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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NASCAR entry lists for Kentucky Speedway

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Following the race weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR continues its season with a visit to Kentucky Speedway.

All three national series will be in action at the 1.5-mile track. The Xfinity Series holds a doubleheader to start the weekend.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for the weekend.

Cup – Quaker State 400 (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FS1)

Thirty-eight cars are entered.

Jimmie Johnson has been medically cleared to compete after testing negative for COVID-19 twice.

No driver is listed for Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet.

JJ Yeley is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 27 Ford.

Kurt Busch won this race last year over Kyle Busch and Erik Jones.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity race No. 1 – Shady Rays 200 (7:30 p.m. ET Thursday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Brett Moffitt is entered in Our Motorsports’ No. 02 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is entered in SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

Jeb Burton is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

No driver is listed on DGM Racing’s No. 36 Chevrolet.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity race No. 2  – Alsco 300 (8 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

Thirty-six cars are entered.

Daniel Hemric is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Cole Custer won this race last year over Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Trucks – Buckle Up in Your Truck 225 (6 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Forty trucks are entered.

Ryan Truex is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Chevrolet.

Natalie Decker is listed for Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet. Decker missed the last race at Pocono due to a hospitalization. NBC Sports has reached out to the team to confirm that she’s been medically cleared to race.

Click here for the entry list.

 

NASCAR Cup live stream at Indianapolis: Start time, TV, lineup, forecast for Sunday

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The NASCAR Cup Series looks to start a new tradition by racing on the Fourth of July weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The start time at Indianapolis is 4:24 p.m. ET (Watch on NBC or the NASCAR Cup live stream on the NBC Sports app).

Kevin Harvick looks to continue his strong run this season and win at this historic track for the third time in his career and second year in a row.

Denny Hamlin, who beat Harvick a day after Harvick beat him at Pocono, will look to win at the Brickyard for the first time after coming close before.

Justin Allgaier drives the No. 48 car today after Jimmie Johnson tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday.

Here is the NASCAR Cup live stream, start time at Indianapolis and other info for Sunday’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Records President & CEO, will give the command to start engines at 4:13 p.m. The green flag for the is scheduled to wave at 4:24 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 8 a.m. (teams are assigned specific times). Engine prime and final adjustments at 1:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4:05 p.m by Pastor Mark Schuitema of College Park Church in Indianapolis. The national anthem will be performed at 4:06 p.m. by Valory Music Company recording artist Abbey Cone. Two A-10 Warthogs from the 122nd Fighter Wing of the Indiana Air National Guard in Fort Wayne, Indiana, will perform the flyover.

DISTANCE: The race is 160 laps (400 miles) around the 2.5-mile speedway.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, the entire field will go down pit road during a pace lap for pit road speed verification. If a driver stops in the pit box for any reason, pull over or slow down, they will start at the rear of the field.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 12.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 50. Stage 2 ends on Lap 100.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with the NASCAR America Pre-Race Show on NBCSN. Countdown to Green follows at 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN before coverage moves to NBC for the race. Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network’s coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

LIVE STREAM: You can watch the race on NBCSports.com or the Brickyard live stream NBC Sports app.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy conditions with a high of 90 degrees and a 16% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Denny Hamlin won at Pocono. Kevin Harvick placed second. Erik Jones was third.

LAST RACE AT INDIANAPOLIS: Kevin Harvick won last September’s race. Joey Logano was second. Bubba Wallace placed third.

TO THE REAR: Justin Allgaier (replaces Jimmie Johnson in the No. 48) and Timmy Hill (failed pre-race inspection twice).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup.

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Kurt Busch to make 700th career Cup start

Justin Allgaier ready for starring role as Jimmie Johnson’s understudy

Jimmie Johnson uncertain how he got COVID-19JJ tests positive

First 15 Cup races have been “eye-opening” for Christopher Bell

Indy says no need to alter barrier Brad Keselowski struck in 2019 race

Friday 5: Crew chief strategies will be key at Indianapolis 

Face masks among precautions for Bristol All-Star Race

Indy provides a treasure trove of memories for Cup drivers 

Can anybody catch Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick?

