What to expect at Talladega? Drivers don’t agree

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — After two days with a new package at Talladega Superspeedway, drivers admit the closing rates between cars is as fast as they’ve ever experienced.

What that means for today’s race remains uncertain. Some drivers suggest that blocking will be tougher, if at all possible. Others say it can still be done.

And some drivers suggest being in the lead might not be the best place to be on the last lap. But not everyone agrees.

Here’s what some drivers say they think will happen today:

Austin Dillon (starting 1st)

How do you keep the lead if it’s dangerous to block?

“I think having people behind you that you can trust is a big key to that. Getting those bowties up front and working together, that will be a big part of it. Blocking is going to be tougher for the ducts in the front, but it’s a part of the game. We’ll just have to test it out early and see what it is. I definitely don’t want to give up that front position, but there are going to be guys – just the front guy seems to be a little bit of a sitting duck. There will be a lot of movement on the track (Sunday), hopefully it’s good movement and not cars going the other way.”

 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (starting 6th)

What do you think about the race?

“I don’t care what the package is. Speedway racing is speedway racing. We are all going to be close together and learn a lot (Sunday). I don’t think anybody learned anything in Friday’s session. We had one session with this package. We will learn throughout the day and make sure we learn as much as we can so that we can do the right thing at the end of the race to put ourselves in position to win.”

 

Ryan Blaney (starting 7th)

What do you expect for the race?

“This package is way different than what we had and I think you will see a way different race that we have seen here the past few years. It is new and exciting and there are going to be a lot of lead changes and comers and goers and you just get massive runs on people. That is pretty neat. It will be exciting for sure.”

 

Joey Logano (starting 8th)

Will there be more respect among the drivers with this new package?

“The runs are bigger and they come really fast and if you throw one of those late blocks, it is going to be chaos, or even if you realize a car is coming at you four or five miles per hour faster, you can’t stop that very well. Before, you could see it coming and everything happens a little slower motion. It will be really fast now. If cars are willing to make late moves, there is going to be a penalty to pay and unfortunately it is going to be cars that had nothing to do with it that get tied up in it. Everyone needs to give each other some room and learn what we can and can’t do early in the race.”

 

Alex Bowman (starting 9th)

“I think you’re not going to see somebody control the race the way they have in the past. The runs are too big to really block the lead the whole time, so I think you’re going to see more lead changes, probably more passing. Everybody is saying their cars aren’t driving so well, my car is driving pretty good so far, I’m really excited. I hope we have a good piece, not really surprised how fast we are. We saw that in the test, and they seem to be ok with it; I don’t know we’ll see where it goes from there.”

Is the leader a sitting duck on the final lap?

“I mean there’s some things you can do to keep guys from getting those big runs and managing your gap. I think that’s going to be more crucial than it’s ever been. The big side-to-side blocks like we saw pulled in the Xfinity race (Saturday) aren’t going to work. You’re going to need to manage that gap more so than you ever had to before.”

 

Kyle Larson (starting 10th)

Are you comfortable with the closing speeds?

“I’m not scared. It all feels fast when you’re out there. When you’re in an Xfinity car going 190 versus a Cup car that’s 200-plus. It’s still superspeedway racing and I think the bigger runs we’ve gotten at least in the little bit of drafting we did (Friday) was fun and different. The cars were a little bit more stable so you could be more aggressive too. I think the race will be really exciting and crazy.”

 

Chase Elliott (starting 11th)

What do you expect in the race?

“I really don’t know. There’s a lot of big runs and obviously the faster the runs are, the harder they are to block and anticipate. What I noticed (Friday), that was probably the biggest thing was just how it was a little easier to get a big run on a guy and it just seemed like whenever somebody behind you wanted to be done with you, they could just be done with you. It felt like you had less control being out front.”

 

Kyle Busch (starting 22nd)

Can the leader defend their position with this package?

“I think the leader can block and defend. The runs (Saturday) in the Xfinity race, you kind of saw were a bit slower and got stagnant as the guy got closer from behind. I don’t think you’ll have the same effect happen (Sunday). The runs will be greater and the guy up front is still going to try to block, but I guess it’s a matter of how nice the guy behind you is and whether or not he’ll hit the brakes or drives through you.”

