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Friday 5: Why Christopher Bell won’t have a full-time Cup ride in 2019

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Leavine Family Racing’s announcement Wednesday that it will align with Toyota and have Matt DiBenedetto drive the No. 95 car next season was not a surprise.

But it’s understandable to ask why Christopher Bell isn’t in that car next year.

Bell has been dominant in Xfinity for Joe Gibbs Racing this season and said in August he feels ready for Cup. He has finished in the top five in nearly 60 percent of his starts this year and set a series rookie record with his sixth Xfinity win last weekend at Dover International Speedway. This is after he won the Camping World Truck Series title last year for Toyota at Kyle Busch Motorsports.

So why wasn’t Bell introduced as the driver of the No. 95 car?

“Between ourselves and Joe Gibbs Racing, we’ve been very intentional about Christopher’s development,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “Was there some conversation? Absolutely. But we collectively decided to stay the course and genuinely believe it will serve Christopher to invest another year (in Xfinity). It’s not going to hurt him.

“One of the challenges of this new alliance is next year we’re … starting from some respects from ground zero (with a new partner in Leavine Family Racing). I don’t think it’s fair to put a rookie driver in the midst of that. This is why Matt will be a good fit. His experience will lend itself to building this alliance and building the level of competitiveness.”

Leavine Family Racing owner Bob Leavine watches the action during the Southern 500. (Photo: Dustin Long)

Leavine Family Racing replaces Furniture Row Racing, which will cease operations at the end of this season, in the Toyota camp. But the two teams are very different. Leavine Family Racing is behind where Furniture Row Racing was when it joined Toyota in 2016. Furniture Row Racing had already won in Cup. Leavine Family Racing has not. Even though both are single-car teams this year, car owner Bob Leavine said his team has 35 employees, about half the number that work at Furniture Row Racing. Leavine also said he doesn’t have the budget Furniture Row Racing has.

Wilson’s focus of building Leavine Family Racing is understandable.

Wilson confirmed that Toyota Racing Development will support five Cup teams next year — the four Joe Gibbs Racing teams and Leavine Family Racing — and no more.

But there’s still a way for Bell to run some Cup races next year. Leavine said he planned to ask Wilson about Toyota Racing Development providing an extra engine to run Bell from time to time.

“That’s for them to decide,” Leavine said. “We’re just going to be available if they want to do it to put it all together and make it all work.”

Joe Gibbs Racing, which will provide the cars to Leavine Family Racing, also would have to be able to build cars for those extra races.

Wilson is open to the idea of a second Leavine Family Racing car running at times if it makes sense.

“We’ve not made any definitive plans along those lines but certainly it gives us some options,’’ he said. “The challenge in doing that is making sure that you do it in a manner, not that you expect to win per say, (but) you can risk spreading your resources too thin.

“Next year will be our first year with LFR and the priority needs to be building their capabilities and building their success, so if we have the opportunity to do something creative like that without compromising our primary mission, then we might take a look at that.”

2. What’s next for Toyota’s youngsters?

Even with Noah Gragson leaving the Toyota lineup after this season to drive in the Xfinity Series for JR Motorsports, Toyota still has a bounty of young talent.

Among those who have yet to reach the Truck Series are Hailie Deegan and Logan Seavey.

Deegan returns to the track this weekend for the first time since her K&N Pro Series West win two weeks ago in Meridian, Idaho.

The 17-year-old is fifth in the points in her first season in the series. Is her win and two runner-up finishes this season enough to have her run a Toyota Truck at Martinsville or Phoenix later this season?

“There’s no plans right now to put her anywhere this year,” David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “We’re still working very closely with Hailie and the family about the right steps, the next steps. I don’t think we’ve made any definitive decisions at this point.”

So what about a Truck next year?

“There’s not a plan,” Wilson said. “You need to put her experience in perspective. She’s literally only run 20-something races on pavement and is 17 years old. She just need mores races, more laps, more seat time. There’s not a burning urgency of we’ve got to get her in a truck.”

A possibility for her could be to move to the K&N Pro Series East next year and run the full season there.

Another Toyota driver looking to move up the development ladder is Seavey, who leads the USAC National Midget standings and seeks to become the third rookie to win that championship.

The 21-year-old Seavey, whose background is on dirt tracks, made his Camping World Truck Series debut in July at Eldora Speedway and finished eighth after leading 53 laps.

So what’s next for Seavey?

“We have a lot of faith and belief in Logan,” Wilson said. “What we’ll see with Logan is just more pavement time. We’ve got some great relationships across the Super Late Model ranks and I would expect next year that we give him some more opportunities with (those) races and maybe some K&N and ARCA. He’s definitely on the right track and we’re excited about his potential.”

