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Much at stake for NASCAR Cup drivers at New Hampshire on Monday

LOUDON, N.H. — Much is on the line for Cup drivers in today’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (12 p.m. ET on USA Network).

There’s a battle for the regular-season championship and one for the final playoff spots with seven races left in the regular season.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake for several drivers.

RACE FOR REGULAR-SEASON TITLE

William Byron (starting 7th) — The points leader has scored eight top 10s — including two wins — in the last 10 races. The challenge is that Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t won at New Hampshire since Kasey Kahne took the checkered flag in 2012. Even so, Byron is upbeat, saying: “We’re so on kill right now, and we can work through problems and that was evident (Saturday),” Byron said.

Martin Truex Jr. (starting 2nd) — He trails Byron by 21 points for the top spot in the season standings. Truex has never won a Cup race at this track. This track holds special memories for him. He watched his dad race at this track and got to see Dale Earnhardt in person. “I remember (Earnhardt) under the hood working on his carburetor,” Truex said. “As a little kid, it’s like you can’t really believe it. I just kind of stood there and watched. Never bothered anybody. Just watched and stood back like this is really cool.”

Kyle Busch (starting at the rear) — He trails Byron by 36 points and could have a difficult time closing the gap. Busch hit the wall in practice and qualifying on Saturday. The repairs for those incidents will force Busch to the rear. He’s said the organization has struggled at short tracks. This will be a key test for the team.

Christopher Bell (starting on the pole) — He trails Byron by 37 points. Bell, last year’s winner, is again fast. He has won five of eight races at New Hampshire in NASCAR’s three national series. He could be dueling Truex, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, for the win Monday.

Ross Chastain (starting 31st) — He is 53 points behind Byron. He led the points after the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend but has slipped to fifth in the standings since. Asked if he feels his team can fight its way back to the top, Chastain said Saturday: “I think we’re right there. We acquire more points, we’ll go back to the top.”

RACE FOR THE FINAL PLAYOFF SPOTS

Daniel Suarez (starting 12th) — He and Michael McDowell each have 407 points, but Suarez has the tiebreaker on McDowell and is 15th on the playoff grid. Suarez is coming off a runner-up finish at Atlanta — only his second top 10 in the last nine races.

Michael McDowell (starting 17th) — McDowell has never finished better than 17th at New Hampshire. Crew chief Travis Peterson told NBC Sports this week that “the next four weeks is our playoff stretch.” He said that because McDowell has combined to score three top 10s in 80 starts between New Hampshire, Pocono, Richmond and Michigan.

Bubba Wallace (starting eighth) — He enters Monday’s race three points behind Suarez and McDowell. Wallace has failed to finish better than 15th in the last five races after a May stretch that saw him score three consecutive top fives. “This week was a big reflection moment for everybody on the 23 team on how we need to execute better,” Wallace said Saturday. “Mistakes at this point in the season, there’s really no excuse for it, whether it’s my fault on track or the crew’s fault in preparation. We just have to be better as a team moving forward to even think about the playoffs.”

AJ Allmendinger (starting 14th) — He is 13 points behind Suarez and McDowell. Allmendinger has three top 10s in the last four races. “We really didn’t have any speed in the race car the first few months of the season, and now we have speed,” he said.

Ty Gibbs (starting 36th) — He is 26 points behind Suarez and McDowell. Gibbs had the slowest lap in qualifying after nearly losing control of his car. He’ll face a challenge climbing through the field.

Austin Cindric (starting 22nd) — He is 38 points behind Suarez and McDowell for the final playoff spot. Cindric has 12 finishes of 12th or worse in the last 13 races.

Justin Haley (starting 19th) — He is 41 points below the cutline. Haley has had back-to-back top-10 finishes to carry some momentum into New Hampshire.

Alex Bowman (starting 25th) — He is 44 points out of a playoff spot. While he ran well at Atlanta, an incident ruined his night. He’s not finished better than 12th in the six races since coming back from a back injury that he suffered in a sprint car crash. “(New Hampshire) is always one circled that I’m like, ‘Dang I suck there.’ It’s not from a lack of effort,” Bowman said Saturday. “Definitely trying hard to get better. We’ve had good race days here.”

Chase Elliott (starting 18th) — He is 60 points out of a playoff spot after losing five points to the cutline at Atlanta. Other than William Byron, the Hendrick cars were off on speed in qualifying Saturday and that left Elliott perplexed. “This has not been a good track for me, I would say at all, really,” Elliott said. “We ran good up here last year (finished second), and I really wasn’t sure why, to be honest. Believe it or not we had a good test here … whenever it was. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be helping us much (Saturday).”