Just because NASCAR took the Easter weekend off doesn’t mean we have to go a weekend without writing about the Cup Series. Next Sunday’s race at Bristol is the eighth of the season; meaning that the 2017 schedule is almost a quarter complete. Here are a few things to know after the first seven races of the season.
• The introduction of stage points is creating large intervals in the points standings. The most points a driver could earn in a Cup race in 2016 was 45: 40 points for first, three bonus points for winning the race and then a bonus point for leading a lap and a bonus point for leading the most laps.
In 2017, a driver can earn up to 60 points if he wins the first two stages of the race and then the race itself. And that’s not counting bonus points; a driver can get seven bonus points (one for each stage and five for a win) for the playoffs; up from three a year ago.
Those extra points for stages are being hogged by the same drivers too. While 23 drivers have scored stage points in 2017, eight drivers have finished in the top 10 in at least nine of the 14 stages that have awarded points so far. Since many of the same guys in the top 10 at the conclusion of stages every week it’s why the gaps between drivers are so large compared to a year ago.
After race No. 7 in 2016, Kyle Busch had 259 points. 10th-place Austin Dillon was 61 points back and Ryan Blaney was 115 points behind Busch in 20th. This year, points leader Kyle Larson has 315 points. Kevin Harvick, the driver in 10th, is 117 points behind Larson; a gap larger than the one Blaney was facing a year ago. And only four drivers are within 61 points like Dillon was at this point a year ago.
• The two best drivers overall in 2017 have the most stage top-10s. Larson and Brad Keselowski have each finished in the top 10 in 13 of 14 stages this season. Larson only missed out on the top 10 at the end of stage 2 at Martinsville while Keselowski was outside the top 10 in stage 1 at Auto Club Speedway. Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney each have 11 stage top 10s.
• Larson’s average finish of 5.4 is better than Busch’s average finish of 5.9 at this point a year ago.
• The highest-ranking driver in the points standings who hasn’t scored a stage point is Aric Almirola in 18th. The lone Richard Petty Motorsports driver this season has only finished outside the top 20 once this season and is 13 points ahead of 20th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., a driver who has six stage top-10 finishes.
• Almirola has the 14th-best average finish in the Cup Series. A year ago he’d probably be in 14th in the standings. Denny Hamlin, meanwhile, is tied for 15th in the points and his average finish is just 22nd among full-time drivers. Like Junior, Hamlin has six top 10 stage finishes. If you’re a geek about stage points and how drivers have performed in stages so far, Reddit user xfile345 is doing a heck of a job compiling the statistics in a much easier-to-read format than NASCAR itself is producing.
• Kurt Busch is 15th in the points standings. It’s the lowest a Daytona 500 winner has been in the points after the first seven races since Trevor Bayne in 2011.
• Danica Patrick’s average finish of 25.9 is down nearly four positions from her average finish in 2016.
• Matt DiBenedetto is statistically the worst driver to score a top-10 finish in 2017. His average finish is 26.7 and he finished ninth at, you guessed it, Daytona.
• Jeffrey Earnhardt has run all seven races in 2017 and has scored 24 points. Michael Waltrip, who ran the Daytona 500 and called it a career, has 29 points. Waltrip is also ahead of Gray Gaulding (six races) and Derrike Cope (five races) in the standings.
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