Stage racing mostly well-received by NASCAR community after first year, but there’s room for improvement

By John Haverlin
November 24, 2017

In January, NASCAR implemented the new, stage-based race format that has been used across all three of its national touring series. The system was designed to keep drivers and teams racing aggressively throughout the events as the top-10 finishers of the first two stages were awarded points toward the championship.

Stage and race winners earned playoff points, which were essentially banked for the 10-race playoff that started after the regular season. This proved to be a logical and well-thought-out addition as it provided each series’ most dominant drivers a cushion in case of bad luck during the playoffs.

Now that the 2017 campaign is over, the NASCAR community has been able to reflect on the impact of stage racing. Not all drivers were on board with the concept when it was first introduced. Ryan Blaney, the youthful, popular driver of Team Penske and Wood Brothers Racing, admitted he was hesitant.

“Honestly, I was kind of skeptical about it at first,” Blaney told The Racing Experts. “Before the year started, I didn’t think too highly of it. … I thought, ‘Oh, they’re just timing cautions,’ but I don’t think I really (understood) it at first.”

NBC Sports broadcaster Kyle Petty wasn’t sure of how the stages would play out when the year started either. Petty refers to himself as a “traditionalist,” meaning he enjoys watching the races flow naturally without interruption. But as long as the results aren’t affected, he’s in favor of it.

“It’s changed the way the teams race, it’s changed the strategy of the race, but I don’t think it has changed the outcome of the race,” the former driver explained. “As long as you don’t change the outcome of the race by doing things like that, then I’m good with it.

“If you watched the way this season was, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

Both Blaney, the sport’s youngblood, and Petty, the old-school racer, now prefer the format. Fans have also told Blaney they enjoy the stages too.

“Really, all the feedback I’ve heard from fans is positive, so that’s good,” he said. “Until we actually got going, I know a number of us didn’t know what to think of it. But as you run it, you can benefit a lot from it and for being great the whole race. That’s hard to do, so that’s why the benefit and plus side is good.”

Crew chiefs had to adapt to the stages as well. Jason Ratcliffe, the veteran crew chief for Joe Gibbs Racing, thinks it’s better when cautions are unpredictable and feels the distances of the stages need to be adjusted in the premier series.

“For me, it took me a little while to get accustomed to knowing when we’re going to get two cautions throughout the race,” he said. “I kind of like it when you don’t know they’re coming. … From a crew chief’s standpoint, it’s a little more exciting.

“(NASCAR) needs to look at the distance on fuel and what guys can run on a full tank. Maybe spread those stages out to kind of mix it up—just for Cup. I don’t think the other races (in lower series) are long enough to matter.”

Jeff Meendering, Cole Custer’s crew chief in the XFINITY Series, has a more positive outlook on stage racing, although he feels he could have strategized differently earlier in the year. Custer missed the cutoff for the Championship 4 by four points. He thinks crew chiefs will be better prepared when the 2018 season starts.

“I probably didn’t play the stage game well enough over the course of the season,” he said after Custer’s first victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I feel like I’ve definitely learned from that. Going into next year, we’ll race different. … set ourselves up better for the end of the year. I enjoy that type of racing.”

Custer and Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart both said the stages create “chaos.” Stewart believes the stages have been good for the three series because it forces teams to call different strategies to gain points throughout the events.

Roger Penske, the long-time and successful owner in auto racing’s most prestigious series, thinks pit stops that occur during the stage cautions are important. More cautions mean more pit stops, and therefore more opportunities for pit crews to make an error. He also stressed the importance of fans to comprehend all the complicated factors that go into the competition.

“Obviously, the pit stops are important to be able to execute. I’d say NASCAR hit a homerun,” the Captain said. “It’s one of those things we have to do to communicate it to the general public and say, ‘Here’s what’s going on.’ For the teams, it’s put a lot more pressure on them.”

Throughout the postseason, stage points have been a difference maker. It’s helped drivers in all three playoffs advance further in the rounds, even when they have a few mediocre weekends at the track.

Kyle Busch, who entered the Cup Series postseason as the No. 3 seed with 29 playoff points, had finishes of 29th, 27th and 10th in the Round of 12. Had this happened to the No. 18 driver in any of the three previous seasons, those lackluster results might have prevented him from advancing to the next round.

“I wouldn’t have thought a 29th, a 27th, and a 10th would have made it through,” Busch told NBC Sports after the cutoff race at Kansas Speedway. “It’s just what the format is, it’s the same for everybody. You just have to be the best of what’s going on with your situation.”

He advanced to the Championship 4 race at Homestead along with Martin Truex, Jr., who was the Cup Series’ regular season champion with 53 playoff points entering the opening Round of 16.

Stage points were a savior for XFINITY driver Daniel Hemric, too. The Richard Childress Racing rookie advanced to the Championship 4 after Phoenix because he earned 15 stage points there and passed Custer, Brennan Poole, and Matt Tifft for fourth in the playoff standings.

