TALLADEGA, Alabama — With at least five of the remaining seven transfer spots to the next round set by points, drivers are eyeing stage points this weekend at Talladega Superspeeday and how that might carry them closer to a championship run.
Martin Truex Jr. already has clinched a spot to the next round after his win last weekend at Charlotte. Eleven other drivers are contending for the seven remaining spots in the Round of 8.
Stage points already have proved pivotal in the playoffs, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. scored seven points in the first stage at Dover and that was enough to help him advance to this round
That’s led to the question of what Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) might be like and how aggressive drivers will be to gain stage points.
“Stage points are huge,’’ said Ryan Blaney, who enters this weekend five points out of a transfer spot. “It really hurts you when you don’t get any of those points. I think a lot of teams are going to go out there and be pretty aggressive … trying to get some stage points. I know we’re going to have to be that way for sure.
“Last year or years before when you didn’t have stage points, you’d start off the race bad and get better and you’d be pretty happy with an eighth-place finish. Now, you run 25th in the first stage and ninth in the second stage and then finish eighth and you’re like, ‘wow, we really got hurt.’ You have to start off these races so good to try to run up there and collect those points.’’
So what does more aggressive mean?
“Just think there will be more cars in the crash,’’ said Matt Kenseth, who is one point out of the final transfer spot.
The race for points could make the laps near the end of Stage 1 (Lap 55) and the end of Stage 2 (Lap 110) more chaotic.
“The stages are important, but no it’s not worth wrecking yourself getting some stage points,’’ said Chase Elliott, who is fourth in the points entering this weekend. “If you can make it work then great, but ultimately I’d like to still be part of the event when it’s over.”
That’s easy to say but things can change quickly in the pack.
“I think what happens is when one guy starts to get aggressive, the guy around him has to get aggressive to start dealing with that guy,’’ Elliott said. “And then when that happens, the guy in front has to deal with it, and so on. I think that is what happens. If it shows up and that is the kind of race it is going to be, then we will see. I definitely think there is going to be some emphasis on running well in the stages. But I just hope that everybody will want to get to the end as much as they want to have stage finishes, too.’’
Kyle Larson, who is second in the points, said a strong finish in the opening stage could lead to a strategy change for him in the next stage.
“Maybe if we finish … high up there in the first (stage), maybe you can ride in the second one or race even harder, you know you can risk more for the second stage,’’ he said. “It’s a long time from the end of the second stage to the end of the race, you could probably just hang out behind the pack and just ride around and try to get a top 20 and that would be a solid day for my team.’’