Sonoma was matter of points for some teams

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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.

Jimmie Johnson entered Sonoma 13th in the playoff standings and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott was 14th.

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 fourth in the points after Sonoma. He has an eight-point lead on Martin Truex Jr., a 10-point lead on Clint Bowyer and a 30-point lead on Kurt Busch.

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.

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NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

 

Xfinity Series playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Chase Briscoe opened the Xfinity Series playoffs by earning his second consecutive win.

His victory Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him 57 playoff points and an automatic spot in the Round of 8.

Harrison Burton holds the final transfer spot. He has a two-point advantage over Ross Chastain.

Behind Chastain below the cutline are Michael Annett (-10 points), Riley Herbst (-14) and Brandon Brown (-20).

Below is the full Xfinity Series playoff standings going into Saturday’s race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance. Drivers in yellow are in the remaining playoff spots.

Xfinity Series playoff standings

Cup playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Kurt Busch flipped the script on the Cup playoff standings with his win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He entered the Round of 12 as the last driver in the playoff standings, but is the first driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 8.

Replacing Busch in the bottom spot of the playoff standings is Austin Dillon. He is 32 points behind Alex Bowman, who holds the final cutoff spot.

Behind Bowman is Kyle Busch (-9 points), Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Dillon.

“Obviously, the 1 car (Kurt Busch) was not a car that we needed to win a race,” Clint Bowyer said after Sunday’s race. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. (Kurt Busch) winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out.”

Here is the full playoff standings entering Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8. Drivers in yellow hold the remaining available playoff spots.

Cup playoff standings