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Friday 5: How a few laps in March could impact the playoff race

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In a season that stretches from February to November, covers more than 13,000 miles and competes in 20 states, it often can be the moments easily overlooked that prove to be among the most important.

The race for points is becoming increasingly critical with only six winners — the fewest this deep into a season since 1996. If Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer continue to win (they’ve combined to win 13 of the first 15 races), that would mean several of the 16 playoff spots would be set by points.

If so, even the smallest moments could determine who makes the playoffs or how many playoff points, if any, a driver scores for finishing in the top 10 in the regular season, which ends Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott enters this off-weekend 14th in the playoff standings. He has a 31-point lead on what would be the final playoff position, held by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

Even with the dominance of Harvick, Busch, Truex and Bowyer, it seems likely there will be at least two different winners before the postseason, meaning Elliott will need to climb higher in the points — if he’s not one of those winners — to secure a playoff spot.

Recall that he’s already lost 45 points this season because of penalties at Phoenix and Texas this season.

Then look back at the middle of that Phoenix race in March.

Elliott was fourth and in position to score seven points in the second stage until a late caution. He scored none.

Things changed for Elliott when Chris Buescher hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 147. The second stage ended at Lap 150. NASCAR cleared the track in time to run one green-flag lap before the stage ended.

Elliott pitted during that caution with many of the leaders, who were focused on positioning themselves to win the race instead of scoring stage points.

Six cars did not pit. That included Kurt Busch, who was behind Elliott in fifth, and Brad Keselowski, who was sixth.

Elliott restarted outside the top 10 and didn’t make it up there for the end of the stage. So seven points he looked to be in position to gain were gone. Elliott went on to finish third in the race.

Busch won that stage to earn a playoff point but would finish 10th in the race. Keselowski went on to finish 15th after finishing second in that stage.

One who gained points at Phoenix was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He is four points out of what would be the final playoff spot at this moment.

Stenhouse was running 20th before the caution for Buescher’s incident. Stenhouse did not pit and lined up third for the one-lap run to end the stage. He finished third, gaining eight points that he wouldn’t have scored had Buescher’s accident not happened.

It can be simple decisions — pit or not — that can play a big factor in how the season goes for some teams. Lose too many points and one could miss the playoffs. Steal points and that could help a team be eligible for a run to the championship.

That’s why the end of the second stage at Michigan was critical for drivers such as Elliott and Stenhouse, who do not have a win and are battling for a playoff spot.

Had a winless driver remained on track through the caution — Kasey Kahne stayed out but then pitted the lap before the restart when it appeared that rain wouldn’t be arriving soon — then such a driver could have taken a playoff spot. It would have meant one less playoff spot based on points.

That Bowyer, who was already set in the playoffs with his Martinsville win, triumphed at Michigan allowed those racing for a playoff spot to breathe easier.

But with two road courses to go (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), a restrictor-plate race (Daytona) and possibly two races with the All-Star Race rules package (likely Michigan and Indianapolis) left in the regular season, there’s the chance that there could be some different winners taking playoff spots.

That would make the race for points even tighter and every decision more important.

2. Grassroots racing

With the Cup Series off this weekend, some drivers are taking the chance to race at local tracks.

Kyle Busch finished third to Brian Campbell in the Money in the Bank Super Late Model race Monday at Berlin (Michigan) Raceway.

Kyle Larson is set to run in six days of the nine-day Ohio Sprint Speedweek with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, the series owned by Tony Stewart.

Kasey Kahne also is scheduled to run a few of the Ohio Sprint Speedweek races.

Ohio Sprint Speedweek begins tonight at Attica Raceway Park. Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, hosts the second night of the series on Saturday. The series then goes to Waynesfield Raceway on Sunday night before continuing the following week.

3. A new winner?

The Xfinity Series has had 12 different winners in the first 13 races heading into Sunday’s event at Iowa Speedway.

This weekend’s race will have three drivers who have won this year — Tyler Reddick at Daytona, Christopher Bell at Richmond and Justin Allgaier at Dover.

Ryan Preece, who won at Bristol, is not entered. Spencer Gallagher, who won at Talladega, remains under indefinite suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy. The other winners in the series are full-time Cup drivers.

The odds are in favor or another new winner this weekend in the Xfinity Series.

Points leader Elliott Sadler seeks to snap a 52-race winless streak, dating back to Kentucky in September 2016. Cole Custer is second in the points, and goes for his first win since last year’s season finale in Miami. Daniel Hemric, who is third in the points, seeks his first career series wins. Sunday will be his 47th Xfinity start.

4. No Cup drivers

Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race and Sunday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway both will not have any Cup drivers entered.

This will be the fifth Xfinity race without a full-time Cup driver in it. Full-time Cup drivers were barred from the fourth Dash 4 Cash races and Iowa will be run with all the Cup drivers taking the weekend off from NASCAR.

5. Last break until …

After this weekend, Cup teams will have only one weekend off the rest of the season. Cup teams will race 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 19, the weekend between Michigan (Aug. 12) and Bristol (Aug. 26). The season ends Nov. 18 in Miami.

