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Stage racing adds another element to racing on short tracks

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 - Qualifying

HAMPTON, GA - FEBRUARY 26: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s 75 Toyota, talks with Ricky Stenhouse Jr, driver of the #17 Ford EcoBoost Ford, on the grid during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on February 26, 2016 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Even now, Chase Elliott can’t believe he won the second stage at Martinsville Speedway earlier this month.

Running second, Elliott was set to finish there until Ricky Stenhouse Jr. bumped Kyle Busch out of the way to get back on the lead lap. Stenhouse’s move sent Busch up the track and allowed Elliott to nip Busch, win the stage and earn a playoff point.

Stenhouse’s bump did more. It changed how drivers view stage racing. Now the leader has to be more aware as they run up on lapped traffic late in a stage what could happen. And those cars in danger of being lapped have an additional ploy they can use to try to stay on the lead lap.

“I was blown away that that even happened,’’ Elliott said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

“I’ve gone a lap down a lot at Martinsville. And I can’t say that, man I’d have to really think about it a lot to move the leader out of the way to try to get my lap back. So, I don’t know what the situation was there, if there had been history. So it’s hard for me to really get involved. But it surprised me.’’

There was a bit of a history. Stenhouse recently told reporters that he was running in the top 10 at Atlanta and Busch was a lap down. Busch ran Stenhouse hard. Stenhouse eventually got by him but wore his tires and was passed before the stage ended and didn’t score any stage points.

That experience and how strong his car was at Martinsville led to Stenhouse’s decision to move Busch. It worked. Stenhouse went on to finish 10th.

With the series back at a short track this weekend for the first time since that race, the bump and run might be used throughout the field at the end of a stage, especially with the lower groove likely the preferred line.

“I think you’ll see that here at Bristol as well, just depending on if things play out,’’ Stenhouse told NBC Sports. “It might be for 10th and 11th to get points or it might be for the win or for cars to stay on the lead lap.’’

It wouldn’t surprise Kurt Busch if there was such contact toward the end of a stage.

“I think that moment at Martinsville is a perfect definition to the stage racing,’’ he said. “It creates opportunities for many different things to happen, whether you’re a lapped car or you’re the leader.

“Short tracks, superspeedways, road courses, those are the three types of tracks that I thought would be impacted the most by stage racing.”

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