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Friday 5: The race for points intensifies

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With only six drivers qualified for NASCAR’s postseason via wins so far, the Cup series could see half a dozen or more make the playoffs by points.

That will make every decision through the Sept. 9 regular-season finale at Indianapolis critical for drivers and teams. When to pit. If to pit. Take no tires. Take two tires. Take four tires. Such calls — and the hundreds of others made about setups and such — could have a lasting impact.

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 13 of the first 15 races this season. Joey Logano and Austin Dillon are the only other drivers who have won this year. The six total winners are the fewest at this point in a season since 1996.

What it means is that points — particularly stage points — could play a key role in who advances.

Alex Bowman holds what is the final playoff spot entering this weekend’s trip to Sonoma Raceway. He has 331 points, putting him four ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard.

Stenhouse and Menard are so close to Bowman, in part, because of stage points. Bowman has 14. Stenhouse has 37; Menard 35. Those stage points also have helped Stenhouse and Menard keep close to Erik Jones, who is 15th in the playoff standings. Jones has a 19-point lead on Stenhouse and Menard. Jones has 38 stage points.

Realistically, there will be a few more different winners before the 16-team playoff field is set. Even if there are four more winners, that would mean six drivers would qualify by points. There has never been more than five to qualify on points. That happened in 2015.

Jamie McMurray qualified for the playoffs that year on points and did so the following two seasons. He heads to Sonoma with 283 points, 48 points behind Bowman for what is the last spot at this time. McMurray has 13 stage points.

It’s not just at the bottom of the playoff standings where stage points could be significant.

Remember that the regular-season winner scores 15 playoff points, the runner-up scores 10 playoff points and on down to the 10th-place finisher scoring one playoff point.

Brad Keselowski (fourth in the standings with 514 points), Clint Bowyer (510), Martin Truex Jr. (506) and Kurt Busch (493) are within 21 points of each other.

That could represent the difference in up to three playoff points.

Keselowski has the advantage on those other three drivers because he has scored more stage points. Keselowski has 160 stage points to 121 by Bowyer, 113 by Truex and 121 by Busch.

The race for stage points will become more important as the series heads toward Indy.

Here is look at who has scored the most stage points this season:

197 — Kyle Busch

161 — Kevin Harvick

160 — Brad Keselowski

121 — Kurt Busch

121 — Clint Bowyer

119 — Joey Logano

117 — Ryan Blaney

113 — Martin Truex Jr.

107 — Kyle Larson

84 — Denny Hamlin

58 — Aric Almirola

52 — Jimmie Johnson

46 — Chase Elliott

38 — Erik Jones

37 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

35 — Paul Menard

2. NASCAR in 2019

All-Star winner Kevin Harvick approves of NASCAR’s decision to not run that package in any more Cup races this season but focus on making adjustments to run it in 2019.

“I think we just need to be very cautious about protecting the integrity of the sport and the things that happen behind the wheel of the car,’’ Harvick said Thursday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. “The other thing that I will say is the All-Star Race was a very short race. You had that caution in the first segment and you never really ran more than 20 laps at a time.

“The thing I’m most excited about is we’re going to vet this thing out and make sure that we get all the right things done to the car. I think a lot of the things that happened at the All-Star Race were covered up because the runs were so short. There’s definitely some work to do on the cars. I think we could probably make that package better.

“I’m glad we didn’t just jump right in. This is a big ship to turn. When you decide to start changing rules like that. You’re talking engines and transmissions, bodies and things like that. It’s not an easy process. It’s not like you just change the height of a spoiler. You’re basically changing the whole car, engine included.”

3. More of the same?

Four of the last six races at Sonoma have been won by this season’s dominant drivers.

Kevin Harvick won last year. Kyle Busch won in 2015. Martin Truex Jr. won in 2013. Clint Bowyer won in 2012.

The other two winners during that stretch? They’re no longer in Cup. Carl Edwards won at Sonoma in 2014. Tony Stewart won in 2015.

4. Change of scenery?

Will a road course help change Chevrolet’s fortunes this season? The car manufacturer has one win this year (Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500). In six of the first 15 races, Chevy has had two or fewer cars finish in the top 10. Chevrolet has won twice in the last 11 years at Sonoma (Tony Stewart in 2016, Jimmie Johnson in 2010).

5. Back in the saddle

With Cup back in action this weekend, the series will race on 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 26 between Bristol and the Southern 500.

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NASCAR will not use All-Star aero package again this season in Cup

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Despite some car owners calling for NASCAR to use the All-Star aero package at additional Cup races this season, NASCAR announced Thursday it will not do so this year.

“What we want to do is to continue to deliver on that great racing product and to do that we need to spend the proper time talking to the engine builders, the (car manufacturers) and race teams to see what, if anything, we could do this year,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer told NASCAR.com. “We all collectively felt like the best thing to do was to put additional effort into some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season. Everyone is aligned on doing what is best for the fans.”

The package, which includes a restrictor plate, air ducts, a taller spoiler and the 2014 style splitter, was first used in the Xfinity Series last season at Indianapolis and used in that series at Pocono and Michigan. It will be employed again in that series at Indianapolis in September. It is not scheduled to be run in any other Xfinity races this season after that.

