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Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

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With 10 races left in the Cup regular season, the push for stage points is starting to play a key role in strategy and the results are showing in the standings.

Austin Dillon holds what would be the 16th and final playoff heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1). But as Matt Kenseth nearly showed last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a victory by a driver outside the top 16 will take a playoff spot away from one hoping to make it by points.

Teams also are mindful that the regular season finale will be at Daytona International Speedway, which could lead to a surprise winner. Three of the last five Cup points races at Daytona saw a driver score either their first or second career Cup win: Dillon, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Teams already are trying different strategies to get away from 16th in the standings or climb into a potential playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto entered the Pocono doubleheader weekend 15th in the standings. Focusing on stage results, he scored 17 stage points in the two races that weekend and added 11 stage points last weekend at Indy.

Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” DiBenedetto said after the Pocono weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs.”

Those 28 stage points he’s earned the past three races helped DiBenedetto climb to 12th in the standings heading to Kentucky. He’s scored 26 more stage points than Clint Bowyer the past three races. That 26-point advantage helped put DiBenedetto three points ahead of Bowyer in standings.

William Byron‘s stage win at Indy proved key in helping him climb the points standings. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Byron won the first stage last weekend at Indy and collected 10 stage points (and one playoff point) after crew chief Chad Knaus had Byron stay on track under caution when most of the leaders did pit with eight laps left in the stage. Byron restarted in the lead and held that position for the final four laps of the stage under green.

Those 10 points helped Byron pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for 14th in the standings. Byron leads Johnson, who sat out Indy because he had tested positive for COVID-19, by two points. Johnson has since had two negative tests for the coronavirus and been reinstated for this weekend.

Another driver who has benefitted from a strategy focused on stage points is Dillon. He’s scored 18 stage points the past three races to nine stage points by Jones. Dillon holds what would be the final playoff spot by six points on Jones.

2. Will this be Kyle Busch’s weekend?

The reigning series champion has one win in the last 38 races but heads to a Kentucky Speedway that has been good to him, even though Kurt Busch nipped his younger brother for the win in last year’s race.

Kyle Busch has two wins in nine starts at Kentucky and leads all drivers in top-five finishes (seven), top-10 finishes (eight) and laps led (621) at the track.

Busch’s lone victory in the last 38 races came in last year’s championship race in Miami. In that same span, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have combined to win 14 races.

Also during that 38-race stretch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 16 races (42.1%). Each has eight wins in that time.

3. Speeding on pit road

Here’s a look at the number of pit road speeding penalties drivers have had in the first 16 races of the Cup season:

6 – Quin Houff

5 – Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

4 – Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Daniel Suarez

3 – Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JJ Yeley,

2 – Christopher Bell, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Brennan Poole, Ryan Preece.

1 – Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Joey Gase, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick,

0 – Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

4. Streakin’

With Jimmie Johnson missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19, his consecutive starts streak ended at 663, ranking fifth on the all-time list. Johnson has since been cleared to race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick ranks sixth on the list of longest consecutive starts streak with 656 consecutive starts heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here is the top 6 in longest consecutive streaks:

797 — Jeff Gordon

788 — Ricky Rudd

704 — Bobby Labonte

697 — Rusty Wallace

663 — Jimmie Johnson

656 — Kevin Harvick

5. More of the same for Chevy teams?

Chevrolet teams are winless in their last eight Cup races and the manufacturer has one win in nine races at Kentucky. That victory came last year with Kurt Busch beating Kyle Busch at the finish.

Since Chase Elliott won the second Charlotte race in late May, Chevy drivers have not won. Elliott finished second in Miami, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second at Talladega and Matt Kenseth was second at Indianapolis.

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Kurt Busch to make 700th career Cup start

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Former champion Kurt Busch will make his 700th career Cup start today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App).

Busch becomes only the 16th driver to amass at least 700 career Cup starts. Richard Petty owns the series record with 1,185 starts.

Busch, who starts second today at Indy, has the most career starts among active drivers. He has two more starts than Kevin Harvick, who is scheduled to make his 700th career Cup start July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Busch made his first career Cup start Sept. 24, 2000 at Dover, finishing 18th.

