Sunday’s race showed the different strategies teams are employing in a season that could see possibly half the 16-team playoff field qualify on points instead of a victory.
Martin Truex Jr.’s triumph at Sonoma Raceway kept the winner’s list at six this season. That’s the fewest number of winners this late in a season since 1978.
With 10 races left in the regular season, 10 playoff spots remain. Since the playoff format debuted in 2014, no more than five drivers qualified for the postseason by points.
For a few drivers toward the bottom of the playoff standings, Sunday’s race was a chance to grab stage points.
They are both in a tenuous position should there be a couple more new winners this season.
Hendrick’s struggles have been well chronicled this season and those issues have left those teams with a dearth of stage points. Johnson had 52 stage points entering Sonoma and Elliott had 46.
Johnson and Elliott both stayed on track Sunday while others pitted just before the end of the first and second stage. The result was a bounty of stage points for both.
Johnson finished third in both stages and scored 16 points. He made his biggest gain in the second stage. He was ninth with four laps left in the second stage and stayed out as five cars in front of him pitted. He gained an extra spot with a pass.
The 16 stage points are the most Johnson has scored in a race since last year’s Coca-Cola 600, a span of 40 races.
Johnson finished 11th at Sonoma and scored 42 points — more than every driver but one.
The only other driver to score more points than Johnson was Elliott. He scored 49 points, buoyed by the 16 stage points he collected.
Elliott earned those points by finishing fourth in the opening stage and runner-up in the second stage.
“We elected to get some stage points and that set us back a little for that last stage, but I don’t think we had the pace that the leaders had,” Elliott said after finishing fourth at Sonoma, his best finish there. “So, it was a good finish for me, and we’re looking forward to the next road race.”
Elliott’s biggest gain was in the second stage. He was seventh with four laps to go and by not pitting finished second to Denny Hamlin in that stage.
The 16 stage points scored by Elliott were the most he’s scored in a race since last fall’s Charlotte race, a span of 22 events.
Johnson and Elliott remain 13th and 14th in the playoff standings but they pulled further ahead of those behind them. Erik Jones remains 15th in the playoff standings. He scored no stage points and finished seventh but earned only 30 points and fell further behind Johnson and Elliott in the standings.
But it wasn’t just Johnson and Elliott who took advantage of the stage points.
Brad Keselowski did not pit before the end of the first two stages and collected 16 stage points.
Keselowski’s chase for stage points is important in the race for playoff points at the end of the regular season. The regular-season champion gets 15 playoff points, second gets 10 playoff points, third gets eight playoff points on down to one playoff point for the driver who finishes 10th in the standings at the end of the regular season (Indianapolis on Sept. 9).
Keselowski is ahead of each of them because he has more stage points (176). Truex has 113 stage points, Bowyer and Busch have 121 stage points each.
While that might not seem like a big deal, Keselowski is in position to gain seven playoff points if he finished fourth in the standings. Busch, who is seventh, would have four playoff points if the season ended today. One never knows how a single point could play a role in who advances or not in a round.