By Steve Mickey
Martin Truex Jr. passed Brad Keselowski on the last lap of the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday and in the process made some history in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He became the first driver to win both the first and second stages of a race and then go on and grab the checkered flag.
This is the first season for NASCAR’s new stage racing and its newly revamped point system that awards points after each of the first two stages as well at the conclusion of the race. Truex earned ten points for winning each stage and 40 points for the win which made him the first Cup driver to earn the maximum number of points (60) for a race.
Truex also collected the maximum number of seven playoff points with his dominating performance. The winner of the race collects five playoff points and each stage win is worth one playoff point. Those seven points that were collected on Sunday were more important than race points to Truex as the win all but guaranteed his spot in the Chase and the playoff points that he collected will carry over this season throughout the three rounds leading up to the season ending race at Homestead-Miami.
Even though the season is only three races old, it is becoming very apparent to every driver and crew chief that both the points that are awarded in the stages and the bonus point available to the winner of the first two stages could make a huge difference in a driver’s season. Winning a race is still the quickest way of earning a Chase spot but every year there are still some drivers that will earn their spot in the playoff by their position in the point standings.
The day that Kyle Larson had at Vegas on Sunday shows how the points picked up during the opening two stages can have on a driver that does not win the race. Larson finished second in the race which awarded him 35 points and he posted a second place finish in the opening stage followed by a third place finish in the second stage. The second place finish was worth nine points and he earned eight points for the third place finish. All total he collected 52 points on Sunday and even though he has yet to collect a win in any of the stages so far this season he sits in second place in the point standings with 131 points which is just one point less than Brad Keselowski.
The availability of so many points at each stop on the schedule will make the point standings look like a game of “Chutes and Ladders” after each race. Drivers can easily find themselves making a huge jump in the standings after a good run as well as a free fall after a bad performance.
The availability of so many points has also made the job of crew chief even more difficult as they have to come up with a different strategy for every race as the length of the stages vary depending on the track. They now have to figure out when to pit in relationship to the end of one of the two opening stages but at the same time keep an eye on the end of the race and how the early race strategy that they employ will play out in the closing laps of a race.
NASCAR has to be pleased with the action that has taken place during the first three races. That was long enough for everyone to see that where a driver finishes in the first two stages is important and will matter when it is time to crown a champion. It’s a long season but this could be the season that a point earned during the race and not at the end of the race will be the difference in who becomes the first ever Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion.
Event: Camping World 500 (k)
Track: Phoenix International Raceway (1 mile oval, Turns 1-2 banked 11o, Turns 3-4 banked 9o)
Date: March 19, 3:30 pm
Defending Champion: Kevin Harvick