Chase for playoff points looms larger with five races left in regular season

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As Kyle Busch and his team found so many ways to lose races, it wasn’t the lack of victories that proved worrisome but the loss of playoff points.

“It was a huge concern,’’ crew chief Adam Stevens said.

It’s not a stretch to believe Busch could have eight victories at this moment, giving him at least 40 playoff points and a path through part of the playoffs — if not all the way to the championship race in Miami.

Instead, he scored his first Cup win of the year Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He has 13 playoff points, trailing Martin Truex Jr. (29 playoff points) and Jimmie Johnson (16).

All those lost opportunities for Busch could impact the playoffs. Each stage victory is worth one playoff point. Each race win is worth five playoff points. Those points carry through the first three rounds as long as the driver remains in contention for the championship.

“I don’t think any of us truly understand how important (playoff points) are,’’ seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said.

They’ll begin to find out when the playoffs open Sept. 17 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Stage racing and playoff points have created extra layers in the races this season. Those changes have forced crew chiefs to plot differing strategies and drivers to be more aggressive. It was evident at Pocono. 

Martin Truex Jr. pitted from the lead Sunday shortly before the end of the second stage. He and crew chief Cole Pearn were going for the race win instead of the stage victory. Many followed. Clint Bowyer stayed out to win the stage and collect the one playoff point and 10 bonus points. Bowyer, who is not in a playoff spot, needs all those bonus points.

While teams created models on what it might take to advance in the playoffs, no one knows for sure. It’s reminiscence of 2004 when NASCAR changed the way the championship was decided by implementing the 10-race Chase instead of having the title determined over the entire season. There were many theories of how to run the final 10 races but no one knew what strategy would work.

Drivers and teams that have lost races worry how their missed opportunities this season might impact their title hopes.

Brad Keselowski was the leader for the final restart at Indianapolis last month. He lost the race — and five playoff points — to Kasey Kahne. Could those points be the difference in Keselowski advancing another round in the playoffs?

He rues missed chances for more playoff points this season.

“I wouldn’t say that it was just Indy that I felt that way,’’ Keselowski said. “I felt that way at Richmond and Vegas where we finished second, had a shot of winning, were leading and it fell apart at the end.

“There’s other races where we won. Atlanta, Kevin (Harvick) was probably the best car there. Sometimes you win when you shouldn’t have and sometimes you don’t win where you probably should have. You hope to be on the better side of that. Steal more than you have stolen. Never feels like you are. That’s the bigger picture look that I have at.’’

Another key will be the bonus points the top 10 teams in points receive after the regular season ends next month. Barring a collapse or severe penalty, Truex is on pace to win the regular-season title and collect 15 playoff points. He has 29 playoff points and the regular-season title bonus would put him at 44 — and five races remain for him to score more playoff points.

To put those 44 points into context, when the playoffs start, every driver contending for the title will have their point total reset to 2,000 and have their playoff points added. It’s possible that Truex will lead some drivers by more than 40 points before the opening round begins.

That likely will help him advance to the second round (if he doesn’t win a race in the first round). He would then carry all those bonus points with him after the point totals are reset to 3,000 for the remaining title contenders. Truex still could have a big enough cushion over some title hopefuls that he could advance to the third round even if he struggles some in those three races.

While Truex appears to be in a good spot, these next five races could be critical to Kyle Larson.

He was leading the points after Daytona last month but a 35-point penalty and four finishes outside the top 25 in the last six races has dropped him to second in the season standings with Harvick and Busch closing. Should both pass Larson and he finishes the regular season fourth, he will have lost eight playoff points by fading from first (15 playoff points) to fourth (seven).

Those eight points could be significant in the playoffs.

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Weekend schedule for Kentucky Speedway

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NASCAR heads to the Bluegrass State this week for four days of racing at Kentucky Speedway.

All three national series will be in action, plus the ARCA Menards Series, for five races. The Xfinity Series will hold two races for its second doubleheader of the season.

According to wunderground.com, the forecast for the start of each race is:

Thursday Xfinity race: Partly cloudy, 86 degrees and a 20% chance of rain.

Friday Xfinity race: Scattered thunderstorms, 80 degrees and 37% chance of rain.

Saturday Truck Series race: Partly cloudy, 86 degrees and 0% chance of rain.

Sunday Cup race: Scattered thunderstorms, 84 degrees, 40% chance of rain.

Here is the full weekend schedule for Kentucky Speedway.

