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'Stage Points Are a Big Deal' on Sunday at Dega

Advancing could have been won and lost at the margins on Sunday in Alabama.


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For the most part, and for better or worse depending on where loyalties lie, the NASCAR Cup Series playoff picture remained static from flag to flag on Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

There were two obvious exceptions, of course, in terms of race winning and advancing into the Round of 8 Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman, whom was unable to start the race due to concussion like symptoms. Meanwhile, everyone else kind of just stayed in the spot they came into town with.

Due to the lack of a Big One and a low level of attrition, there simply wasn’t a lot of room for movement up and down the playoff grid, but there were certainly missed opportunities for those needing to make something happen.

Christopher Bell entered the race 25 points below the cutline but earned the pole on Saturday in the perfect position to score some valuable stage points throughout the race. Instead, he scored none, spun out on pit road and ultimately finished 17th with only 20 points earned.

"Just a very disappointing finish," Bell said. "Needed to score a lot of points and unfortunately, we didn’t get enough today. So, we’ll have to go to the Roval and do our best. I feel okay about our chances there. I think we’ll be competitive and just have to go there and try to win."

The spin came during the middle of green flag pit stops in the middle of Stage 2. That might have been the difference in scoring a handful of points, not to mention better track position for the final stage, as well.

"As soon as I got to the brakes, the rears locked up," Bell said. "I didn't have a chance and I was on a ride at that point."

Bell didn't air any of his frustrations over his team radio, but he wasn't calm.

"Calm isn't the right word," Bell said. "I just stayed off the button. Just a disappointing day."

Bell wasn't the only championship eligible driver failing to score any playoff points on Sunday as he was joined by William Byron. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is in a complicated position in that he entered the race eight points below the cutoff five days after NASCAR docked him 25 points for an incident under caution with Denny Hamlin last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

That penalty has been appealed, but there is no guarantee that it could be reduced, and Byron really needed to score more than 25 points on Sunday. As a result, Byron is still below the cutline and now 11 points out, pending the results of the appeal this week.

Byron took the green with 12 laps to go in the first stage in second behind Denny Hamlin but got shuffled out of the pack and finished the stage in 11th.

No points, and he wasn’t able to score any in the second segment either.

"I was working well with (Hamlin)," Byron said. "I tried to work to the bottom, and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

"I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward."

Austin Cindric recovered from an early race, minimal contact incident to finish fourth in that first stage and ninth overall with 35 total points. They weren’t able to score any in the second round, but 35 points was kind of the overall median target for everyone today.

He gained seven points on Chase Briscoe and they enter the ROVAL tied for the final provisional transfer position.

"Stage points are a big deal," Cindric said. "Obviously, helping the 12 car get a stage win was big and recovery from the wreck, damage control and driving back up through the field, I think when everybody kind of scatters to try and do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive and I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved."

Cindric also recognizes he was a little lucky coming to the first green-and-checkered flag.

"Call it 50/50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck, but, overall, it certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the Roval," he added. "So, we’ll put our best foot forward and have some fun next week."

At the top of the standings, Joey Logano entered this race with a substantial 37 point lead. Despite also being involved in that early crash, he gained five points by the end of the first stage, which was valuable because he gained none in the second stage and ultimately finished 27th.

That’s an underwhelming 16 points scored overall, and thus, the 2018 champion is just 18 points above the cutline -- well within range of getting bumped out with a disaster of a race next weekend at the Roval.

And in hindsight, if next Sunday doesn’t go well, he might have done it to himself.

"We just wreck all the time so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10 assuming they would wreck because they always do," Logano said.

Except they didn’t.

"That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck," Logano said. "We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus 18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash.

"I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that then I tried it and it didn’t work."

Denny Hamlin seemed largely content to take the top-five on the final restart, especially after scoring eight stage points in the first stage and building on his +15 point lead entering the race. It’s now +28 ahead of the Charlotte Roval.

"To me, this is a three-race season that we have and we’re points racing."

To wit, Hamlin wasn’t going to pull off the bottom and wasn’t going to put himself in a position to be crashed from the outside, especially with a car that doesn’t particularly race well three-wide at Talladega.

"You’re stuck in two different lanes and I chose the bottom lane, I was committed to it," Hamlin said. "When I pushed Chase (Elliott) to the top lane there, I thought about going with him, but it would have put me middle with the 43 (Erik Jones) and I didn’t think the risk of going back to 15th or 20th was worth it. I just stuck bottom and rode it out and ended up with a top-five.

"We executed the day we wanted to honestly. We came in here trying to get 30 points and we executed that."

Onto the Roval and the second elimination race of the playoffs.

1. Chase Elliott Advanced
2. Ryan Blaney +32
3. Ross Chastain +28
4. Denny Hamlin +21
5. Joey Logano +18
6. Kyle Larson +18
7. Daniel Suarez +12
8. Chase Briscoe +0
9. Austin Cindric -0
10. William Byron -11
11. Christopher Bell -33
12. Alex Bowman -54