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Stage racing again takes center stage

Those lapsed NASCAR fans who don't like this year's new stage racing and championship points system are going to miss an interesting final showdown during the next seven races that will determine the 16 drivers who advance to the postseason.

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I like the stages, because they force drivers to run hard throughout the race and reward those who do, especially the fastest and most consistent. Isn't that what a championship is supposed to be about? And, oh yes, it's a more entertaining approach and makes for better TV.

So why the lower TV ratings?

A meaningful poll is not available. But apparently the lapsed fans are the ones who account for the same missing viewers race after race this year. They refuse to accept the change to stages. This explains the consistency to the lower ratings. In other words, the ratings are missing the same folks each week. This is decidedly different from an ever-increasing downhill plunge.

Those who continue to tune in regularly apparently like the stage racing. It accounted for an interesting race on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where it's tough to pass. The stages jumbled the field before Denny Hamlin won by following a track position strategy. He held off -- barely -- Kyle Larson, whose team was playing the stages for all the points they were worth.

Hamlin's goal was to win his first race in 2017 to get the guaranteed advancement to the playoffs and to break Joe Gibbs Racing's 20-race losing streak. To gain an edge, he and crew chief Mike Wheeler sacrificed points by pitting early in Stage 1, then moved to the front at the re-start.

"We weren't the fastest car all race long," said Wheeler. "We had a top-five car. There was probably one or two guys a little bit faster, but we were in contention all day and made it happen."

Larson and his Chip Ganassi-owned team, by contrast, were trying to recover from last week's severe points penalty and overtake Martin Truex Jr. for the 26-race regular-season points championship. Hence, the emphasis on Stage 1 and 2 points.

The Ganassi team also liked its chances of Larson winning on straight speed. At the finish, Chevy driver Larson came within 0.509 seconds of catching Hamlin's Toyota. This despite starting 39th and last due to yet another penalty for illegal equipment -- a rear deck fin -- used in qualifying.

Larson had a late-race moment as he was reeling in Hamlin and was running out of laps. "What do you want me to do?" the exasperated driver asked his team on the radio.

In other words, an evidently tired Larson was asking what more he could accomplish after coming from the back and getting points in each stage? Ultimately, he couldn't beat the combination of strategy and speed by Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team. Hamlin restarted fourth at the last green flag -- one position ahead of Larson -- and broke away to a two-second lead.

"I was catching him a couple tenths of a lap there," said Larson. "And then it seemed like when I got kind of close there, I don't know, within four or five car lengths at the end, my lap times kind of evened off a little bit with him. I started getting too tight on exit, and I couldn't carry the speed on exit like I needed to."

It was another heroic performance by the 24-year-old Larson, who is already a fan favorite -- even if his frustration showed at the end. It was the third time Larson has started at the rear and finished second this season. The Ganassi team at least demonstrated that its speed wasn't coming from the illegal parts found after the Kentucky race or in qualifying at Loudon.

Truex, meanwhile, led early from the pole and won the first stage, taking his league-leading 14th playoff bonus point. His Toyota cut a tire, which forced an unscheduled pit stop, and then developed handling issues at the finish of a race where he led 139 laps, the most of any driver.

Due to the stage points system, Truex ended up with more points compared to Larson (49 to 45) despite finishing one position behind him. Hamlin, for his part, got no stage playoff bonus point and earned just two points more than Truex (51 to 49). Those regular-season points, of course, help determine who gets the most playoff bonus points after 26 races.

The outcome at Loudon all seems like fair rules of engagement, especially since Hamlin earned a playoff spot and the five playoff bonus points that go to the winner. The new system had everybody pushing from start to finish and went a long way to determining who could sustain the pace and consistency best.

Watching Larson push from the back to the front to get points so often this year is almost reason enough to endorse the stages.

One driver whose team failed on the strategy side was Matt Kenseth, who opted for a two-tire change when all his competition went for four on the final stop. Kenseth and his crew need to gamble a bit, because he's been behind on stage points and his chances of moving to the playoffs are precarious in his final season at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Despite the bad call on tires and a speeding penalty for Kyle Busch, the Gibbs team was back in its 2016 form. All four Toyotas entered by the team were competitive, including a sixth-place finish by rookie Daniel Suarez. Busch looked to have the winning combination until he goofed by 0.01 mph on the final trip down the pit road.

After sending four drivers to the postseason in 2016, JGR now has one driver assured of making it to the playoffs. Busch, who won the second stage, is almost a lock due to his third-place points standings and constant threats to win a race. That leaves Kenseth currently locked in a battle with his old non-friend Joey Logano for the final position in the 16-man field.

The way the stage points work, there's no way to predict who might come out ahead. If Logano, who trails Kenseth by 52 points, has one good race that includes stage points, and Kenseth has one poor finish, they would be neck-to-neck in a heartbeat.

The wild card of "win and you're in" is always in play, too.

Copyright 2017 by STATS LLC.
Any commercial use or distribution without the express
written consent of STATS LLC is strictly prohibited.

  
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