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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Aric Almirola leaves New Hampshire frustrated after third-place finish

Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images
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LOUDON, N.H. — Aric Almirola’s first top-five finish of the season was greeted a forced smile.

After leading 42 laps and feeling he “had the best car hands down,” a slow pit stop and a poor restart prevented Almirola from ending his 138-race winless streak Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Instead, he had to settle for a third-place finish

“You would think I’d be really excited to run top five and I’m not,” Almirola said. “We had the best car hands-down. There’s no doubt in my mind. We gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart. I spun the tires on the restart and didn’t even give myself a fighting chance, so I’m just really frustrated.”

It continues Almirola’s season of near misses.

He was about a mile from winning the Daytona 500 when a bump from Austin Dillon sent him into the wall.

Last month at Chicagoland Speedway, Almirola was fast, leading 70 laps but two loose wheels doomed him to a 25th-place finish.

Sunday, Almirola was leading with less than 45 laps to go. A caution on Lap 258 brought the field to pit road and Almirola lost the lead. He exited pit road third.

“It’s just frustrating,” Almirola said. “They say you’ve got to lose some before you win some and I feel like we’ve lost some now and it’s time to stop it and go to Victory Lane.”

On the restart, Almirola spun his tires and was seventh before he got back around the track, losing four spots.

“Kyle (Busch) just went a lot sooner in the restart zone than I anticipated,” Almirola said. “I was trying to roll up to the restart zone. When he took off, I kind of pushed the throttle down and spun the tires and didn’t get a good start.”

What drivers said after New Hampshire

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Kevin Harvick — Winner: “I just didn’t know if I was gonna get there at the end and I felt like that was my best opportunity to do what I had to do to win. I didn’t want to wreck him, but I didn’t want to waste a bunch of time behind him. I just got to thank everybody on this No. 4.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 2nd: “You know, it’s racing. We had a really, really poor performance today. Our Interstate Batteries Camry just wasn’t there – it wasn’t there all weekend. We kept fighting the same things all weekend long and we never make any gains on it all through practice and we kind of struggled with it through the race and Adam (Stevens, crew chief) made some really, really good calls – some really good adjustments to just try to keep improving on it. My pit crew was flawless. They gained us all those spots on pit road to get us out front to get us in that position – to have a shot to go after the win – and, you know, we controlled the restart and drove away by a little bit, but we weren’t the best car on the long run. All them SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars were really, really good today. They were all fast, so it was going to be hard to hold them off and I was just kind of backing up and, you know, three, four, five corners in a row and with a faster car, I’m not sure he (Kevin Harvick) had to do it, but he did. It’s fine. How you race is how you get raced, so it’s fine.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 3rd: “You’d think I’d be more excited to run top five – and I’m not. We had the best car, hands down. There’s no doubt in my mind. And we gave it away on pit road and then I gave it away again on the restart – spun the tires. Didn’t even give myself a fighting chance.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 4th: “We were fast early. Just VHT wore off and I was no good anymore. A couple guys – specifically the SHR (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars – man, they got rolling there about midway through the race and we just pretty much crapped, so couldn’t ever fix it and we had one set of tires that was funny and on that one run there it was wheel hoping real bad, I just – I couldn’t hang onto it, so we lost some spots there, but pit crew kept us in the game. We had a good stop there at the end that gave us a shot. We just didn’t have the speed there after a few laps. We tried hard, but we just can’t quite figure out the second half of this thing, but when we do we’re going to be in good shape.

Chase Elliott — Finished 5th: “I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good. Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing. I’m proud of the effort. I appreciate everybody’s effort back at Hendrick and the chassis shop and engine shop and Chevrolet and all the folks that are working hard to try to get better. We took a step in the right direction.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 6th: “Yeah, it was a good rebound from yesterday. The entire weekend they definitely stepped it up. It was a good run for our Chevy Accessories Chevy Camaro. The guys did a good job in the pits today, that was nice to see, we have been struggling a little bit there. Just proud of everybody. Not the end result that we want, but a huge improvement and that is something we want. We will keep digging.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “It was a challenging day for our Menards/Sylvania Ford Fusion team. We had good speed early, but needed to make sure adjustments to have a chance at the win. We had two things not go our way on pit road, but we fought back for a solid finish.”