First 15 Cup races have been ‘eye-opening’ for Christopher Bell

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Believe it or not, Christopher Bell has not come to dread Thursdays.

That’s when NASCAR announces the starting lineup, based on a random draw, for Cup races.

Due to his position in the owner points (which the draw is based on), the rookie driver has started 32nd or worse in five of the last seven races. That rough patch continues Sunday in the Brickyard 400 (4 p.m. ET on NBC), when Bell and his No. 95 Toyota start 35th.

“Honestly, I haven’t even been paying attention to it,” Bell said Friday in a Zoom press conference. “I go to the racetrack and then just listen to see what the damage is when my team tells me. But it’s the name of the game and we buried ourselves there that first four weeks and really, really killed our points.”

For Bell, the first four races of his Cup career were a “disaster,” as he had two DNFs and failed to finish better than 21st.

After NASCAR’s COVID-19 shutdown, that bad start continued at Darlington, where he placed 24th. But his slow rebound began in the second Darlington race with an 11th-place finish. He followed that with his first top 10 in the Coca-Cola 600.

Since the sport’s return, Bell has five finishes of 11th or better, including his first career top five in the first race of the Pocono doubleheader last weekend. His only DNF since May 17 was for a crash in the second Pocono race.

But it hasn’t been enough to dig himself out of the cellar of the owner point standings and achieve his “No. 1 goal” of getting to the 24th spot. The way the random draws are done, being 24th in owner points would allow Bell to start anywhere between 13th and 24th.

“It’s crazy … I ran fourth for Pocono 1 and then I looked at the points and I didn’t make any headway at all because I’m pretty sure (Michael) McDowell ran eighth and the guys that I’m racing in points, it seems like whenever I have a good day, they have a good day too,” Bell said.

Through 15 races, Bell is 26th in owner points. He trails McDowell by three points and fellow rookie John Hunter Nemechek, who is 24th, by 17 points.

“So it’s been very frustrating, we’re just gonna keep plugging on and thankfully, these races are 400-500 mile races and not sprint races,” Bell said.

For Bell, the strategy involved in Cup races compared to shorter Xfinity races is what’s surprised him the most about his rookie season with Leavine Family Racing. The biggest difference: pit stops.

“It just seems like the races are way more dynamic in the Cup Series, you know that the strategy is all over the board,” Bell said. “Even if you go to a place like Atlanta or Homestead where you put four tires on every time you pit, there might be 10 pit stops in one race. Compared to the Xfinity Series, there’s guaranteed only going to be three, maybe four. So that’s been very eye-opening just how many times you come down pit road, how many times you pit. But as far as competition standpoint, I knew what I was getting into in the Cup Series. The Xfinity side you have that eight-ish number of competitive cars and that number gets turned into 25 on the Cup side.”

Going into his 16th Cup start and his first Brickyard 400, you can count Bell among the drivers who have actually preferred not having practice and qualifying, even if it means he’s starting deep in the field.

“For me, I feel like it fits what I’ve grown up doing,” Bell said. “And if you look at our performance, we’ve ran exceptionally better since we stopped practicing for whatever reason that is. But I really enjoy it and as a rookie, going to the racetrack … I’m not starting on the pole or the front row so I’m not having to go wide open into Turn 1 and expect the car to stick or anything you know. I have enough time starting in the back that we’re able to just creep up on it and I feel like I’ve done a good job of not overstepping my limits and making sure that I get to that first pit stop where we can tune the car to my liking and stuff like that.”

Defining moments of the Xfinity Series season

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It took five months, but the Xfinity Series has reached the halfway point in its regular season following last Sunday’s event at Pocono Raceway.

