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Extra stage during Coca-Cola 600 pivotal in push for playoff points

Kevin Harvick, who is on the pole for Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, has six top-10 finishes through 11 Cup races this season. Chuck Burton/AP Photo

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.

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 playoff points [it's good for me], but if I'm not and somebody else that already has them is, then no," said Busch, who will start on the front row Sunday.

"The opportunity's there and presents itself and starting up front. That should hopefully help those things, but, man, it's a long race and 100 laps is a long way each time in order to collect on those points, so we'll see."

The length of the stages could make a green-flag pit stop pivotal. At some races this year, the caution has come out before teams needed to make a green-flag stop.

"It matters that the runs are no longer than 100 laps guaranteed, so that puts a lot of emphasis on pit road," two-time 2017 winner Brad Keselowski said. "It's big and you could lose a lot of points [with pit-road mistakes]."

Drivers who are looking to possibly get into the playoffs on points have an opportunity to gain a pivotal additional 10 points with the extra stage. The 16-driver playoff field will be set after the next 15 races and by the regular-season champion plus 15 drivers based on wins with ties broken by points.

"I thought that was a great move on NASCAR's part because this is such a long race you deserve to have another stage in it to break it up, and if you're running up front all race, it kind of benefits you even more," Ryan Blaney, currently 14th on the NASCAR playoff grid, said.

"I don't think we approach it any different, myself and the team. We're going to race like we always do, unless a situation comes up to where you have to make another decision at the end of a stage, just like at Kansas or anything like that."

Drivers without wins, though, still will be tempted to focus on trying to be good in that final stage -- so they don't have to worry about regular-season points.

"It's an opportunity to gain more points," said the winless Chase Elliott, who starts third. "It's a good chance to get them. But we'd obviously rather win and have one in the win column -- that way you get in no matter what.

"To be a contender and being able to win races is key when the playoffs start, and we want to be one of those guys."