3. Right from the start

Kyle Busch and wife Samantha have been open about their struggles to have children and that they had to go through in vitro fertilization to have son Brexton in May 2015.

Since their son’s birth, they’ve created the Bundle of Joy Fund that gives grants to couples who need such treatments to have children. Those treatments can cost $15,000 or more and insurance doesn’t cover it.

Kyle and Samantha Busch pose with son Brexton and many of the families that have had children through grants from the Bundle of Joy Fund. (Photo: Dustin Long)

The Bundle of Joy Fund has led to the birth of more than a dozen children. Many of those families gathered in August for a play date and to all be together for the first time.

Kyle and Samantha both recently announced that they are wanting to give Brexton a baby sister and said they planned to share all the ups and downs they go through during this process publicly.

“If we only showed the good times, and we only showed when it was a success and went well, that’s not fair to all the women that have (not had stories that have gone like that),” Samantha Busch told NBC Sports.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, and it is a little scary to know that things may come up down the road that may not be as easy as last time, but for all those couples out there that need to go through this or have gone through this and need to know that they’re not alone and need to understand that this can happen to anybody, I think it’s important to start from the beginning this time.’’

Samantha said she has begun taking a shot a night to prepare her body for the process and will be scheduled to have additional shots before the in vitro fertilization takes place.

4. No to the Roval theory

The notion that the end of the Charlotte Roval race was the final straw that led to Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus splitting after this season is not true, they say.

“Not even close,” Johnson said.

“I think it was already done” by then, Knaus said of the decision.

Johnson was second and in a position to advance to this round of the playoffs but challenged Martin Truex Jr. for the win and spun in the final chicane. The result was that Johnson lost enough spots and Kyle Larson gained a spot on the last lap to forge a three-way tie among Johnson, Larson and Aric Almirola for the final two transfer spots. Larson and Almirola advanced based on their best finish in the first round was better than Johnson’s best.

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson discuss their plans to split after this year. (Photo: Dustin Long)

That was … heartbreaking,” Knaus said Thursday of the Roval finish, (but) that was not part of it. I wanted to win that race just as bad as he did. 

“I beat myself up more than I probably ever blamed Jimmie for what happened there. I could have probably come on the radio and said one or two things and he probably would have maybe thought and checked up a little bit, but my last words to him was ‘go get his ass.’”

Said Johnson: “I was crossing the start/finish line watching the white flag wave when he said that… yeah, that is what we do, we are there to win.”

5. New frontier 

With Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus splitting after this season, Knaus will become William Byron’s crew chief.

Byron is excited about the opportunity to work with the seven-time champion crew chief and knows it will push him to be better.

I think Chad is going to be brutally honest with me, and I’m okay with that,” Byron said Thursday. “I want to succeed in this sport. That’s my number one goal, and I’ll do whatever it takes to do that.”

Although Knaus is 47 and Byron is 20, Byron says he sees similarities with Knaus.

Probably attention to detail,” Byron said. “Type A personality. I don’t like excuses so that will fit well.”

Knaus said he’s “so geeked up” to be working next year with Byron and the No. 24 team, a team Knaus worked for when he started at Hendrick Motorsports in 1993.

Jimmie Johnson said he thinks the pairing of Knaus and Byron will be good.

“I am really excited for William,” Johnson said. “We have chatted quite a bit about it, and I feel that William is a lot like me. He likes to be coached along. I think there are some personalities that liked to be coached and others that don’t thrive or succeed in that environment. William is a lot like me in that he likes to be coached and with Chad’s wisdom and years and experience his intensity and desire to win, I think it could do a lot of good for him.”

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Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

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Friday 5: Here’s how to address NASCAR’s ‘issue with star power’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — International Speedway Corp. President John Saunders created a hubbub Thursday when he cited an “issue with star power” as among the reasons for a 10 percent decline in attendance at the company’s six NASCAR events from March to May.

So if the sport is looking for someone to build around, how about …

Kyle Busch.

No other active driver elicits as a visceral reaction as Busch. Many heartily booed him after he won last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, while his fans cheered, creating a confluence of noise.

Detractors seethed after Busch spun Kyle Larson to win, conveniently forgetting that only seconds earlier Larson’s contact sent Busch into the wall and out of the lead.

After retrieving the checkered flag, Busch walked to the camera and rubbed his eye to mock those crying about his victory.

The boos continued and Busch taunted those fans, telling them: “If you don’t like that kind of racing, don’t even watch.”

Busch, who is tied with Kevin Harvick with a series-high five wins this year, has long accepted there will be a vociferous segment of the fan base that detests him. He never had a chance. He notes that early in his Cup career he was booed as much for being Kurt Busch’s little brother as anything. Kyle Busch’s intensity and antics infuriated some fans and made his backers more determined in their support.

