In the 4,712 laps run in the first half of an unpredictable Cup season filled with 13 different visitors to Victory Lane, including five first-time winners, and numerous ups and downs, not all laps count the same.
Some laps are significant because they come at the end, while others that seem insignificant prove to be anything but as a race progresses.
Here’s a look at five laps this season that have made an impact on the season:
1. Lap 188 at Talladega
Erik Jones led the field off the final corner of the final lap, but Talladega’s start/finish line is further down the frontstretch than most tracks.
By the time the field reached the finish line, Jones was sixth after an ill-fated block on the high side opened the bottom lane for Ross Chastain to score his second win of the season.
This lap in April matters because if Jones had won, the series would have 14 different winners instead of 13. With 14 different winners, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. would be on the cutline going to Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on USA Network). Instead, Truex’s teammate, Christopher Bell, is on the cutline.
After crossing the finish line, Jones radioed his team: “I just got too far out there. Sorry.”
By getting too far out off Turn 4, he allowed the field to draft and build momentum.
As the field closed, Jones moved up the track to block Kyle Larson, who darted to the outside of Jones’ car. Jones had no help behind. Chastain and others cruised by on the inside since Jones was too far up the track to block them.
Just as important is that Chastain won. He is tied with Chase Elliott and William Byron for most playoff points this season with 13. Chastain sits third in the season standings, trailing Elliott by 35 points going into this weekend. Those playoff points could come in handy for Chastain later this season.
2. Lap 354 at Richmond
Few could have imagined how significant this lap would be except maybe those on Denny Hamlin’s team.
Passing was difficult in the 400-lap race at Richmond in April, but tire wear was significant. That provided an opportunity to move through the field.
A key question in the final stage of the race was if crew chiefs would split the final 90 laps and pit twice or just once. Pitting an extra time meant more time on pit road, but it would be worth it if the fresher tires overcame that deficit.
William Byron made his final pit stop at Lap 311 and ran the final 89 laps of the race on the same set of tires. He had run no more than 73 laps on a set of tires earlier in the event.
Hamlin pitted at Lap 310 after running 50 laps on a set of tires. He made his final pit stop at Lap 354. He was among the last cars to pit during that cycle.
Hamlin chased Byron and passed him with five laps left to win.
The finish made the Lap 354 pit call by crew chief Chris Gabehart significant because it was the first win of the season for Hamlin.
Had he not gotten it, his Coca-Cola 600 win would be his only victory of the season. That’s key because Hamlin is assured a playoff spot with two wins.
If he only had one win, he’d rank lowest among the one-race winners and would be in jeopardy of missing the playoffs if there were enough winners to bump their way into the playoff field.
3. Lap 325 at Atlanta
The March race on the reconfigured racetrack proved dramatic with 11 cautions, 31 cars involved in accidents and 46 lead changes.
But Bell went below the double white line to advance his position on the backstretch.
That was a new rule for this race, which used the superspeedway race package and some of the rules seen at Daytona and Talladega — such as no passing below the double yellow lines at those tracks.
NASCAR penalized Bell by making him the last car on the lead lap. That dropped him from second to 23rd. The penalty cost Bell 21 points.
He heads into Sunday’s return visit to Atlanta holding the final playoff spot by 20 points on Kevin Harvick. Had Bell gotten by Chastain without going below the double white line, Bell would be 41 points ahead of Harvick and only 20 points behind teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the playoff standings.
4. Lap 293 at Nashville
The field had a decision with the caution out eight laps from the finish of the June race at Nashville Superspeedway.
Pit or stay out.
Leader Chase Elliott stayed out. Trailing him were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
All had a chance to stay out and restart on the front row with Elliott.
None took it.
Two by mistake.
Busch was called to pit road for two tires. Hamlin was told to stay out if he could get the front row for the restart, which by Busch pitting, he would do so.
But before Hamlin approached pit road, interim crew chief Sam McAulay told him to stay out only if he could get the lead when McAulay actually meant the front row. McAulay, the team’s engineer, served as interim crew chief with Chris Gabehart serving the last race in a four-race suspension for a wheel coming off the car at Dover.
Following the directive to pit if he couldn’t get the lead, Hamlin did just that.
That meant that Truex — seeking his first win of the season to claim a playoff spot — could restart on the front row by staying out. That was the order from crew chief James Small, but Truex mistakingly came down pit road, throwing away a chance to win and not be in jeopardy of falling out of a playoff spot.
Elliott claimed his second victory of the season and five more playoff points. Truex, instead of possibly winning, finished 22nd. Not only did the mistake cost him a win, it also cost him about 20 points.
This was the second time a pit call on a late caution cost JGR drivers a chance to win. Busch led and Truex was second when the caution came out at Las Vegas, sending the race to overtime. The field pitted. Busch and Truex each took four tires, but Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron each took two tires and restarted ahead of Busch and Truex.
Bowman passed Larson on the restart to win. Busch finished fourth. Truex was eighth.
5. Lap 292 at Darlington
Joey Logano bumped William Byron out of the lead with less than two laps to go and went on to win the May race at Darlington.
Logano took umbrage with Byron squeezing him against the wall in Turn 2 with 26 laps left as they dueled for the lead. After that, Logano was willing to be more aggressive with Byron.
“He runs everybody over,” Byron said, walking through the garage after the race. “I don’t see what’s different. He does it to everybody. Didn’t even let us finish. He goes in (the corner) 10 mph faster. Stupid.”
The biggest impact wasn’t that this was Logano’s first of two points wins this season or that it prevented Byron from winning what would have been a series-high third race this year, it’s what could happen.
How Will Byron race Logano the closer it gets to the playoffs or in the playoffs? Will that finish alter how they race with each other in other close situations?