 How do you block when cars have faster closing rates?

“You kind of have to see it coming. If you know a guy’s going to block, you can kind of roll out a little bit and slow that run down, then you can not crash the car in front of you, but you take the risk of getting crashed from behind. There’s a lot of different things that you have to weigh. Just (Friday), there was a guy that pulled down in front of a run that me and six other guys had and I had to stop. I had no other choice because I had somebody on my outside too. The fourth guy in line back there about got wrecked. There’s going to be an accordion effect.”

 

Erik Jones (starting 27th)

Do you expect less blocking in the race?

“I think everybody is still going to be blocking if you get up in the lead. It’s the only matter of defense that we have to keep it. It’s going to cause a wreck at some point just because the runs are so big. You’re going to have a guy with a lot of energy and a lot of momentum coming and somebody is going to make a big block. Even if they don’t want to turn the guy around, they’re not going to have time to slow down. It’s going to cause an issue at some point.”

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

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A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”

What Cup drivers said about Talladega playoff race

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What NASCAR Cup Series drivers said about Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, where Chase Elliott outdueled Ryan Blaney for his series-leading fifth victory this season:

Chase Elliott – Finished first: “Yeah, it was a wild last couple laps. I wasn’t super crazy about being on the bottom. Fortunately I got just clear enough off of two to slide up in front of Erik. He gave me some great shoves. Obviously a Team Chevy partner there. Yeah, just had a good enough run to get out front, then I was able to stay far enough in front of Ryan here at the line to get it done. These things are so, so hard to win. You got to enjoy ’em. Just appreciate everybody’s effort today. Get ready to go to the Roval and try to grab another one. We’re excited for these final handful of events. Hopefully we can make it out to Phoenix and give them a run.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished second: “I was fine lining up bottom or top, honestly, working with Ross there for a while. I knew he pushed good, and I knew obviously Michael could push really good, too. So I didn’t really care where we were gonna be lining up. I got a good push there and was able to get too good of a push on the restart and got (Elliott) clear, and then he was able to lead the top lane. I had a couple chances to move up to the top and cover it, and I was just getting nervous about getting hung in the middle with (Elliott), (Erik Jones) and (Ross Chastain) lined up. I just didn’t feel comfortable going up there. I trust Chase, but not that much to where he wouldn’t have hung me out for the greater good of his group, so just chose to stay on the bottom with Michael.  We had a great chance at winning the thing, but we got disconnected in the middle of three and four. I’ll look at it probably pick at a few things I probably should have done different, wish I would have done different, but it’s easy to say that now. Overall, it was a decent day. It just stinks to be that close to our first win of the season. I think the only thing I probably would have done different is realize that (Denny Hamlin) was laying off (Michael McDowell) in the middle of three and four and faded back with them.  It just happened really quick and then I probably would have coming to the checkered – if we would have won or not, I don’t know – but got back to the bottom.”

Michael McDowell – Finished third: “It’s tough to be that close. I felt like I probaby should have backed off of (Blaney) a little bit sooner when (Hamlin) got off of me, but I was trying to make sure a Ford was gonna get to victory lane, and we kept that momentum up. I wish I could get a redo, but I’m proud of everybody at Front Row Motorsports.  It’s a great day to get a top five finish, but when you’re only a car length away from winning the race, obviously, it’s disappointing. I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together, and everyone did a great job on pit road executing today and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Ross Chastain – Finished fourth: “We made a lot of moves and a lot of moves get made on us. There are 188 laps, and I’d say there’s two or three times a lap you have a decision to make. There are two that stick out to me that I had control of the middle lane and went bottom. I needed to stay middle. The cars ran better in the middle lane. It was good to work with (Blaney). Me and Ryan tried the tandem here in trucks 10 years ago. It’s wild to say we’ve been here a decade in this sport. Every point earned is better. It’s neverending. You just want more. A really good points-earned day for Daniel and myself. For this Trackhouse group to keep executing throughout these playoffs. We’re figuring this out as we go. I’m experiencing this. And I’m loving every moment as I get to do this.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished fifth: “It’s just so hard to pass, and I know you’ve all heard that. It’s just a train of two lines. You really can’t run three-wide with this car so you just have to sit behind whoever is right there in front of you and hope you can push that line a little bit forward. Hopefully, they switch lanes, and you can leap forward. That’s kind of what we’ve got right now so I feel like we executed a pretty good day. Our goal going into the day was five stage points and we got more than five the first stage and not in stage two and then tried to go and get a good finish and that’s what we did. Overall, a good day. I was able to give Chase (Elliott) a push right there and I thought about, ‘Should I go with him and force three wide?’ But I’m on the bottom and I know I’ve always got someone coming up behind me. Then I’d be in the middle and just the risk wasn’t worth going back to 15th and getting stuck in the middle. To me, this is a three-race season that we have and we’re points racing.”

