Friday 5: How a few laps in March could impact the playoff race

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In a season that stretches from February to November, covers more than 13,000 miles and competes in 20 states, it often can be the moments easily overlooked that prove to be among the most important.

The race for points is becoming increasingly critical with only six winners — the fewest this deep into a season since 1996. If Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer continue to win (they’ve combined to win 13 of the first 15 races), that would mean several of the 16 playoff spots would be set by points.

If so, even the smallest moments could determine who makes the playoffs or how many playoff points, if any, a driver scores for finishing in the top 10 in the regular season, which ends Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott enters this off-weekend 14th in the playoff standings. He has a 31-point lead on what would be the final playoff position, held by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

Even with the dominance of Harvick, Busch, Truex and Bowyer, it seems likely there will be at least two different winners before the postseason, meaning Elliott will need to climb higher in the points — if he’s not one of those winners — to secure a playoff spot.

Recall that he’s already lost 45 points this season because of penalties at Phoenix and Texas this season.

Then look back at the middle of that Phoenix race in March.

Elliott was fourth and in position to score seven points in the second stage until a late caution. He scored none.

Things changed for Elliott when Chris Buescher hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 147. The second stage ended at Lap 150. NASCAR cleared the track in time to run one green-flag lap before the stage ended.

Elliott pitted during that caution with many of the leaders, who were focused on positioning themselves to win the race instead of scoring stage points.

Six cars did not pit. That included Kurt Busch, who was behind Elliott in fifth, and Brad Keselowski, who was sixth.

Elliott restarted outside the top 10 and didn’t make it up there for the end of the stage. So seven points he looked to be in position to gain were gone. Elliott went on to finish third in the race.

Busch won that stage to earn a playoff point but would finish 10th in the race. Keselowski went on to finish 15th after finishing second in that stage.

One who gained points at Phoenix was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He is four points out of what would be the final playoff spot at this moment.

Stenhouse was running 20th before the caution for Buescher’s incident. Stenhouse did not pit and lined up third for the one-lap run to end the stage. He finished third, gaining eight points that he wouldn’t have scored had Buescher’s accident not happened.

It can be simple decisions — pit or not — that can play a big factor in how the season goes for some teams. Lose too many points and one could miss the playoffs. Steal points and that could help a team be eligible for a run to the championship.

That’s why the end of the second stage at Michigan was critical for drivers such as Elliott and Stenhouse, who do not have a win and are battling for a playoff spot.

Had a winless driver remained on track through the caution — Kasey Kahne stayed out but then pitted the lap before the restart when it appeared that rain wouldn’t be arriving soon — then such a driver could have taken a playoff spot. It would have meant one less playoff spot based on points.

That Bowyer, who was already set in the playoffs with his Martinsville win, triumphed at Michigan allowed those racing for a playoff spot to breathe easier.

But with two road courses to go (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), a restrictor-plate race (Daytona) and possibly two races with the All-Star Race rules package (likely Michigan and Indianapolis) left in the regular season, there’s the chance that there could be some different winners taking playoff spots.

That would make the race for points even tighter and every decision more important.

2. Grassroots racing

With the Cup Series off this weekend, some drivers are taking the chance to race at local tracks.

Kyle Busch finished third to Brian Campbell in the Money in the Bank Super Late Model race Monday at Berlin (Michigan) Raceway.

Kyle Larson is set to run in six days of the nine-day Ohio Sprint Speedweek with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, the series owned by Tony Stewart.

Kasey Kahne also is scheduled to run a few of the Ohio Sprint Speedweek races.

Ohio Sprint Speedweek begins tonight at Attica Raceway Park. Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, hosts the second night of the series on Saturday. The series then goes to Waynesfield Raceway on Sunday night before continuing the following week.

3. A new winner?

The Xfinity Series has had 12 different winners in the first 13 races heading into Sunday’s event at Iowa Speedway.

This weekend’s race will have three drivers who have won this year — Tyler Reddick at Daytona, Christopher Bell at Richmond and Justin Allgaier at Dover.

Ryan Preece, who won at Bristol, is not entered. Spencer Gallagher, who won at Talladega, remains under indefinite suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy. The other winners in the series are full-time Cup drivers.

The odds are in favor or another new winner this weekend in the Xfinity Series.

Points leader Elliott Sadler seeks to snap a 52-race winless streak, dating back to Kentucky in September 2016. Cole Custer is second in the points, and goes for his first win since last year’s season finale in Miami. Daniel Hemric, who is third in the points, seeks his first career series wins. Sunday will be his 47th Xfinity start.

4. No Cup drivers

Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race and Sunday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway both will not have any Cup drivers entered.

This will be the fifth Xfinity race without a full-time Cup driver in it. Full-time Cup drivers were barred from the fourth Dash 4 Cash races and Iowa will be run with all the Cup drivers taking the weekend off from NASCAR.

5. Last break until …

After this weekend, Cup teams will have only one weekend off the rest of the season. Cup teams will race 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 19, the weekend between Michigan (Aug. 12) and Bristol (Aug. 26). The season ends Nov. 18 in Miami.

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