Joey Logano — Finished 9th: “We struggled today. We had okay fire-off speed but overall, our Shell-Pennzoil Ford just fell off too early in the run. I fought loose most of the day with a car tucked in behind me on corner entry and at times it was too tight in the center. We got a couple of stage points and a top-10 finish, but we need to get faster now that we’re closing in on the playoffs.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 10th: “I think top 10 is where we need to be. Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Alex Bowman — Finished 11th: “We really struggled. We were 10 out of 10 plowing tight, had the track bar maxed out all the way up, all the rear brake I could stand and doing everything I could to try to get the thing to turn, it just wasn’t going to turn. Hate it. I hate that we unloaded with so much speed and just kind of I guess didn’t go the right way or the track changed on us, but really proud of Greg (Ives, crew chief) and everybody for getting the car better there at the end. Had a good restart there and almost got a top 10. It could have been a lot worse.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 13th: “No doubt. Yeah, I mean, there’s several different approaches, several different things I tried to do inside the car to get the front to turn. Just would not turn. Does it for a couple laps in open track, but once I get in traffic it just plows through the front – touch the gas and it plows through. I can’t keep it one lane, so it’s a struggle with balance. I think our cars have speed, we just have to get our – do the best to get our setup on there that we can be aggressive with.”

William Byron — Finished 14th: “Yeah, I mean it was okay. I thought at the beginning of the race we kind of just got really loose in (to turns) which made it really hard for us to hold position. And then I felt like once we got that back out of it we just had that one weak run and once we got that back out of it we were pretty good again. Just kind of missed it that one run and hard to make up track position after that.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 21st: “The Dow Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 was loose on entry to start the race, but a pit stop for four tires, fuel and adjustments definitely improved the car’s handling. We kept up with changing track conditions through adjustments in the pits throughout the race, and ended up with a pretty good handling Camaro ZL1. We were posting top-10 lap times during most of the race and running in eighth when we ended up with a loose wheel and had to make an unscheduled pit stop under green flag conditions. It cost us the lead lap. It’s a shame because we had a rocket ship but couldn’t do anything with it. I’m proud of the guys for building a really fast car. We are on the right track.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 23rd: “This GEICO Camaro ZL1 was incredibly fast today. It was one of the best pieces that we have brought to the racetrack all year. I hate that my restart violation at the start of Stage 2 put us behind. My crew chief made every strategy call that he could to keep us in the game and get laps back, but we never could get back ahead. I have no doubt that this was a top 10 car, and I’m disappointed that we couldn’t show everyone that. But, we’re still only halfway through the season with a lot of racing left. We can’t and won’t let ourselves get down. We will put one of these races together from start to finish here soon.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 32nd: “We had a disappointing day for sure. I don’t know if I used too much brake trying to keep up or what. We’ll go on to Pocono and try to get a win there next week.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 35th: “It just sucks. First and foremost, I hate that for my teammate. It was his first win and he was dominating the race. I was trying to nurse it around. Something in the left-rear was broke and no more than Brett (Griffin, spotter) told me, ‘we’re having trouble, let’s just get off the track,’ and I was kind of thinking the same thing. Literally, as he was saying that and I’m thinking it, something broke on the right side and away it went. That sucks. I hate it for him.”

AJ Allmendinger — Finished 36th: “I think Ryan Newman got into the side of me pretty early at the start of the race. I was kind of nervous about it there was no smoke in the car though, so I thought we were okay. And then we went back green and, on the restart, it just felt like the car was moving around a lot and down the front straightaway I felt it go. I tried everything I could do to slow the car down to get it stopped, but there was nothing I could do. Usually when you hit here you hit big and just disappointed. We have had a rough few weeks. Obviously, Daytona was okay, but other than that is has been a rough few weeks.”

Chase Elliott ‘shocked’ with New Hampshire top five

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After the end of a long, wet day, Chase Elliott was “shocked” with how he fared in Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver placed fifth, earning his first top five and top 10 on the 1.058-mile track in five starts.