He has 31 career victories, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Busch won the 2004 Cup title. He has 307 career top-10 finishes.

The 41-year-old marvels at making his 700th career Cup start today.

“It’s amazing,” Busch said. “To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past.

“So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”

Busch is 10th in points entering today’s race. He has yet to win his year but has three top-five finishes and nine top-10 results in 15 starts for Chip Ganassi Racing.

MOST CAREER CUP STARTS

1,185 – Richard Petty

906 – Ricky Rudd

890 – Terry Labonte

883 – Dave Marcis

882 – Mark Martin

829 – Kyle Petty

828 – Bill Elliott

809 – Darrell Waltrip

805 – Jeff Gordon

784 – Michael Waltrip

763 – Ken Schrader

748 – Sterling Marlin

729 – Bobby Labonte

706 – Rusty Wallace

700 – Kurt Busch

Results for Pro Invitational iRacing Series finale at North Wilkesboro

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Denny Hamlin hovered around the top 10 for most of the race and then made his move with nine laps to go, bumping race leader Ross Chastain out of the way to take the NASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series race at a virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway.

The top five was Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Tyler Reddick, Chastain and Austin Dillon.

It was the second win for Hamlin in the seven-race series, having won the opening event nearly two months ago at a virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway.

William Byron earned the most wins with three victories in just six starts (he did not compete in Saturday’s finale).

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Today’s iRacing Cup race at virtual North Wilkesboro: Start time, more

Photo: Johnny Joo/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
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The seventh and final edition of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series takes place today on a digital North Wilkesboro Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox, FS1 and the Fox Sports App).

Hendrick Motorsports drivers have won the last four races: William Byron has won three, including last week at a virtual Dover Raceway, as well as Alex Bowman.

Here’s the info for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

DIGNITARIES: Country music artist and former NASCAR pit crew member Chase Rice will perform the National Anthem. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt will give the command to start engines. Cassi Mitchell Smith, wife of Speedway Motorsports President Marcus Smith, will give the invocation.

FORMAT: One hour of practice begins at 2 p.m. Qualifying begins at 2:50 p.m. The top 10 qualifiers will be inverted. The top-three finishers from Dover (Christopher Bell and Timmy Hill) will start from the back and will not make a qualifying attempt. Byron, who won last week’s event is not scheduled to compete.

RACE: The North Wilkesboro 160 is scheduled to begin at 3:13 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (100 miles) around the virtual .625-mile oval.

RULES: Drivers will be allowed one reset to repair damage. Manual cautions will be determined by race officials. There will be a maximum of three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish.

TV: The race can be seen on FOX (where available), FS1 and the Fox Sports App. Coverage begins at 3 p.m.

DRIVERS SCHEDULED TO COMPETE (subject to change):

#3 Austin Dillon
#4 Kevin Harvick
#6 Ross Chastain
#8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
#10 Aric Almirola
#11 Denny Hamlin
#13 Ty Dillon
#14 Clint Bowyer
#17 Chris Buescher
#18 Kyle Busch
#19 Martin Truex Jr.
#20 Erik Jones
#21 Jon Wood
#24 Jeff Gordon
#31 Tyler Reddick
#34 Michael McDowell
#37 Ryan Preece
#38 John Hunter Nemechek
#41 Cole Custer
#49 Chad Finchum
#51 Garrett Smithley
#52 JJ Yeley
#53 Joey Gase
#66 Timmy Hill
#77 Parker Kligerman
#89 Landon Cassill
#95 Christopher Bell
#TBD Bobby Labonte

WHAT DRIVERS ARE SAYING:

Erik Jones: “I’m looking forward to North Wilkesboro. It’s something completely different for me. I’ve never been there in real life or virtually until earlier this week when I ran some laps and some of the practice races. It should be fun. It’s really a unique track. It’s challenging from the time I’ve spent on it and the laps I’ve made. I know we’re all pretty excited to run there to finish it out. It’s been a good time in the Pro Invitational over the last month and a half that we’ve been running it since Homestead. Hopefully we can close it out with another good show. … We had a good shot at Dover and it would be nice to get up front and win one of these races.”