(All times are Eastern)

Wednesday, July 8

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity rookie meeting (electronic communication)

5 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

5:30 – 7:30 p.m. – Driver motorhome parking (screening in progress)

Thursday, July 9

11 a.m. – 1 p.m. – Xfinity haulers enter (screening in progress)

1 – 10:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

6 – 7:30 p.m. – Xfinity engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

7:50 p.m. – Xfinity drivers report to cars

8 p.m. – Xfinity race No. 1; 134 laps/201 miles (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Friday, July 10

10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. – Xfinity garage access (screening in progress)

Noon – ARCA driver/crew chief/spotter meeting (electronic communication)

12:30 p.m. – ARCA rookie meeting (teleconference)

1 p.m. – ARCA crew chief meeting (teleconference)

4 – 5 p.m. – ARCA haulers enter (screening in progress)

5 – 5:30 p.m. – Truck Series rookie meeting (teleconference)

5:30 p.m. – Trucks driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

6 – 7:30 p.m. – Xfinity engine prime and final adjustments (pit road)

7:50 – Xfinity drivers report to cars

8 p.m. – Xfinity race No. 2; 200 laps/300 miles (FS1, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday, July 11

7 a.m. – 2 p.m. – ARCA garage access (screening in progress)

8 – 10 a.m. – Truck series haulers enter (screening and equipment unload)

10 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Truck garage access (screening in progress)

Noon – 1 p.m. – ARCA practice

2:20 p.m. – ARCA drivers report to cars

2:30 p.m. – ARCA race; 100 laps/150 miles (FS1)

4 – 5:30 p.m. – Trucks engine prime and final adjustments (garage area)

4:40 – 5:30 p.m. – ARCA haulers exit

5 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting (electronic communication)

5:30 p.m. – Cup rookie meeting (electronic communication)

5:50 p.m. – Truck drivers report to vehicles

6 p.m. – Truck race; 150 laps/225 miles (FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 – 8:30 p.m. – Cup haulers enter (screening and equipment unload)

8:30 p.m. – Truck haulers exit

Sunday, July 12

7:30 a.m. – 2 p.m. – Cup garage access (screening in progress)

12:30 – 2 p.m. – Engine prime and final adjustments on pit road

2:20 p.m. – Cup drivers report to cars

2:30 p.m. – Quaker State 400; 267 laps/400.5 miles (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

6:30 p.m. – Cup haulers exit

Thursday night’s Xfinity race at Kentucky: Start time, forecast and more

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A stretch of five races in four days at Kentucky Speedway begins Thursday night with the first of two Xfinity Series races.

It will mark the second doubleheader of the year for the Xfinity Series.

Can Chase Briscoe keep up a winning pace that’s seen him win three times in the last four races (and five overall thus far in the season’s first 13 races)?

Here’s all the info you need for Thursday night’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be at 8:13 p.m by Shady Rays CEO Chris Ratterman. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 8:24 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 1 p.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments are at 6 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 8:05 p.m by Jason Romano. The national anthem will be performed at 8:06 p.m. by Matthew Grant.

DISTANCE: The race is 134 laps (201 miles) around the 1.5-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 30. Stage 2 ends on Lap 60.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Its coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s coverage will begin at 7:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies, a high of 86 degrees and a 24% chance of rain predicted at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Chase Briscoe defeated Justin Haley and Noah Gragson to win on the Indianapolis road course.

LAST RACE AT KENTUCKY: Cole Custer beat Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for lineup

Starting lineup for Saturday’s Truck Series race at Kentucky

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Brett Moffitt will start from the pole for Saturday’s NASCAR Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Kentucky Speedway (6 p.m. ET on FS1) thanks to a random draw.

He will be joined on the front row by Zane Smith. In fact, the first three drivers are all from GMS Racing: Moffitt, Smith and Tyler Ankrum, who will start third.

Rounding out the top five are Christian Eckes and Austin Hill.

Click here for the starting lineup 

NASCAR Truck Series at Kentucky

Race Time: 6 p.m. ET Saturday

Track: Kentucky Speedway; Sparta, Kentucky (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 150 laps, 225 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 35. Stage 2 ends on Lap 70.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Motor Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); mrn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Cup race: Sunday at Kentucky (267 laps, 400.5 miles), 2:30 p.m. ET on Fox

Next Xfinity race: Thursday at Kentucky (134 laps, 201 miles), 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky

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Two-time winner Kyle Busch will start from the pole for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1) thanks to a random draw.

He will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The top five is completed by Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman.

Click here for the starting lineup

NASCAR Cup Series at Kentucky

Race Time: 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Kentucky Speedway; Sparta, Kentucky (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 267 laps, 400.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Thursday at Kentucky (134 laps, 201 miles), 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck race: Saturday at Kentucky (150 laps, 225 miles) 6 p.m. ET on FS1

Follow @JerryBonkowski