When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series arrives at Watkins Glen International for this Sunday's I Love New York 355 at The Glen, once again many drivers will be looking to lock down one of the few remaining spots in the season-ending NASCAR playoffs formerly known as "The Chase for The Cup."
This past January NASCAR introduced changes to its season point championship format. After the 26th race, at Richmond on Sept. 9, the regular-season champion plus 15 other drivers based on wins and points will make up the playoff field that will contest for the championship at the beginning of NASCAR's final 10 Cup Series races of the year. The Glen is the 22nd event of the regular season.
If a driver can win at least one race in the first 26 and be 30th or better in the point standings following Richmond, they qualify for the playoffs. Coming into The Glen, 13 drivers have won races this year, meaning that few precious playoff spots remain. If there are not 16 winners in the regular season, the highest finishers in points round out the playoff field.
Winless Matt Kenseth is currently holding down the 16th and final playoff spot with Clint Bowyer one spot out 17 points behind Kenseth.
Also new this season is stage racing. NASCAR has instituted predetermined stage breaks built within the race distance where stage wins and additional bonus points are awarded for stage finishes. Stage wins award one bonus playoff point while a race win awards five. Stage points have a very important role in determining a driver's playoff scenario. The stage breaks in Sundays 90-lap joust at The Glen will occur on laps 20 and 40.
Here is a capsule look at the top 16 drivers entering The Glen:
1-Martin Truex Jr.- Easily one of the strongest drivers and teams in the NASCAR garage. Truex has won three times in 2017 and has been in a position to win a few more. He has both a series-high 14 stage wins and 29 bonus playoff points. His 2017 victories came at Las Vegas, Kansas and Kentucky. He finished seventh at Glen last year, leading a single lap.
2-Jimmie Johnson- Seeking his record-breaking eighth Cup Series championship, Johnson has produced a mixed three- win season with triumphs at Texas, Bristol and Dover. The trio of wins comprise the only top-five finishes he has enjoyed in 2017 and he has suffered five did not finish (DNF) results. He has only one stage win all season but 16 bonus playoff markers. Johnson finished last at The Glen last season after being involved in a lap 52 accident.
3-Kyle Larson- Considered one of the new stars on the NASCAR Cup circuit, Larson have found Victory Lane twice in 2017, at Fontana and Michigan. Larson has three stage wins and 13 bonus playoff points but has authored an impressive nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes. Despite starting on the outside pole in 2016 at The Glen, Larson placed 29th, one lap off the lead pace.
4-Brad Keselowski- Keselowski has won twice and has matched Larson with three stage wins and 13 bonus playoff points. The difference is that while Keselowski has 11 top-five and 14 top-10 outings he also has five DNFs. He has wins at Atlanta and Martinsville. Keselowski runs well at Watkins Glen,where he finished a strong third last year.
5- Ricky Stenhouse Jr.- Easily the surprise of this year's regular season, Stenhouse has produced restrictor-plate triumphs at both Talledega and the July race at Daytona. On the flip side, he has no stage wins and just seven top-10 results. He placed 38th in last year's Glen race, and was involved in the same lap 52 accident with Johnson.
6-Kevin Harvick- Harvick will be seeking the 2017 NASCAR Cup Series road course sweep as his lone win this season came at the road course in Sonoma, Calif. Harvick has been steadily progressing following his Stewart-Haas organization's switch to Ford engines this season. Harvick has the same eight top five and 14 top 10s as Truex but has two fewer wins. Harvick, who has only eight bonus playoff points, finished 32nd at The Glen in 2017, the victim of an accident.
7- Kyle Busch- Busch broke a 36-race winless streak with his victory Sunday at Pocono. He has led many races and laps this season with eight top-five runs and eight stage wins. He finished sixth at The Glen last August.
8-Denny Hamlin- Like his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, it took Hamlin awhile to find Victory Land this season. He finally took a checkered flag at New Hampshire in July. Hamlin has seven top-five and 11 top-10 results. He is the Glen's defending champion.
9-Ryan Blaney- Another surprise to the playoff mix this season, Blaney won in June at Pocono, earning his first Cup career race victory. Blaney drives for the noted Woods Brothers, who have won 99 Cup races over the years with various drivers but have only five Cup race wins since 1990. Blaney is the third driver with four or less full Cup seasons of experience to win his first career Cup race this seasonm joining Stenhouse and Austin Dillon.
10- Kurt Busch- Busch won the season-opening Daytona 500 and has compiled no stage wins and has five DNFs. He has nine top-fives this season and finished 11th at the Glen last year.
11-Ryan Newman- Newman's win this season at Phoenix was his first since Indy 2013 and snapped a winless streak for Richard Childress racing dating to November of that same year when Harvick won for RCR. Newman has no stage wins and seven top 10s.
12-Kasey Kahne- His future with Hendrick Motorsports currently in doubtm Kahne broke a 102-race losing streak by winning the Brickyard 400 at Indy two weeks ago. Kahne has three top-five and four top-10 results with five DNFs.
13-Austin Dillon- Dillon won at Charlotte but has produced only a pair of to- five results. He has no stage wins.
14- Chase Elliott- Rookie Chase Elliott is the first driver in the playoff standings who does not have a 2017 race victory. He does have 12 top-10 results and two stage wins.
15-Jamie McMurray- McMurray is the only driver in the top 16 standings to have not gained a single bonus playoff point and has 11 top-10 finishes to his credit.
16- Matt Kenseth- In his last season with Joe Gibbs Racing and facing an uncertain future, Kenseth has mustered only five top-five runs, two stage wins and four DNFs. Kensethplaced 10th at The Glen in 2016.