That was after Elliott claimed his first stage win of the season, winning Stage 2 over Kurt Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Elliott, who started 10th and finished Stage 1 in second, led a season-high 23 laps after passing Truex for the lead on Lap 132.

In the previous 19 races Elliott had led only 19 laps.

“I was shocked, to be honest with you, that we ran even that good,” Elliott said. “Our whole NAPA group did a great job overnight. I really have no idea where that came from. I hope it wasn’t dumb luck. Hopefully we can keep it rolling because it’s really nice to be able to go up there and lead some laps. I know it wasn’t the right part of the race, but still, leading laps for us is big compared to what we’ve been doing.”

The top five is the first for Hendrick Motorsports since Elliott placed fourth at Sonoma Raceway four races ago. Before that, Jimmie Johnson had the most recent top five in the Coke 600 in May.

“I’m proud of the effort,” Elliott said. “It was a huge points day for us. Obviously, we’d love that win to not have to worry about it. But, we got 19 points between the two stages, that’s 19 positions on-track, and that’s a lot. Anything can happen in these next few weeks and to have all you can get is really important.”

Through 20 races Elliott has five top fives and nine top 10s.

Elliott leaves New Hampshire 13th in standings, two points behind Johnson.

Johnson ran in the top five late in the first stage after he, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth did not pit during the competition caution that waved on Lap 35 (since they had stopped earlier).

Johnson placed third in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2 before finishing in 10th. It’s his first top 10 in six races and the first time Hendrick has had two drivers in the top 10 since Sonoma.

“I think top 10 is where we need to be,” Johnson said. “Top five right now on sheer speed is something we are achieving and trying to get to. We scored some great points in the stages. … All-in-all we had a good day, always could be better, but a nice solid step forward.”

Kyle Busch on contact from Kevin Harvick: ‘How you race is how you get raced’

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LOUDON, N.H. — Kevin Harvick didn’t want to wait. Kyle Busch won’t forget.

Harvick’s bump-and-run of Busch with seven laps left Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway spiced what has the potential to be quite a duel between the two the rest of the season.

“How you race is how you get raced,” Busch said after his runner-up finish to Harvick.

Busch said he felt Harvick didn’t need to be as physical when he was.

“He did that because of Chicago,” Busch said, alluding to the beating and banging Busch and Kyle Larson had on the last lap of that race. “Everybody has fair game on Kyle Busch that’s for sure when it comes to the fanbase. That’s fine. That’s how they want to race, that’s how I’ll race back.

“It’s just a bump. He didn’t wreck me or anything like that. He did it early enough, but he did it way harder and pushed me out of the groove three lanes and it just takes you so long to recover here that there was no possible way I could get back to him and I was slower anyways so I was in the way. So no harm no foul.”

But Busch won’t forget.

“When you’re slower, you kind of expect that but you also think that you a guy is going to race you fair and clean first,” Busch said. “I don’t think he ever tried to pass me clean once he got there. He just kept hitting me in the rear bumper each and every time it was getting increasingly harder.”

Harvick never intended to wait so long.

“I figured that’s exactly what he was thinking,” he said of Busch. “I knew I needed to take the opportunity as early as I could get it because I knew that he was thinking late and needed to do it when he wasn’t expecting it.

“The more opportunities to get into his wheelhouse, in his thought process, the less chance that you have. He’s that good. If you wait until two or three to go, the entries are going to get shallower, he’s going to start grinding on the brakes a little bit harder. He’s going to put himself in a position to not get hit and he’s going to go on defense and really start to be aggressive. I wanted to do it earlier just to try to catch him off guard.”

Is he worried about how Busch could race him the rest of the regular season and the playoffs?

“You do and you worry about that stuff later,” Harvick said. “It’s not like I wrecked him. It’s the same thing as Chicago.”

Harvick said one has to do all they can to win races, especially against another playoff foe. The victory allowed Harvick to gain five playoff points and kept Busch from collecting those.

“These races are hard to win,” Harvick said. “When you’re in position, it’s one of those things that you have to do what you have to do for your team. You want to do everything you can to not spin him out and not wreck him and just make it as clean as possible and try to accomplish the bump and run. Today we were able to accomplish it well and win the race.”

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