The series has completed 12 races ahead of Saturday’s inaugural race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

A year after it was dominated by the “Big 3” of Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer, the series is not lacking dominant drivers, controversy and excitement.

Here’s a look back the season so far through key quotes, moments and stats.

Key quotes

“I’m speechless right now, I didn’t think this would come. … I spent a lot of time with (team owner) Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. this week, talking for about two hours. Wanted to be a better speedway race. He told me ‘Go have fun. Wreckers or checkers, you got to manage your gaps, be there at the end and just go lead the damn the thing.’ That’s what we did.” – Noah Gragson after winning his first career Xfinity Series race in February at Daytona.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced. I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.” – Myatt Snider a few days after he was spun by Gragson during the Xfinity race at Las Vegas.

“This is more than a race win, it’s the biggest day of my life after the toughest day of my life. To beat the best there is just so satisfying.” – Briscoe after his emotional win over Kyle Busch at Darlington.

“When you’re a man and you throw a punch, you better be able to take a punch.” – Gragson following his contact with Allgaier and win at Bristol.

“Oh my God, oh my God, I won on an oval. Do you like that? Whoo!” – Allmendinger after his victory at Atlanta.

(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Key Moments

– Gragson held off Burton and Timmy Hill in a two-lap shootout to win the season-opener at Daytona for his first career Xfinity victory. His celebration included sliding across the hood of his car like Bo and Luke Duke from “The Dukes of Hazzard” and performing a burnout until he caught the track on fire.

– Burton kept teammate Riley Herbst at bay in the closing laps to win at Auto Club Speedway for his first career Xfinity victory. He joined his uncle Ward Burton in earning his first Xfinity win on Leap Day (Feb. 29).

Brandon Jones passed teammate Kyle Busch with 20 laps to go at Phoenix and went on to secure his second career Xfinity win.

– In one of the most memorable and emotional finishes in recent memory, Chase Briscoe engaged in a duel with Busch over the last few laps at Darlington, making contact multiple times before Briscoe took the checkered flag. The win came days after Briscoe and his wife learned she had experienced a miscarriage.

– While battling for the lead with five laps to go in the scheduled distance at Bristol, teammates Gragson and Allgaier made contact, causing Allgaier to lose control and crash, eliminating him. In overtime, Gragson beat Briscoe and Jones for his second win of the year.

A.J. Allmendinger led the final 37 laps and won at Atlanta, scoring his first ever motorsports victory on an oval track.

– During the four races that made up the Dash 4 Cash program, Kaulig Racing claimed three of the four $100,000 bonuses, as Ross Chastain claimed $200,000 and Allmendinger claimed $100,000. It scored two wins (Allmendinger at Atlanta and Justin Haley at Talladega) and seven top fives.

– Briscoe used his front bumper to get Chastain loose on the first lap of the overtime finish for Sunday’s race at Pocono, passed him in Turn 2 and went on to a series-leading fourth victory.

Key Stats

– Through 12 races, there have been three first-time Xfinity winners. Noah Gragson opened the year with his win at Daytona and has been followed by Harrison Burton (Auto Club Speedway) and Justin Haley (Talladega).

Chase Briscoe in victory lane after his win at Pocono. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

– Through 12 races, there have been seven different winners, with Chase Briscoe leading with four wins. Last year, there were five different winners at this point. Busch, Bell and Custer were tied with three wins each at that point.

– Briscoe’s four wins put him in a five-way tie for second all-time among Xfinity regulars for most wins through 12 races. Sam Ard is the leader with five (1984).

– Burton and Ross Chastain are tied with 10 top-10 finishes each. Burton set a series rookie record by opening the season with 10 consecutive top 10s. He’s crashed and finished 32nd in the last two races.

– The final lead change came with less than 10 laps to go in seven of the last eight races and with two laps to go or less in five of the last eight races.

– Lead changes in the last eight races are up 23% compared to the prior eight races.