The reviews have been mixed for the package in the Xfinity Series. Indianapolis had closer racing, but Pocono saw the field get strung out. Some suggested that the cars were too slow at Pocono with the restrictor plate. The Xfinity cars ran closer at Michigan but passing was more difficult.

The challenge for Cup teams were many. Based on the charter agreement with NASCAR, since this was not a safety change, Cup teams had to approve the move because of the additional costs to them. Also, engine builders were involved in the conversations because they build engines weeks ahead of time and finding the right races proved limiting because the industry didn’t appear interested in running the package in the playoffs.

Michigan and Indianapolis were the two tracks most often mentioned as candidates to run this package again this season, but that raised an issue among some. They wanted to see what it could do on a 1.5-mile track after the All-Star Race, which provided closer racing than previous years but that event was broken into short segments of 30 laps or less.

There were questions about how well the package would be for a full fuel run. With only two 1.5-mile tracks left on the Cup schedule before the playoffs, those choices were limited. Eventually, it became too late for teams and engine builders to prepare for the July 1 race at Chicagoland Speedway. As time passed, it became more challenging for the package to be used at the July 14 event at Kentucky Speedway.

“One of the clear takeaways is that this is not something you would want to implement at every race track,” O’Donnell told NASCAR.com. “There are certain race tracks we want to potentially target. Finding the optimal horsepower-to-downforce ratio will be a key focal point to continue to improve the race package.

Even as NASCAR examined this matter, drivers raised different opinions.

Brad Keselowski was vocal at Michigan, raising concerns about running the package (and the restrictor plate) at more tracks.

“I think that package needs to remain solely at the All-Star race,’’ Keselowski said earlier this month. “A lot of the drivers in this sport are in a position where they chose Cup racing because of the demands the cars take to drive. I think there are a lot of fans that come to our races expecting to see the best drivers.

“I think if you put a package like this out there, like what we had at the Charlotte All-Star race, on a consistent basis that the best drivers in the world would no longer go to NASCAR. They’ll pick a different sport. That won’t happen overnight. That will happen over time. I think that would be a tragedy to this sport because the best race car drivers want to go where they can make the biggest difference to their performance. There’s no doubt that you make less of a difference in that configuration.’’

Denny Hamlin was encouraged by the package after the non-points race in May.

“As a driver, I had fun, I really did,’’ he said. “Didn’t have the fastest car, but at least there were moments where you had to be very strategic in what you had to do. It was a mix between a normal open race and a superspeedway. … I’d like to see it at a few other tracks. if it came this year, It would definitely be OK by me.’’

Even after the All-Star Race, O’Donnell said the focus was on 2019. Asked that night if the package could be used again this season, O’Donnell said: “I would never say never, but our intent is we’ve talked coming into this, was to try this here, then really take a deep dive into how do we make this the best package possible for 2019 if we liked what we saw.”

But as momentum built for the package — car owners Richard Childress and Roger Penske both said they would be for running it again this season.

“Anything that is good for our sport right now, which I think it would be, I’m for it,’’ Childress told NBC Sports in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I’m putting RCR aside and looking at the sport itself. If everybody in this garage will do that … put the sport first and we all go out and put the best show for the fans in the stands, that’s what we’ve got to do.’’

All-Star winner Kevin Harvick cautioned many to temper their excitement about the package after the exhibition race but agreed the event could be significant for NASCAR in years to come.

“I’d like to make sure we don’t jump and say this is the save all, do all package,” he said. “I’d like to see it slowly transformed into points paying races because I think the preparation level will be a little bit different from every team in the garage. I just want to make sure we cycle it in correctly, make sure it fits in well for the teams to be able to afford the things that need to be done to get the cars right.

“There’s a lot of things to balance. Tonight’s race was very aggressive, and this is the perfect spot to try stuff like this. I think as you look at the effort that the teams put in to make all this happen was pretty high. The chance that NASCAR and Marcus (Smith of Speedway Motorsports Inc.) and everybody took to put this into the All‑Star Race is brave, bold. I think when you look at NASCAR racing in five years, I think you’ll look back at tonight and say it looks like this and it all started here.”

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Momentum building from some drivers to run All-Star package again

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Some Cup drivers are for trying the package used in the All-Star Race again, with one driver saying he’d be for running it again this year.

All-Star winner Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin both spoke highly this week of the racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The show was better,’’ Harvick said on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show on Tuesday night. “Bottom line, the show was better to watch. Like I say, I don’t know that everyone can wrap around their arms around restrictor-plate racing every single mile-and-a-half race. I think the cars need to be faster. I think we need to figure out which race tracks that we want to race them on because the All-Star Race was a good test, but it wasn’t a 100 percent test of this is where we need to be and everybody just wants to jump right there.’’