Erik Jones – Finished sixth: “We had a good day today at Talladega. Our Chevy was fast all weekend. We were able to push and be pushed when needed and stay up front most of the race. I thought we had a good shot at the win and put ourselves in the right position on the final restart but unfortunately, the guys behind us had some issues and we didn’t get the push we needed on the final restart. Frustrating ending for sure, but we’ll take it and move on. I’m proud of the progress this 43 team and everyone at Petty GMS has made this season. It’s fun to drive cars like this and have a shot at the win.”

Todd Gilliland – Finished seventh: “I’m just really happy to come home with a top 10. Race car drivers are greedy. I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this. I feel like our superspeedway stuff is pretty good. It’s still scary when we qualified 34th, but to have that kind of speed in the draft is a good thing. It’s really nice to have Ford teammates out there. I worked a lot with Kevin Harvick and a lot of different Fords. I was really happy to work with a great manufacturer like that.”

Daniel Suarez – Finished eighth: “We got very lucky today man. The engine blew up with 15 laps to go, and I was barely hanging in there. On that restart, I couldn’t go and (William Byron) helped me a lot to get going, but the engine was killed. So I guess we had a little bit of luck today because it was definitely killed, and we were about to not finish that race. The vibration was so loud and the engine was holding on. I think the engine was fine, but we didn’t have any power. (Byron) was pushing me and if it wasn’t for that, I wasn’t going to be able to stay there. We are looking forward to the Roval. I feel very good about it. My goal today was to at least break even. I haven’t seen the points to know, but I think we did that. Heading to the Roval, I feel very confident that we can contend for it.”

Austin Cindrdic – Finished ninth: “Stage points are a big deal. Obviously, helping (Blaney) get a stage win was big and recovery from the wreck, damage control and driving back up through the field, I think when everybody kind of scatters to try and do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive, and I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. Call it 50/50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck, but, overall, it certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the Roval, so we’ll put our best foot forward and have some fun next week.”

Chase Briscoe – Finished 10th: “It was tame in the sense there was no wreck, but I think that was the most racy race from start to finish. We barely ever ran single-file, and these cars it’s so hard to make up ground.  It seems like track position is such a big deal and you’ve got guys pushing so hard, just trying to maintain the lane that they’re in.  I guess from my side of things it was really racy because you’re never really riding around.  You’ve got to go so hard all the time and shove the guy in front of you. We never really got single-file around the top, but I was surprised we didn’t see a wreck. I was figuring with how out of control these cars are when you get pushes from the back, especially the big ones we were having there towards the end I figured something was gonna happen. I’m glad there wasn’t anything happening, but it was kind of a surprise to me. I think this place is a little bit easier than Daytona as far as being able to kind of keep it under control, but I the teams have done a really good job of getting the cars to drive way better. I think we all learned a lot at Daytona as far as what we need to do to our race car to be able to be pushed. They’re still out of control being pushed.  I didn’t feel like I was as out of control as I have been the first three races, but they’re still a handful to drive when somebody is shoving you. I was definitely surprised we didn’t see a big wreck.”

