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Coca-Cola 600 sets (extra) stage for playoff push

Kevin Harvick, who is on the pole for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600, has six top-10 finishes through 11 Cup races this season. 

3:19 PM ET

Bob PockrassNASCAR

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• NASCAR writer for ESPN.com
• 2009, 2013 NMPA Writer of the Year
• More than 25 years experience covering motorsports

CONCORD, N.C. — The longest race in the NASCAR Cup season has also turned into the race worth the most of any during the regular season as NASCAR has added an additional stage. It’s now a marathon with a bonus.

Looking back at Aric Almirola’s wreck, “it’s no wonder that his back was hurt” appears to be a common undertone among drivers who are fully aware they could face a similar injury with a crash of that magnitude.

Sprint Cup Series points leader Kyle Larson will be forced to start the Coca-Cola 600 at the back of the field Sunday after he failed to get through prequalifying inspection in time to make a qualifying lap at Charlotte.

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NASCAR announced less than two weeks ago that the Coca-Cola 600 would have four stages instead of three as drivers compete for 400 laps on the 1.5-mile track. Just as in all the other regular-season races, points will be awarded to the top 10 drivers at the end of each stage and the winner of each stage will be awarded a playoff point, with the regular five playoff points and all drivers earning regular-season points at the end of the race.

With the additional stage, there is one extra playoff point and as many as 10 extra regular-season points on the line Sunday. For drivers who desperately need regular-season points or playoff points, the 600-mile race could boost their championship prospects.

“It definitely will have an impact,” said Kevin Harvick, who sits on the pole for Sunday’s race. “I don’t think you’re going to race any different because you’re going to want to lead as many laps as you can and score as many points as you can.”

Harvick is winless this year but is in a solid points position, yet he has earned just three playoff points. Playoff points are added to the reset total for every driver in the playoffs for each of the first three rounds of the playoffs — so they certainly can make the difference in advancing into another playoff round.

Martin Truex Jr. leads the series with 15 playoff points.

The stages will be 100 laps apiece. In none of the other regular-season races, the final stage is more than 30 percent of the race. With each stage at 150 miles, teams will have to pit once under green-flag conditions if there is no caution.

“Pit stall 1 here [as the pole-sitter] is a huge advantage under caution, so I think as you look at the fourth stage and the extra 10 points and the extra bonus point, you want to go out and grab those, and we’ve obviously had a little bit of trouble in the first 11 or 12 weeks,” Harvick said.

“We’ve had three or four little bump-ups and cost us some points, and Sunday is a good night to gain some of those back. You’re not going to gain them all back, but you can gain a good chunk of points just by having some good stage finishes and hopefully maybe winning one or two here or there.”

Another championship favorite looking for playoff points is Kyle Busch, who certainly feels as if he has left playoff points on the table.

“If I’m able to collect all those

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