipment over the years by being able to pace ourselves, save fuel, not just dive-bomb every single corner of every lap. You might see some attrition show up because of it. And you will see desperation show up at the end.”

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

 

Xfinity Series playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Chase Briscoe opened the Xfinity Series playoffs by earning his second consecutive win.

His victory Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him 57 playoff points and an automatic spot in the Round of 8.

Harrison Burton holds the final transfer spot. He has a two-point advantage over Ross Chastain.

Behind Chastain below the cutline are Michael Annett (-10 points), Riley Herbst (-14) and Brandon Brown (-20).

Below is the full Xfinity Series playoff standings going into Saturday’s race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance. Drivers in yellow are in the remaining playoff spots.

Xfinity Series playoff standings

Cup playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Kurt Busch flipped the script on the Cup playoff standings with his win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He entered the Round of 12 as the last driver in the playoff standings, but is the first driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 8.

Replacing Busch in the bottom spot of the playoff standings is Austin Dillon. He is 32 points behind Alex Bowman, who holds the final cutoff spot.

Behind Bowman is Kyle Busch (-9 points), Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Dillon.

“Obviously, the 1 car (Kurt Busch) was not a car that we needed to win a race,” Clint Bowyer said after Sunday’s race. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. (Kurt Busch) winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out.”

Here is the full playoff standings entering Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8. Drivers in yellow hold the remaining available playoff spots.

Cup playoff standings