William Byron – Finished 12th: ““I just struggled there to get to the front. When we would be up there, we would kind of maintain, but we just struggled to get towards the front, and were just kind of boxed in there at the end. So, yeah, ended up where we did, and it was unfortunate because I felt good coming in here and felt like we had a good opportunity. We just never could get the track position to stay up near the front.”

Christopher Bell – Finished 17th: “Just a very disappointing finish. Needed to score a lot of points and unfortunately, we didn’t get enough today. So we’ll have to go to the Roval and do our best. I feel OK about our chances there. I think we’ll be competitive and just have to go there and try to win.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 18th: “We were able to get some stage points, so that was good. Stage two was working out. We almost got the stage win; we fell into third, but we were OK with that. In the final stage, the pit cycle worked out well. I just got squirrely off of (turn) 2 once and lost a little bit of track position. I made one bad lane decision and pretty much ended our race. I’m bummed at myself for doing that. I thought it was going to be the right move, but it ended up being the wrong move.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 23rd: “Uneventful day. We tried to play it smart and stay out of what I thought would be the inevitable big one, but it just never happened. That’s like the first time in about 11 superspeedway races that we haven’t had a big one. But I’ve been successful being smart in these races. Eventually, it’s going to get you, but I’ll play that game more times than not.”

Joey Logano – Finished 27th: “We just wreck all the time so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck,’ and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10 assuming they would wreck because they always do. That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today, and they didn’t wreck.  We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that then I tried it, and it didn’t work.”

Harrison Burton – Finished 36th: “I guess so. I haven’t seen it yet. I know he hit me and as soon as he did I was crossed up and going side-to-side. I don’t know what to do different. I pulled up kind of conservatively to give him time to prepare and I’m not sure why. He gave me a pretty hard shot for sure, but I don’t know if it was off line, where he was when he hit me, or if I was moving while he was moving. I haven’t seen anything yet. These things happen so fast and all of a sudden you’re sideways. You know you got hit and you don’t understand what really caused it. It’s unfortunate for us.  I felt like we had a good DEX Imaging Ford Mustang. We were gonna go and try to make a move to get out front and try and control track position and all of a sudden you go sideways. It’s pretty sad. I hope it didn’t affect any of our Team Penske alliance playoff guys. I don’t think they got any damage or anything. We’ll just try and keep it going and get some momentum going in the right way.”

Ty Gibbs – Finished 37th: “Definitely just sucks to be a part of that (crash). I was working with Bubba (Wallace) there and following him. I thought we had some good teamwork going there and I let him in. We were trying to get the top rolling. I think (Harrison Burton) just got a bad push and wrecked. There was just nowhere for me to go. It definitely sucks, but it could be a blessing in disguise. We’ll just move on to the Roval and go hammer down there.”

NASCAR President Steve Phelps meets with Denny Hamlin

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Denny Hamlin confirmed that he met with NASCAR President Steve Phelps before Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

The meeting came a day after Hamlin’s explosive comments to the media, saying the Next Gen car needed to be redesigned and blaming “bad leadership” by NASCAR for the safety concerns with the car.

Asked by NBC Sports about the meeting with Phelps, Hamlin said: “I don’t have any details on it. I’m grateful for Steve Phelps. He is a leader that we need. He is not who I directed any of my comments toward because he’s a huge asset for our sport.

“Me and Steve talk about much bigger and broader things than the safety of the cars. He’s got a lot bigger tasks ahead of him. I don’t task him or bog him down with knick-knack things like car safety.”

Asked if Phelps discussed Hamlin’s comments to the media in their meeting, Hamlin said: “We talked about that because we have that kind of relationship. I trust Steve. Best relationship I’ve had with any president of NASCAR. He’s done a lot for our sport. I made it very clear that I wasn’t directing anything at him.”

Hamlin’s frustration — and that of other drivers — has been the hard hits competitors have suffered in the car. The new car was designed to be stronger and better protect drivers in crashes similar to Ryan Newman’s airborne incident in the 2020 Daytona 500 and Joey Logano’s airborne crash in the April 2021 Talladega race. 

While the car has been improved for those accidents, the more common crashes, particularly those where the car backs into the wall, have been felt more by drivers.

