In the 4,712 laps covered in the first half of an unpredictable Cup season filled with 13 different visitors to Victory Lane, including five first-time winners, and many ups and downs, not every lap counts in the same way.
Some laps are meaningful because they come to an end, while others that seem insignificant turn out to be anything but as the race progresses.
Here’s a look at five rounds this season that impacted the season:
1. Tower 188 in Talladega
Erik Jones led the pack into the final corner of the final lap, but Talladega’s start/finish line is further down the straight than most tracks.
By the time the peloton reached the finish line, Jones was sixth after an unfortunate high side block cleared the bottom lane for Ross Chastain to take his second win of the season.
This April round is important because if Jones had won, the series would have 14 different winners instead of 13. With 14 different winners, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. would be on the boundary line for Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET Sunday the US Network). Instead, Truex’s teammate Christopher Bell is on the cut line.
After crossing the finish line, Jones radioed his team, “I just went too far. Sorry.”
By going too far from turn 4, he allowed the peloton to recover and gain momentum.
As the field closed, Jones ran up the track to block Kyle Larson, who rushed outside of Jones’ car. Jones had no help behind. Chastain and others went inside because Jones was too far down the track to block them.
Equally important is that Chastain won. He’s tied with Chase Elliott and William Byron for the most playoff points this season with 13. Chastain is third in the season standings, trailing Elliott by 35 points heading into this weekend. Those playoff points could come in handy for Chastain later this season.
2. Tower 354 in Richmond
Few could have imagined how important this round would be, except perhaps Denny Hamlin’s team.
Overtaking was tough at the 400 lap race at Richmond in April, but tire wear was significant. This made it possible to move around the field.
A key question in the final stage of the race was whether the team leaders would split the final 90 laps and pit twice or just once. Going extra time meant more time on pit road, but it would be worth it if the cooler tires overcome that deficit.
William Byron made his final pit stop on lap 311 and raced the final 89 laps of the race on the same set of tyres. He had not run more than 73 laps on one set of tires earlier in the event.
Hamlin stopped on lap 310 after completing 50 laps on one set of tires. He made his final pit stop on lap 354. He was among the last cars to pit during that cycle.
Hamlin chased Byron and passed him with five laps to go to win.
The finish made crew chief Chris Gabehart’s lap 354 pit call significant as it was Hamlin’s first win of the season.
If he hadn’t gotten it, his win at the Coca-Cola 600 would be his only victory of the season. That’s key as Hamlin is assured of a playoff berth with two wins.
If he had just one win, he would rank lowest among the winners of a race and risk missing the playoffs if there were enough winners to fight his way into the playoff field. playoffs.
3. Tower 325 in Atlanta
March’s race at the reconfigured circuit proved dramatic with 11 warnings, 31 cars involved in crashes and 46 lead changes.
The biggest moment came on the last lap straight. As William Byron led the field, Christopher Bell passed Ross Chastain and crossed the finish line second behind Byron.
But Bell went under the double white line to advance his position on the backstretch.
This was a new rule for this race, which used the superspeedway racing package and some of the rules seen at Daytona and Talladega – such as no passing under double yellow lines at those tracks.
NASCAR penalized Bell by making him the last car on the lead lap. This moved him from second to 23rd place. The penalty cost Bell 21 points.
He heads into Sunday’s return visit to Atlanta holding the final playoff spot by 20 points over Kevin Harvick. Had Bell passed Chastain without going under the double white line, Bell would be 41 points ahead of Harvick and just 20 points over teammate Martin Truex Jr. in the playoff standings.
4. Tower 293 in Nashville
The peloton made a decision with the warning eight laps before the finish of the June race at Nashville Superspeedway.
Pit or stay out.
Chef Chase Elliott stayed outside. Behind him were Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr.
All were lucky enough to stay out and go back to the front line with Elliott.
None took it.
Two by mistake.
Busch was called to pit road for two tires. Hamlin was told to stay out if he could get the front row for the restart, which he would do by Busch in the pits.
But before Hamlin approached pit road, interim crew chief Sam McAulay told him to only stay out if he could take the lead when McAulay actually meant the front row. McAulay, the team’s engineer, served as interim crew chief with Chris Gabehart serving last race in a four-stroke suspension for one wheel dropping out of the car at Dover.
Following the directive to pit if he couldn’t take the lead, Hamlin did just that.
That meant Truex – seeking his first win of the season to claim a playoff berth – could restart at No. 1 by staying out. It was crew chief James Small’s order, but Truex went down pit road by mistake, wasting a chance to win and not risk losing a playoff spot.
Elliott picked up his second win of the season and five more playoff points. Truex, instead of eventually winning, finished 22nd. Not only did the mistake cost him a win, it also cost him around 20 points.
It was the second time a late warning pit call cost the JGR riders a chance to win. Busch was leading and Truex was second when the warning came out in Las Vegas, sending the race into overtime. The pitted ground. Busch and Truex took four tires each, but Hendrick Motorsports teammates Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman and William Byron took two tires each and restarted ahead of Busch and Truex.
Bowman passed Larson on the restart to win. Busch finished fourth. Truex was eighth.
5. Tower 292 in Darlington
Joey Logano took William Byron out of the lead with less than two laps to go and won the May race at Darlington.
Logano took umbrage with Byron hugging him to the wall in Turn 2 with 26 laps to go as they battled for the lead. After that, Logano was ready to be more aggressive with Byron.
“He crushes everyone,” Byron said as he walked through the garage after the race. “I don’t see what’s different. He does it to everyone. Didn’t even let us finish. It goes around (the corner) 10 mph faster. Dumb.”
The biggest impact wasn’t that it was the first of Logano’s two wins this season or that he prevented Byron from winning what would have been a record third race this year, that’s what could happen. .
How will Byron face off against Logano as he gets closer to the playoffs or playoffs? Will this finish change how they run with each other in other close situations?