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Justin Haley to make Xfinity debut at Iowa with GMS Racing

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Justin Haley will make his Xfinity Series debut this weekend at Iowa Speedway in GMS Racing’s No. 23 Chevrolet.

The 19-year-old driver is set to make three Xfinity starts for the team this season.

He will drive a second GMS Racing entry July 6 at Daytona International Speedway. He will also compete Aug. 4 at Watkins Glen.

Haley will be sponsored by The Fraternal Order of Eagles at Iowa.

Haley, who drives for GMS Racing full-time in the Camping World Truck Series, is the latest driver to substitute for the indefinitely suspended Spencer Gallagher. Gallagher was suspended for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy days after winning the April 28 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He has entered NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program.

In the four races since, Gallagher has been replaced by Johnny Sauter, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

In his 35 Truck Series starts, Haley has six top fives and 18 tops 10s. His best result is second in this year’s season opener at Daytona.

The native of Winamac, Indiana, was the 2016 K&N Pro Series East champion.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime to be in top-notch Xfinity Series equipment,” Haley said in a press release. “I can’t say enough about how much the Gallagher family has helped my career over the past few years in the Truck Series. I’m excited to get to Iowa and run a double-header with The Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE) onboard. FOE, along with my family, have been nothing but supportive of me since the beginning. I am humbled to have the support to take the next step into the Xfinity Series, after always being unsure if it would ever happen. Thank you to the whole GMS organization.”

Elliott, who drove the No. 23 at Charlotte and Pocono, will return to the car at Chicagoland (June 30), Daytona (July 6) and Bristol (Aug. 17).

Bowman will drive it again July 13 at Kentucky Speedway.

Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte Motor Speedway

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Forty-one cars are on the preliminary entry list for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

NBC Sports analyst Parker Kligerman will make his first Cup start since 2014 this weekend. He’s driving the No. 96 for Gaunt Brothers Racing.

BJ McLeod will be in the No. 52, a second entry for Rick Ware Racing.

The entry list was updated Monday to add a 41st car — the No. 7 that will be driven by JJ Yeley for NY Racing Team. The team is owned by John Cohen, who was owner of Team Xtreme when it had its Atlanta car stolen from the parking lot of a Georgia hotel in Feb. 2015.

Rob Kauffman, chairman of the Race Team Alliance, tweeted his displeasure with the team entering the event:

Austin Dillon is the defending Coca-Cola 600 winner.

Click here for updated Coca-Cola 600 entry list

In the Xfinity Series, 43 cars are entered for the Alsco 300.

Cup drivers entered are: Ty Dillon, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Jamie McMurray. Elliott is driving the No. 23 for GMS Racing in place of suspended driver Spencer Gallagher.

Kaz Grala, who lost his ride at JGL Racing when the organization shut down the No. 24 because of lack of sponsorship, is entered with the No. 61 car for Fury Race Cars.

Ryan Blaney won last May’s race.

Click here for Xfinity entry list

Chase Elliott to drive in Xfinity race at Charlotte for Spencer Gallagher

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Chase Elliott will replace suspended driver Spencer Gallagher in GMS Racing’s No. 23 Xfinity car this weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the team announced Monday.

Elliott also is scheduled to drive the No. 23 car for GMS Racing at Pocono (June 2), Chicagoland (June 30), Daytona (July 6) and Bristol (Aug. 17).

This will be Elliott’s second Xfinity race of the season. He finished 12th in the series opener at Daytona. Hooters, which is a sponsor on Elliott’s Cup team at Hendrick Motorsports, will sponsor him in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Charlotte. 

NASCAR indefinitely suspended Gallagher on May 2 for violating the sanctioning body’s substance abuse policy.

There is no timetable for Gallagher’s return. It will be dependent on him completing NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program.

“I appreciate GMS letting me get behind the wheel of the No. 23,” Elliott said in a statement from the team. “I’m excited to have Hooters on the car for Charlotte. It’s a big week for them and I look forward to representing them in a new way on the Xfinity side.”

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Suspended Spencer Gallagher told to leave Charlotte Xfinity test

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CONCORD, North Carolina – Spencer Gallagher, suspended indefinitely for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy, briefly attended Monday’s Xfinity Series test at Charlotte Motor Speedway before he was informed he was not allowed to be there and left.

Suspended drivers are not permitted to attended any NASCAR-sanctioned events.

A NASCAR spokesperson said Gallagher was not aware he was barred from the test. Upon learning that his suspension precluded him from being in the garage, he left.

Gallagher declined to answer questions from NBC Sports.

Gallagher, who drives GMS Racing’s No. 23 Chevrolet, was suspended May 2 — four days after winning his first career Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway. He has agreed to take part in the Road to Recovery program. No timetable for his return has been announced.

Former Chip Ganassi Racing driver Brennan Poole took Gallagher’s place during the one-day open test. Poole’s name is on the car and his GMS Racing firesuit. He has not competed in a NASCAR race since last season’s Xfinity finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Johnny Sauter, who drives for GMS Racing in the Camping World Truck Series, drove the No. 23 last Saturday at Dover International Speedway. He finished sixth.

A GMS Racing spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that a driver for the May 26 race at Charlotte — the next Xfinity race — has not been finalized.