Both Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman are out because of concussion-like symptoms after rear-end crashes. Busch, who has been out since late July, said this past week that he is “hopeful” to return this season. Car owner Rick Hendrick after Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway said that he is hopeful Bowman can be back as early as this coming week for the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

The injuries to Busch and Bowman and the hard hits have raised the tension in the Cup garage. 

Hamlin unleashed a torrent of criticism Saturday about the car and series officials.

Asked how the sport got to this point with the car, Hamlin said Saturday: “Bad leadership.”

Asked how to avoid the same thing from happening, Hamlin said: “New leadership.”

As for the changes that need to be made in NASCAR leadership, Hamlin said: “I don’t know. You can start at the top and work your way down.”

In regards to the car, Hamlin said Saturday: “The car needs to be redesigned. It needs a full redesign. It can still be called Next Gen, but it needs to be redesigned. It needs to be redesigned everywhere.”

Hamlin appeared on “Countdown to Green” before Sunday’s race on NBC and spoke with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Burton, who also leads the Drivers Advisory Council, about the car and his comments to the media.

“It’s not about what we can do right now, it’s what we can do about the future,” Hamlin said of the car. “In my mind, if we’re redesigning something for 2024, we need to be designing it now, testing it throughout the 2023 season and then implementing it for 2024. 

“There is no easy answer to this. This has been a buildup. We’ve been talking about this as drivers for over a year now. So that’s where the frustration has boiled from. 

“Certainly saying what can we do to fix it next week, it’s impossible. There’s a box that we’re in that we can’t get out of now. My thing is that while a (rear) clip is a really good thing —and I think it’s a start — we need to be in the redesign process of the entire car and that has to start now if we’re to implement that anytime in the next 12 to 14 months.”

Hamlin also said in that interview that he felt a responsibility to speak on behalf of drivers, particularly the younger drivers, on such issues. He noted that it was a mantle he and Kevin Harvick have taken.

“I do feel like at times that me and Kevin have the brunt of the responsibility to go out there and voice what we hear from our competitors and our peers. But as you are starting to see in the media, guys like Chase Elliott and others are starting to voice their displeasure and what they would like to see different as well.”

Talladega Cup playoff race results, driver points standings entering cutoff

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Talladega points, results: Chase Elliott captured his 18th career victory in the NASCAR Cup Series, passing Ryan Blaney on the final lap Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. It was the fifth time in the past six races at the 2.66-mile oval that a last-lap pass was made by the winner.

Blaney finished second by 0.046 seconds, followed by Michael McDowell, Ross Chastain and Denny Hamlin.

Erik Jones, Todd Gilliland, Daniel Suarez, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe rounded out the top 10.

RESULTS: Click here for where everyone finished l Click here for the race report

Elliott led four times for 10 laps during a 500-mile race that featured a season-high 57 lead changes among 17 drivers. It was the Hendrick Motorsports’ driver’s series-leading fifth victory and his first since Pocono nine races ago.

Elliott, who became the 10th winner in the past 10 superspeedway races (Daytona and Talladega), has won twice in 14 Cup starts at Talladega.

With his second top five of 2022, McDowell tied a career-best for most in a season and also extended a career-best with his 12th top 10 this year.

Hamlin is the only championship-eligible driver to finish in the top 10 of all five playoff races.


POINTS

Advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth time, Elliott became the first championship-eligible driver to win during the playoffs. He also gained six playoff points for a total of 46, the most by 21.

Click here for driver standings l Click here for team owner standings

With Elliott the only driver locked into one of the eight spots in the next round, Blaney is 32 points above the cutline heading into the Oct. 9 race at the Roval, followed by Chastain (plus-28), Hamlin (plus-21), Joey Logano (plus-18), Kyle Larson (plus-18) and Daniel Suarez (plus-12).

Chase Briscoe is above the cutline by virtue of a tiebreaker but has the same points total as Austin Cindric. William Byron is 11 points below the cutline, and Christopher Bell is at a 22-point deficit. Alex Bowman, who missed Talladega with concussion-like symptoms, is 54 points below the cutline.