Busch knows he likely will never win most popular driver but isn’t the main goal to win championships?

“There you go,” he said.

As for wearing the symbolic black hat, Busch doesn’t worry about it.

“I’ve had the black hat for a long, long time, so it doesn’t bother me as long as it doesn’t bother my sponsors and they can accept that, as well, too, and … know who I am as a person outside the race car rather than the one minute tidbits of TV that you get from a guy on television,” he said.

This topic of star power is not new. International Speedway Corp. has cited declines in ticket sales in the past to the absence of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart.

Thursday, Saunders cited weather as impacting attendance at some tracks, added: “We still have an issue with star power and hopefully this stable of young drivers coming along will start to win and build their brands.”

Ryan Blaney scoffed at the notion that the weight should be just on the young drivers.

“How many winners this year? Six. Come on now,” the 24-year-old Blaney said. “You can’t just put that on the young guys for not winning. That’s a lot of other people that aren’t winning too.”

Ultimately, the best selling point for the sport is going to be the racing. Have more races and finishes like last weekend will help the sport but it will take more than that.

2. A tale of two trips

Daytona in February is about hope. Daytona in July is about reality.

When NASCAR arrived here in February to begin the season, Hendrick Motorsports was hopeful of getting past its “rough” 2017, Matt Kenseth was not at the track and numerous driver changes provided their teams with hope.

With Cup teams back on the beach, Hendrick Motorsports continues to search for its first win, Kenseth again is not around — but will be back at Kentucky for Roush Fenway Racing — and four of the drivers with new rides this season are in a playoff spot with nine races left in the regular season.

The gear celebrating Hendrick Motorsports’ next win — which will be its 250th in Cup — has been in storage since Kasey Kahne won at Indianapolis. That was 33 races ago.

Hendrick Motorsports entered the season with two new drivers. Alex Bowman took over the No. 88 after Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired, and William Byron climbed into the No. 24, taking Kahne’s spot with the organization. Hendrick also entered with questions about sponsor Lowe’s (it was announced a month after the Daytona 500 that Lowe’s would not return to Jimmie Johnson’s team for 2019).

With Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dominating, there have been few chances for Hendrick Motorsports or other teams to excel. Also, Hendrick and many other Chevrolet teams have struggled with the new Camaro this season.

While Hendrick has seen progress — Alex Bowman has scored back-to-back top-10 finishes the past two weeks for the first time this season and Chase Elliott has three top 10s in the past four races — there have been challenges. Elliott has led only eight laps this season. Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has led two laps this year. Hendrick’s four drivers have combine to lead 106 laps — 65 by Bowman.

At Roush Fenway Racing, the struggles continue. Matt Kenseth’s run in the No. 6 car for Trevor Bayne did not lead to significant improvement.

“We’ve had some tough conversations these last few weeks,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who is battling for a playoff spot. “I think I’ve been pretty vocal in the shop and sometimes whether it be in an interview or on the radio probably when I shouldn’t, and I definitely need to respect all of our guys at the shop that are working hard and trying to provide new stuff for us. We just haven’t got that new stuff as quick as what we wanted.”

Drivers in new places who are in a playoff spot heading into Saturday night’s race are Blaney (Wood Brothers to Team Penske), Aric Almirola (Richard Petty Motorsports to Stewart-Haas Racing), Erik Jones (Furniture Row Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing) and Bowman (no full-time ride to Hendrick).

3. Slide job!

Christopher Bell is enjoying how prevalent the slide job is becoming in NASCAR. It’s a skill Bell and Kyle Larson learned while racing sprint cars on dirt. Other drivers have picked it up, especially at tracks where a high groove is the preferred line.

At those tracks, a driver charges into the corner, cuts to the bottom and lets the car drift up the banking to pass a car and stop that car’s momentum.

Larson attempted the move on Kyle Busch but it didn’t work and Busch went on to win. Noah Gragson tried it on Brett Moffitt on the last lap of the Camping World Truck race at Iowa Speedway but Moffitt got back by.

“It’s cool to me to see that coming to fruition,” Bell said of he move. “Like Iowa, man, the truck race, the Xfinity race, everyone was sliding each other, and I think it’s passing, right, so you get more passes. A guy passes someone going in, and then another guy passes someone coming out. I think it’s exciting to see more guys using it and it becoming more common in NASCAR.”

But that also means drivers are learning how to defend the move better. So what will Bell do?

Hopefully do it some more, right?” he said. “It’s going to be tough here at Daytona, and Kentucky (the groove) is on the bottom, so I won’t get to do it anymore there. But it’s just another trick in the bag, right? So if you get the opportunity to pull it, I’m going to do it.”