Austin Dillon: “It’s going to be interesting, that’s for sure. I’ve personally never raced at North Wilkesboro, but my family has a lot of experience there. North Wilkesboro was one of my dad’s favorite tracks when he was a driver. He’s won Late Model races there.”

Tyler Reddick: “I’m really looking forward to this Saturday’s race at North Wilkesboro . That’s a track I’ve never been to since it closed long before I started racing in NASCAR, but I’ve always wanted to race there. It’s a track I’ve seen a lot of old races at and heard a lot about from other drivers, so I was excited when I heard iRacing was not only scanning the track to add it to their program, but also that we’ll get to be the first people to race on it this weekend. One of the reasons I love iRacing so much is because it allows me to race at all these legendary short tracks, like North Wilkesboro. I hope one day I’ll get to race there in real life, but this is a great alternative for now.”

Kevin Harvick: “I actually tested my Cup car at North Wilkesboro in 2011 or 2012 – somewhere in that timeframe. We ran our car around there because they had it cleaned up enough and were running some races there. I’ve never actually run a race at North Wilkesboro other than those few laps I ran on that particular day. Dale (Earnhardt) Jr., and iRacing, obviously, pushed to get that track scanned, and it looks just like North Wilkesboro. I think it’s a great move, and I look forward to running there in my Hunt Brothers Pizza Ford Mustang before we go back to real racing.”

Aric Almirola: “I have actually really enjoyed my short time in iRacing. I think it’s so cool to be able to virtually race somewhere we can’t in real life. We finished 10th at Dover by surviving, and I’m sure that will be the strategy this weekend. I think it will be a bit more of an even playing field now because the track is relatively new to everyone. The coolest thing about racing this weekend is that we surprised my wife, Janice, with a paint scheme that she colored a few weeks ago. We got bored and decided to color some fun paint schemes with the kids. Smithfield was kind enough to approve it and put it on the racecar to dedicate to Janice for Mother’s Day. If I win in this paint scheme, we might have to run it again on a real track.”

Clint Bowyer: “How we used iRacing with our sport has been phenomenal. It gave us an opportunity to reach our fans and gave them some great entertainment. I’ve been entertained. I hope it shows. Jeff (Gordon) and I have been having a blast down there at the (FOX) studio calling these races. It has been a lot of fun, but it’s not much longer until we get back to real racing, and that’s what all of us want. I don’t know if you’ve noticed or paid attention, but the ones who are winning these iRaces are the ones that don’t have a family or a wife to answer to. So no, I don’t have much of a chance for success, but I’m still going to have fun in my Rush Truck Centers/Cummins Ford Mustang.”

Cole Custer: “I’ve never been to North Wilkesboro before, but it’s cool how when you drive to Bristol that you can see the track right off the highway, and you can kind of think about what it used to be back in its heyday. It will be really interesting since there are only a handful of guys who have driven on the track, so there will be a lot of learning for everyone to get it figured out, that’s for sure. I’ll definitely spend a couple more hours to try and get an idea of what to do in my Haas Tooling Ford Mustang since I’ve never been there.”

Denny Hamlin: “It’s certainly going to be interesting. Hats off to Dale Jr. for taking the initiative to get the track cleaned up and scanned by iRacing so that we could do it. Obviously, I’ll need to run plenty of practice laps leading up to Saturday to get a good feel for it. But it’s a short track, which is right in our wheelhouse. … (iRacing has) been great for our sport. We’ve given fans races to watch, plus gotten some new eyes watching our sport who maybe had never watched a race before. We’ve been providing live competition on national TV in a way that other sports couldn’t.”

Michael McDowell: “I’m sure that I am speaking for not only myself, but for the entire NASCAR community when I say that it has been a long two months without racing. I’m thankful for the recent news that we will be returning to the race track soon, and I’m also thankful for all of the hard work that iRacing, NASCAR and FOX Sports have put in to deliver fans, drivers, teams and partners with the closest thing possible to live racing during quarantine.”

John Hunter Nemechek: “It’s going to be really cool to race virtually at North Wilkesboro this weekend. No one has run an iRacing event at this track before, so it might be a little wild and crazy, but definitely worth tuning in. I think it will be the perfect finale to the Pro Invitational Series, and a great sendoff as we get ready to return to the track in Darlington next weekend.”

