Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

Leave a comment

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.

 and on Facebook

Cup Series playoff grid after Brickyard 400

Leave a comment

With Kevin Harvick‘s victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400, no additional drivers locked themselves into the Cup Series playoff field.

But there was some movement at the bottom of the playoff grid as drivers jockey to make the 16-car field.

After he missed the race due to his COVID-19 diagnosis, Jimmie Johnson fell from 12th to 15th on the grid. He’s now 36 points above the cutline.

Matt DiBenedetto earned stage points in each stage before finishing 19th. He moved from 14th to 12th in the standings.

After earning stage points in both stages Sunday, Austin Dillon has cracked the top 16, moving up one spot. He has a six-point advantage over Erik Jones, who crashed out of Sunday’s race and had a 14-point advantage over Dillon entering the weekend.

With his ninth-place finish Sunday, Bubba Wallace is now within reach of the top 16. He sits at 19th, 42 points back from 16th.

Here’s the full playoff grid.

Power Rankings after Pocono: Denny Hamlin a unanimous No. 1

Leave a comment

Denny Hamlin not only won Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono, he also knocked Ryan Blaney off the top spot for this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Hamlin was a unanimous selection of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers for No. 1 in this week’s rankings.

Kevin Harvick, who finished 1st-2nd in the two Pocono races (while Hamlin finished 2nd-1ast), was the biggest gainer, going from unranked last week to a unanimous pick for No. 2 this week. The biggest drop was Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who went from third last week to unranked this week.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Denny Hamlin (30 points): Keeps getting stronger. First four-time winner of the season. Could this be the year he finally wins his first Cup championship? Last week: second.

2. Kevin Harvick (27 points): Came so close to making it a weekend sweep. Has 3 wins, eight top five and 12 top-10 finishes in first 15 races. Has finished outside the top 15 only once this season. Last week: unranked.

3. Aric Almirola (23 points): Four consecutive top fives – his only top fives this season and the best streak of his career – has Almirola back on track after earlier struggles. Last week: fourth (tied).

4. Chase Elliott (15 points): Has four top 10s in the last six races. Last week: seventh.

5. Brad Keselowski (14 points): Since NASCAR returned from the COVID-19 hiatus, Keselowski has two wins and just three finishes outside the top 10 in 11 races. Last week: eighth (tied).

6. Ryan Blaney (13 points): Had an off weekend (best finish was 12th on Saturday) after his win at Talladega. His Pocono finishes snapped a streak of six top-five finishes in his previous seven starts. Last week: first.

7. Martin Truex Jr. (12 points): Has four top 10s, including a win, in the last six races. Last week: unranked.

8. Chase Briscoe (9 points): Has been strong in the Xfinity Series this season, leading the way with four wins – including Sunday at Pocono. Last week: unranked.

9. Erik Jones (8 points): Sunday’s season-best third-place finish – his second top five in the last three races – was a big turnaround from wrecking out Saturday. Last week: 10th (tied).

(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (6 points): Earned pair of top-10 finishes at Pocono, first back-to-back top 10s this season. Can he keep the momentum going at Indianapolis, where he’s had back-to-back fifth-place finishes the last two years? Last week: unranked.

(tie) 10. Alex Bowman (6 points): Earned third top 10 in last five races. Last week: 4th (tied).

Others receiving votes: Matt DiBenedetto (1 point), Brandon Jones (1 point).

Penalty report from Pocono Raceway

Leave a comment

NASCAR has issued fines to five crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts during the race weekend at Pocono Raceway.

Cup

NASCAR fined four crew chiefs $10,000 each for having one unsecured lug nut on their cars following the two Cup races.

Scott Graves (Ryan Newman‘s No. 6 Ford) and John Klausmeier (Clint Bowyer‘s No. 14 Ford) were fined for unsecured lug nuts after Saturday’s race.

James Small (Martin Truex Jr.‘s No. 19 Toyota) and Rodney Childers (Kevin Harvick‘s No. 4 Ford) were fined for unsecured lug nuts after Sunday’s race.

Truck Series

Danny Stockman, crew chief on Brandon Jones‘ No. 51 Chevrolet, was fined $2,500 for an unsecured lug nut after Saturday’s race. Jones was the race winner.

Cup Series playoff grid after Pocono

Leave a comment

For now, Erik Jones is back in and Tyler Reddick is out, with Austin Dillon moving up.

That’s how the NASCAR Cup playoff standings shape up with 11 races remaining in the regular season following last weekend’s doubleheader at Pocono Raceway. The series races at 4 p.m. ET Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on NBC.

Jones’ third-place finish Sunday not only was a significant rebound from Saturday’s 38th-place showing after a wreck, he vaulted over Reddick to take the 16th and final spot for the 10-race Cup playoffs.

Jones had previously been ranked as high as 13th in the playoff picture following last month’s two races at Charlotte, only to get knocked out of the top 16 after finishing 21st at Miami.

“We feel like we definitely should make the playoffs,” said Jones, who entered Sunday six points out of a playoff spot. “We’ve done that the last few years and I don’t see this year as any different.”

Reddick lost his power steering as Sunday’s race began. After repairs were made, his team had to change an alternator belt. Reddick finished 35th, dropping him to 18th in the playoff standings, 26 points behind Jones for the final playoff spot.

Dillon, Reddick’s Richard Childress Racing teammate, finished 14th Sunday to climb to 17th in the playoff standings. He is 14 points behind Jones.

As for the eight drivers locked into the playoffs with wins, Denny Hamlin has the most playoff points (23), followed by Kevin Harvick (16), Joey Logano (14), Brad Keselowski (13), Chase Elliott (10), Alex Bowman (9), Martin Truex Jr. (7) and Ryan Blaney (6).

 

Follow @JerryBonkowski