The first round of eliminations in the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs will showcase another element of stage racing in Sunday’s Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway.
Many must win-scenarios have played out in the post-season over the last three years. Kevin Harvick notably won at Phoenix in 2014 to make the Championship 4 before capturing the title.
Winning will still be the simplest way for a team to climb out of an elimination spot and advance to the Round of 12. However, stage racing is again changing the game.
A maximum of 20 points will be up for grabs in the first two stages at Dover, which will be valuable with a 21 point gap separating 12th from 16th on the Playoff Grid.
Kasey Kahne currently sits 16th and has consistently finished poorly over the last month. While this level of performance doesn’t seem to indicate an impending turnaround, strategizing to collect stage points could open the door late in the race.
Kurt Busch entered the post-season with momentum after three consecutive top-five finishes, but he has struggled ever since.
The No. 41 team is 17 points below the cutoff line and will need to rely on stage points to put themselves in position to advance by the end of the race.
A year ago, those higher than the Stewart-Haas Racing driver in the standings would have needed to face issues to give Busch a chance to advance. Now stage points are making it more realistic to mount a comeback.
Knowing where the competition is running will be critical for 12th through 14th place Ricky Stenhoue Jr., Austin Dillon, and Ryan Newman. Any point gained could make the difference between staying in contention and being eliminated, meaning they will need to race much more aggressively this weekend.
Even Jamie McMurray in 11th with a nine-point gap won’t be safe without a strong day as that advantage could be erased by the end of Stage 1.
NASCAR emphasized that every point would matter more in 2017 and it’s getting ready to play out in the first elimination race.
While previous cutoff races have featured tight points battles and must-win scenarios, stage points are now shaping up to create even more drama.
After two tame events to open the Playoffs, the “Monster Mile” could be an entirely different animal and make for an intense 400 laps for all teams on the bubble.
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