4.  Less practice

Rain canceled Thursday’s final Cup practice before any car could run a lap at speed. That left teams with only the 50-minute opening session to prepare for Friday’s qualifying and Saturday night’s race.

Should that be the norm for next season? In the Xfinity Series, only 10 cars went out in the final practice session. Are two sessions needed?

“I think if you had, say, one practice but it was an hour and 20 (minutes) long, I think you’d be fine with that,” Kyle Busch said. “I think that would be enough and that would be beneficial to being able to go straight into a qualifying and into the race. Fifty (minutes) may be a tick short for what some guys want to do.”

5. Will the streak continue?

There has been a different driver win each of the last eight July Daytona races. The streak started with Kevin Harvick in 2010 and he was followed by David Ragan, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Aric Almirola, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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Friday 5: Lack of cautions limit gambles by crew chiefs

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The art of gambling along pit road could become more difficult even as some crew chiefs become more desperate.

Cautions are down 23.6 percent this season compared to this time last year. Simply, there are fewer opportunities for strategy calls by crew chiefs. It also means there are not as many chances to improve a car late in the race to challenge Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer, who have combined to win 14 of the first 16 Cup races.

But what’s key is when those cautions aren’t taking place.

Cautions in the final stage of the race — when a crew chief can have the most impact with strategy — are down 41.4 percent from this point last season.

Seven of the first 16 races have seen either one or zero cautions in the final stage. While green-flag racing can be great for fans, it limits opportunities for crew chiefs to gamble.

“The lack of yellows is helping the dominant cars win the race and hurting the creative guys trying to mix up the field,” NBC analyst Steve Letarte said this week during the NASCAR America Debrief podcast with Nate Ryan.

Only once in the last four races has there been more than one caution in the final stage. That was Pocono, where Busch give up the lead to pit with 20 laps to go while Truex stayed out. Busch restarted eighth, behind cars that did not pit or took only two tires. A pair of late cautions limited Busch’s opportunity to get to the front quickly. The result was that he finished third to Truex. Kyle Larson, who also did not pit during that caution with 20 laps to go, finished second.

There have been a couple of races where gambles could have been made but weren’t this season. At Richmond, the lack of gambling was curious. At Michigan, radar and weather apps thwarted crew chiefs.

As the Cup Series heads into the final 10 races before the playoffs, beginning with Sunday’s race at Chicagoland Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the race for those final playoff spots will become intense. Only six of the 16 spots are set based on drivers who have won. 

If the trend continues of the same drivers winning — Harvick, Truex, Busch and Bowyer have combined to win the last six races — the pressure will build on teams hoping to win to make the playoffs. With fewer cautions, the chances of those teams will grow more desperate. 

2. Domination

At some point someone has to break the stranglehold Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have had at 1.5-mile tracks. Right?

Those three have combined to win the last 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks, dating back to last year’s race at Kentucky. Seven times during that streak, including the last four races, Harvick, Busch or Truex have taken the top two spots.

Of course, Truex has won the past two races at Chicagoland Speedway, site of Sunday’s race and a 1.5-mile track.

The only driver not named Harvick, (Kyle) Busch or Truex to finish in the top two in a 1.5-mile race this season is Brad Keselowski, who was runner-up to Harvick at Atlanta in March.

And, if you discount the plate races, Harvick, Busch and Truex have combined to win 20 of the last 23 races (86.9 percent) since the start of last year’s playoffs.

3. Staying put

If you missed it, Denny Hamlin said on this week’s Dale Jr. Download that he is in the first year of a “long-term” contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.

The 37-year-old Hamlin, who has 31 career Cup victories but none this year, told Dale Earnhardt Jr. that he plans to keep racing for some time.

“I’ve got a good long-term contract now that we just started this year that goes for a while and maybe do another short one after that and that would be it,” Hamlin said. “Not that I don’t love the sport. I want to go as long as I’m competitive, obviously. That’s going to be right around the time my kids are going to start to be in sports or whatever they’re in to, and I want to be around for that.”

4. Good and bad

Kyle Busch has won four races, but he’s been passed for the win four times this season.

He’s won at Texas, Bristol, Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600. He was the last driver to lead before the eventual winner took the point at Las Vegas (Harvick won), Auto Club (Truex), Martinsville (Bowyer) and Pocono (Truex).

5. When will Chevrolet win again?

Austin Dillon’s Daytona 500 win is Chevrolet’s only Cup victory in the last 26 races.

Chevrolet’s last five wins have been by Larson (fall Richmond and both Michigan races last year), Kasey Kahne (Indianapolis last year) and Dillon (Daytona 500).

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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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