As to running the package again this year, Harvick said on his show “Happy Hours” that the decision will have to come from others:

“That’s going to come down to NASCAR and the teams and whether they can financially make that happen and efficiently make that happen with the engine shops and all the people involved. The hardest thing about all of this is how do you do that. If I had to make a choice, and it was my decision, I’d love to see it on the race track in a true environment. In my opinion, we kind of dabbled something out there that everybody tried and looked really great on TV, but what’s going to happen when everybody is prepared, everybody is at the race track, there are 40 cars on the race track. What it’s going to look like then? I don’t think anybody knows.”

Hamlin is open to running the package again this season.

“As a driver, I had fun, I really did,’’ he said Wednesday after unveiling a FedEx Cares paint scheme for his car at Daytona in July.

“Didn’t have the fastest car, but at least there were moments where you had to be very strategic in what you had to do. It was a mix between a normal open race and a superspeedway. … I’d like to see it at a few other tracks. if it came this year, It would definitely be OK by me.’’

So where to run it?

“I think Michigan is the perfect race track for it honestly,’’ Hamlin said. “There’s no better track that I can think of than Michigan to have a package like this. Pocono would be another great candidate for it. Anywhere you got long straightaways where drafting could be a big factor would be a good place for this package to go.’’

The Xfinity Series is scheduled to run a similar package at Pocono (June 2) and Michigan (June 9).

If NASCAR chose to run the package in Cup at Michigan on June 10, what kind of challenge would it be for teams to make the switch?

“I think JGR and Toyota could actually do it and probably be at the forefront as anybody, but I think the engine package is probably a bigger concern,’’ said Mike Wheeler, crew chief for Hamlin, noting that engines are done further ahead of time. “I think as far as setups and tire data and areo data, we can get there pretty quickly. I’m not sure about other teams. Ultimately we didn’t have the parts to play with to do the testing beforehand. We would do that before we went there with points on the line.’’

Harvick suggested this package actually could be used elsewhere.

“I think that this would be a great Daytona and Talladega package,’’ he said. “It would be great to see the Daytona and Talladega package to be able to be the same type of package that you run at Indy, Pocono and Michigan, so that you could have the engines be able to be used. If you had to adjust the spoiler size and maybe the splitter size here and there to be able to get the speeds where you want them to be, instead of adjusting the engine, I think that would be more efficient for the teams.

“It’s still going to come down to a dollar and cents type of thing. In the end, the teams are the ones that flipped the bill to put on the show. … How do we make it efficient for the teams?’’

Richard Buck, managing director for the Monster Energy Cup Series, said “we’ve heard a lot of great response from the fans.’’

But he cautioned Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio of doing too much too soon with the package.

“There’s a lot to digest there and that’s what we’ll do, we’re only a couple of days removed from the event,” he said. “There’s still a lot of data to look at. It definitely passed the eye-ball test.

“We’ll circle back with the industry. We’ve got some of the brightest minds and engineers and engines builders and manufacturers and we’ll all collectively take a look at it and start working on the details of what was good and what could be better and we’ll take that into the future for sure.’’

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NASCAR America: Daniel Suarez’s success in All-Star Race provides 600 confidence

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The rules package used in last week’s All-Star Race did not provide technical assistance to any of the teams since it will not be implemented for this week’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but Daniel Suarez gained more from his second-place finish in it than perhaps anyone else, according to the NASCAR America analysts on Tuesday.

Racing at NASCAR’s top level takes confidence that can only be earned with success.

“I don’t think a lot applies from a technical standpoint, but I think that momentum is important,” Jeff Burton said. “Daniel Suarez got moved up to the Cup series probably a year before they really wanted him to with Carl Edwards’ departure.

“He still is playing catch up a little bit. And that’s OK. He’s a young driver, he has time to catch up, but at some point you’ve got to have some success. … I think for Daniel, this race was exceptionally important because it reminded him he can drive a race car. Reminded him what it feels like to battle for the win.”

Suarez finished 11th in last year’s Coke 600 and finished sixth in the fall Bank of America 500.

“Daniel’s going to get a lot from the All-Star Race going into the 600,” Landon Cassill said. “Maybe because of his experience and because he’s a sophomore driver, he might get more out of it than Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick. Getting those reps in and restarting next to Kevin Harvick … racing side-by-side with those guys. More so than just the confidence. There are actual things that Daniel learned on Saturday night that is going to help him for the Coke 600.

For more, watch the above video.

Scan All: “It’s crazy what you guys’ll do for a million bucks”

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“It’s crazy what you guys’ll do for a million bucks,” crew chief Todd Gordon told his driver after Joey Logano narrowly missed a multicar accident In the All-Star Race.

“You just wait. You’ll see a lot more of that,” Logano replied.

Here are some other highlights:

  • “Beside the 4, I think we’ve got the best car; it’s driving pretty good.” – Kyle Busch
  • “We’re tore up. Lost the hood.” – Brad Keselowski
  • “I just want to thank my teammate Clint Bowyer for putting us in that position.” – Kurt Busch
  • “He’s the last one to do that because he mirror drives everybody.” – Kyle Larson, after contact from Logano sent him spinning.
  • “That 22’s probably going to be our next caution. I think he’s gonna cut a tire, personally.” – Chase Elliott
  • “A million dollars baby. Hell yeah!” – Kevin Harvick

For more, watch the above video.