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Entry lists for NASCAR iRacing events at North Wilkesboro, Martinsville

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With NASCAR scheduled to return on May 17 at Darlington Raceway, the planned conclusion of NASCAR’s iRacing season will take place this week, with events held on a virtual North Wilkesboro Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.

The planned finale of the eNASCAR Pro Invitational iRacing Series will occur at 3 p.m. ET Saturday at North Wilkesboro on Fox and FS1.

Among the initial 28 entries is Jeff Gordon, who won the final Cup Series race there in 1996. Not among the entered drivers is William Byron, who has won three of the six Invitational races so far. Also, Matt DiBenedetto has been replaced in the No. 21 car by Jon Wood, the member of the Wood family who once competed in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

Gordon will be joined in the race by fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Labonte. They are the only two entries in the race who competed in Cup races on the real North Wilkesboro.

Martin Truex Jr. is also entered in his first Invitational race.

According to NASCAR.com, the race will be 160 laps. Drivers will get one reset. There will be manual cautions and a maximum of three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish. Christopher Bell and Timmy Hill, who finished second and third at Dover, will start from the rear. The top 10 qualifiers will be inverted to start the event.

Invited Race Entries (Subject to change)
#3 Austin Dillon
#4 Kevin Harvick
#6 Ross Chastain
#8 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
#10 Aric Almirola
#11 Denny Hamlin
#13 Ty Dillon
#14 Clint Bowyer
#17 Chris Buescher
#18 Kyle Busch
#19 Martin Truex Jr.
#20 Erik Jones
#21 Jon Wood
#24 Jeff Gordon
#31 Tyler Reddick
#34 Michael McDowell
#37 Ryan Preece
#38 John Hunter Nemechek
#41 Cole Custer
#49 Chad Finchum
#51 Garrett Smithley
#52 JJ Yeley
#53 Joey Gase
#66 Timmy Hill
#77 Parker Kligerman
#89 Landon Cassill
#95 Christopher Bell
#TBD Bobby Labonte

Friday Night Thunder

Like the Pro Invitational Series, this weekend sees the scheduled conclusion of the iRacing series dedicated to non-Cup drivers with a race at a virtual Martinsville Speedway at 8 p.m. ET Friday on eNASCAR.com/live.

The series is open to drivers from the Xfinity, Gander RV & Outdoors Truck, NASCAR Peak Mexico, Pinty’s, Whelen Euro and ARCA series.

The virtual race will be conducted under the lights and will be 125 laps.

The format: Single-car qualifying will set the grid for four, 10-lap heat races to determine 24 spots in the feature. A 15-lap last-chance qualifier race will determine six spots in the feature for a total of 30 cars.

The order of the first 10 cars in the feature will be inverted before the green flag. There will be one reset, manual cautions and three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish.

Entry list is subject to change

Alex Labbe

90

Angela Ruch

OO

Anthony Alfredo

33

Austin Cindric

22

Bayley Currey

74

Brandon Brown

68

Brett Moffitt

23

Chase Briscoe

98

Chase Cabre

4

Christian Eckes

81

CJ McLaughlin

39

Derek Kraus

19

Donny Lia

O7

Drew Dollar

O15

Drew Herring

3

Grant Enfinger

O98

Harrison Burton

20

Jeb Burton

8

Jeffrey Earnhardt

50

Jesse Iwuji

36

Joe Graf Jr.

80

Josh Berry

88

Josh Bilicki

99

Justin Allgaier

7

Kaz Grala

29

Kyle Weatherman

54

Landon Huffman

75

Logan Seavey

67

Matt Mills

5

Myatt Snider

93

Noah Gragson

9

Ruben Garcia

27

Ryan Ellis

78

Ryan Truex

40

Ryan Vargas

51

Scott Stenzel

63

Spencer Boyd

0 2

Stephen Leicht

25

Stewart Friesen

52

Thad Moffitt

46

Todd Gilliland

38

Ty Majeski

45

Ty Gibbs

18

Will Rodgers

55

Stefan Parsons

83