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Time For NASCAR To Rethink Stage Racing

NASCAR stage racing has been around since 2017. Now in the fifth year of its current format, will this rule be the next one to fall by the wayside as the sport goes through a wave of recent changes?

As recently as a few years ago, it seemed almost unbelievable NASCAR would make major adjustments to its Cup Series schedule.  However, the 2021 season brought a dirt race to Bristol Motor Speedway and a visit to Circuit of the Americas (COTA).  Still to come are the first ever Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and the first top-tier NASCAR race at Road America in over 60 years.

Looking toward the future, many in the industry are keeping watch on the developments surrounding Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville, as well as the planning of Auto Club Speedway’s reconfiguration into a short track.  There is even talk about hosting a street race in Chicago.  Give NASCAR credit for following through with its pledge to bring more road courses and short tracks to the Cup Series schedule.

That said, the exploration of new racing venues comes with a caveat.  If NASCAR is going to continue experimenting with new types of tracks, especially road courses, then the sanctioning body must be willing to make changes to its race day operations and competition rules.  Some fans have advocated for expanded use of local yellows.  Additionally, the Cup Series race at COTA revealed NASCAR still has a lot to learn about racing in the rain.

Yet if there is one policy that is currently holding NASCAR’s road racing back, it is stages.  The problems with this type of split racing format have been so numerous and frustrating they have become a detriment to NASCAR at every type of track.  Simply put, stage racing has not delivered on the goals or promises that supported its creation.  So, while NASCAR is in a mood for evaluating of the Cup Series schedule, why not talk about revising, or eliminating, stage racing?

Both of the Cup Series events this weekend and next highlight some of the problems with stage racing.  During a typical race, drivers who perform well during the first and second stages can rack up a lot of points, perhaps too many compared to what is earned by their finishing position.  It is not uncommon to see someone other than the race winner earn more points in a typical race weekend thanks to stages.  This problem is magnified in the Coca-Cola 600, which is the only race split into four stages.  As a result, NASCAR’s longest race offers more points than any other event all year.

The logic behind offering extra stage points for the Coca-Cola 600 has never made sense.  It may be NASCAR’s longest race, but it is not the most important or prestigious.  The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s marquee event each season, without question, and should award the most points.  Yes, NASCAR does offer bonus points for top-10 finishes in the Daytona qualifying races.  But those are technically separate events that have not been considered official races of the Cup Series season for decades.

That means the Coca-Cola 600 is the only event with extra points offered to a full field of competitors during the race itself.  It may be a longer race than the Daytona 500, but longer doesn’t automatically mean better or carry additional weight.

Correlating stage points with race length is not consistent with NASCAR’s rules.  Otherwise, wouldn’t a typical Cup Series race of about 300 miles at tracks like Phoenix Raceway or New Hampshire Motor Speedway only be two stages?  It seems like the sanctioning body just threw an extra stage into the Coca-Cola 600 for the sake of breaking the race up even more.  And if you are going to split a 600-mile event into four segments of 150 miles each, then what is the point of having an endurance race in the first place?

Meanwhile, next week’s race at Sonoma Raceway is likely to be negatively impacted by stages.  In years past, one of the best aspects of racing at Sonoma was the different pit strategies teams would use.  Generally speaking, the goal was to either complete the race with two pit stops and spend the least amount of time possible on pit road, or use a three-stop strategy with the added benefit of fresh tires and an opportunity for adjustments closer to the end of the race.

But since nobody knew if or when the yellow flag would come out, crew chiefs had to be flexible.  Teams needed to have a plan in place before the race, but the plan could not be so rigid as to be rendered ineffective by a caution period.  Watching teams trying to adapt their strategies to changing race conditions made Sonoma fun.

But with stage racing, the element of surprise is gone.  Knowing ahead of time when two cautions are coming creates a situation where race day strategies are much more uniform throughout the field.  As a result, the last few races at Sonoma have been glorified parades.  Instead of drivers trying to leapfrog their way to the front of the pack with good strategy, the only way to make up ground is on track.  That can be quite tricky in a big, heavy stock car on a twisty track like Sonoma, where passing opportunities are limited.

Hopefully, NASCAR’s Gen-7 car will be better suited to Sonoma, which has suffered in the Gen-6 era.  But removing stages there certainly would not hurt.

There are other ways stages have caused unintended problems.  NASCAR has argued in the past that dedicated caution periods following stages will provide natural opportunities for commercials, which will cut down on green flag commercial time.  However, anyone who watched Friday’s (May 28) Camping World Truck Series race knows NASCAR’s broadcast partners have no qualms about showing commercials within 10 laps of a stage ending and during the following caution period.

Additionally, while stage endings do cause drivers to race more aggressively during the middle portions of races, they also create opportunities for extra crashes.  You see this trend happen most often on superspeedways, venues where NASCAR’s drivers don’t need any additional risk of serious wrecks.  There is also the very valid philosophical objection cautions should only be used when there is a hazardous condition on the track and not for entertainment purposes.

Considering all of its drawbacks, stage racing is more trouble than it’s worth.  Yet NASCAR continues to stand by the policy.  That is exactly why any schedule changes, experimentation with race format and even the design of the new car must be meant with some skepticism.  NASCAR should actively seek to create a better racing product but its leadership has not shown a willingness to admit mistakes or walk back policies that don’t work.  The use of stages, not to mention the elimination style playoffs, is proof enough of that.

Perhaps a new schedule full of road courses and short tracks really will usher in an era of better racing.  But leaving the current stage format unattended brings a risk of taking these potentially positive changes and dragging them down.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: CHARLOTTE

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