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Playoff points change the way the game is played

More than a few of the drivers in the Cup playoffs are counting on that old saw that anything can happen. Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Wondering how the playoff points will work and affect the playoffs?

Here's the first thing fans need to know: Playoff points still are a work in progress.

And a reminder: How a driver advances during the playoffs has not changed in the 2017 points system. The rounds are still three races, and the four winless drivers in the round who have the fewest points are eliminated. That means at least nine Cup drivers make it out of the first round in points, at least five make it out of the second round on points and at least one out of the third round and into the championship.

Throughout the regular season, drivers earned one "playoff point" for winning a stage, five playoff points for winning a race, and additional playoff points based on regular-season point standings with the top 10 earning them on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.

Now that the regular season is over, the races will still be conducted in stages. All drivers in the race can earn stage points by finishing in the top 10, and playoff drivers can still earn playoff points -- one playoff point to win a stage and five playoff points for a race.

The NASCAR Cup drivers in the playoffs start the opening round with 2,000 points plus their number of playoff points they earned during the regular season. Those who advance to the second round, start with 3,000 plus the number of playoff points accumulated throughout the year -- in other words, the regular season playoff points plus the first-round playoff points.

The same is true for the start of the third round, drivers start with 4,000 plus all the playoff points they've accumulated through the year (regular season, first round and second round). There are no playoff points in the third round because when the four finalists get to the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, all of the drivers start with 5,000 points. Those drivers can't earn stage points during the race and the highest finisher among the four is the champion.

Once a driver is eliminated from playoff contention, their playoff points still count, except for any playoff points earned in the round where they were eliminated. Drivers who are eliminated from the playoffs have their points reset to 2,000 plus playoff points earned through any round(s) where they advanced in the playoffs plus the regular points earned in playoff races.

The fact that playoff points carry throughout most of the playoffs is why many believe Martin Truex Jr. is a lock to get to at least the third round if not the final round.

Truex has 2,053 points, 20 points more than Kyle Larson and 24 on Kyle Busch, who are second and third. Truex has a 48-point lead -- the most points a driver can earn in a race is 60 points -- on drivers who are 11th-to-15th in the standings, so he has virtually a one-race cushion on the opening-round cutoff.

"I hope we don't need them," said Truex, who last year was knocked out of the playoffs in the second round when his engine blew at Talladega. "Obviously I think it's a good thing that we have them, and I think we could have used them last year, obviously, with the way the playoffs worked for us.

"But I think for us, just focus on running as strong as we possibly can and keep the momentum going that we've had here lately. The cars have been just lightning fast and team's been doing a great job."

The thing for Truex is that he could build on his "playoff points" lead in the upcoming races or see it shrink considerably. If he doesn't win in the next six races and Larson or Kyle Busch pile up the playoff points, there could be a much tighter gap going into the final round.

Here are the standings as the playoffs open: Truex 2,053; Larson 2,033; Kyle Busch 2,029; Brad Keselowski 2,019; Jimmie Johnson 2,017; Kevin Harvick 2,015; Denny Hamlin 2,013; Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 2,010; Ryan Blaney 2,008; Chase Elliott 2,006; Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Matt Kenseth 2,005 and Jamie McMurray 2,003.

Just how much did wins affect the season?

Notice how Johnson is fifth in the standings. He finished the regular season in 10th. He had three race wins, one stage win and finished 10th in the regular-season standings. That moved him up to fifth.

"It's real good to have the three victories and have those playoffs points -- we've sat in a pretty nice position for a while," said Johnson, who won three of the first 13 races of the year. "Based on that, looking at what it might take to get to Homestead and be part of the final four, if we can win another race or two, get some playoff points, we can really help our situation.

"It's all about winning. We were able to win three times. We've just got to keep winning."

Jamie McMurray had no wins and no stage wins -- the only driver in the playoffs not to win a race nor a stage, and he dropped from eighth in the standings (which earned him three playoff points) to 16th. Still, even at last in the standings, he's only 10 points out of seventh.

"I will not lie," McMurray said, "I really haven't paid attention to points, but I saw something on TV [before Darlington] and I knew that the [playoff] points made a difference, but I didn't realize how many some of the guys had accumulated. ... The first four or five guys, they'll have to have devastating playoffs to not advance through at least the first round, maybe on through the third round.

"But it looked to me like around eighth place or so, you're only talking 10 points, and 10 points is a lot if you're only having one stage, but with three stages, there's going to be a big swing in one weekend if you have a really good race."