“When it comes down time to it—Daniel Hemric used (stage points) to get into the final four,” Wayne Auton, director of the XFINITY Series, told The Racing Experts before the finale. “I really think it’s done its job. The drivers like it, and it gives them a little bit more to shoot for in the race.”

However, one issue the second-tier series had was a lack of championship eligible competitors winning the stages. Only seven full-time series regulars won them throughout the season.

“I got to be a little biased; I want to see XFINITY (regulars) win everything,” Auton said. “But we’ve had a great season. We’ve had 17 different winners right now. … Would we like to see more XFINITY? Absolutely, but I’m biased; I want them to win everything that we got.”

Also, laps continued to count when the caution flag waved after a stage’s conclusion in all the series. As a result, not once throughout the entire year did Stage 2 or 3 start with cars moving at full speed. It took away from more green-flag competition.

For those who want to see as much of the race under green as possible, this was an unfavorable facet of the segments. And the stage winner would lose his advantage over the field because the cars would be bunched together for restarts. Except to those who liked seeing this, the cautions were virtually unnecessary.

Mike Helton, Vice Chairman of NASCAR, said the industry likes what it has seen in its inaugural season. He believes it’s been a positive enhancement to the sport, but left open the possibility that the rules could be tweaked soon after the season ends in preparation for 2018.

“We’ll have a lot of details and data from the season that we can stack up and look at. I don’t think there’s anything glaring at us right now that we don’t like,” he said. “I think it’s contributed to the action on the race track from the green flag all the way through. We’re pretty pleased with it, but we’ll take a look at it after the season’s over.”

If NASCAR decides to make adjustments, here are two quick-fix options it could examine to allow for more green-flag racing, and that could be put in place for the upcoming season.

Option 1: As soon as a stage caution comes out, NASCAR could stop counting the laps that are paced under caution. The field could pit and restart like normal, but the next stage wouldn’t begin until the cars take the green. However, this would make the actual events longer. The sanctioning body has made races shorter over the years, i.e. having 400-mile events at Dover International Speedway, Auto Club Speedway, and Pocono Raceway instead of 500. It would be counterproductive to implement something that starts lengthening the events again.

Option 2: (Racing purists might believe this would be better, but it’s probably less appealing to casual fans): NASCAR could scratch the stage cautions all together and let the race continue as it transitions between segments. Top-10 runners would still earn their points but there would be no halt to the competition. Cautions would only occur like they did before 2017: for on-track incidents and safety hazards, such as debris.

The flaw of this idea is that it might take away some of the entertainment factor. Less restarts would theoretically mean less passing and if there’s anything fans would love to see more of, it’s that. More lead changes and a variety of leaders is what the sport wants and letting the race continue without stage cautions would impede that.  

For the problem that Ratcliff sees, the answer to spreading stages out is simple, yet only applicable to the Cup Series: Make the first two segments longer and more equivalent to the final stage. He said Camping World Truck Series and XFINITY events are not long enough to have altered stage lengths, and Chip Ganassi Racing driver Tyler Reddick is perfectly OK with that.

“Our races are so short that I don’t know if there’s anything they can do to change it to make it better or worse. I think it’s right where it needs to be for us,” he said. “Maybe they could change a little bit more in the Cup Series. … I think it’s good for us in the XFINITY Series.”

In regard to the championship, a minor but noticeable inconsistency with the format was how earning playoff points was useless for the final four races of the season. The championship races at Homestead are designed as winner-take-all events and the highest-finishing title contenders would be victorious, regardless of stage finishes. Also, drivers could still earn regular points in the Round of 8 stages and the final finish, but they couldn’t use playoff points to advance.

The Martin Truex Jr.’s Furniture Row Racing No. 78 team was the best at stage wins throughout the year, but only scored one in the playoffs. However, crew chief Cole Pearn said the strategy doesn’t change for anyone, and the goal is to always be in front whether the playoff points are helpful or not.

“When the playoffs come, it’s a product of everybody raising their game and there were a lot of races where we maybe weren’t the best car,” Pearn said after winning the Cup championship. “We faced a lot of adversity early in (playoff) races and there were maybe some things that didn’t happen early in the year. It’s just the difference in statements in the playoffs versus the regular season. It wasn’t any different strategy-wise, it was just kind of the way the races played out."

Many competitors might agree with Pearn’s thoughts, but it wouldn’t be entirely out of the realm if the sanctioning body at least reviewed the playoff point circumstances for the last four races this offseason. It’s probably in favor of keeping the Homestead race the way it is with all four drivers starting equally in points, so it’s unlikely that will change.

This is a crucial and transitional period for the sport. It’s only one season into its stage-racing era, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that NASCAR will fine tune the rules and regulations, just like it always has. The organization took a big gamble by changing the race formats and it seems like it’s paying off, for now. Only time will tell if stage racing is truly the fresh, inventive path needed to make it the grandiose sport it was not long ago.

DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Jeremy Thompson/The Racing Experts Jonny Olkowski/The Racing Experts Isabel Gonzalez/The Racing Experts

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