Race Weekend Central

Holding A Pretty Wheel: Stage Racing Changes the Game In a Good Way

The checkered flag flew at Martinsville Speedway as the sun dipped below the grandstand, lengthening the shadows over the backstretch.  Brad Keslowski took his victory lap as the rest of the field pulled onto pit road, battered and bruised (both cars and egos).

Teams rolled their cars back onto the haulers in elation or frustration to begin the hurry-up-and-wait to get out of the garage and on the road home, though, it’s just a couple of hours for most of them. It’s the same dance that’s happened here for years, decades.

It’s also the sixth race of 2017, and one thing that has most certainly changed is how race teams approach races.  With points on the line for the first two stages of each race as well as the finish, it’s changed the game in a major way… without really changing the races themselves.

It’s harder with each passing week to deny that the races heat up toward the end of each stage, as well as in the closing laps. Drivers are pushing the envelope at points when they normally would not. Had the second stage not been on its final lap Sunday, it’s unlikely that Ricky Stenhouse Jr. would have taken Kyle Busch wide or that Chase Elliott would have raced Busch as aggressively as he did to the line for the stage win.

Is it a gimmick?  Absolutely.  But here’s the thing, it doesn’t cheapen the races.

It can be argued that the playoffs cheapen the championship, but the stages don’t give someone with no chance to win a sudden boost, nor do they make one stage worth more than it should be.  So from that standpoint, it’s not the same thing.

Look, there’s a lot on the line in a race, especially points.  In a 500-lap or 500-mile race, the early portion of the race is about positioning for the end, and without incentive, the risk of racing like every lap is the last is simply too great for teams to do that, even though fans would love to see that.  By giving them some incentive, in the form of those valuable points, there is a reason to put a little more out there early on, and that creates a better show for fans.

Yes, drivers should want to race as hard as they can for every spot, points or no points, and they do want to, but at this level, they don’t really get to choose.  Sponsors don’t care if you lead Lap 42, but they do care if you win a race.  And they do care if you win a stage, because it’s meaningful to them in terms of return on investment. They get television time and when the playoffs roll around, they will get more of it if they’re in the hunt, and they can get in the hunt with those extra stage points.  In other words, racing earlier on has to be important to the people paying the bills.

Meanwhile, fans are getting a better show.  It does come at the cost of a couple of extra cautions most weeks, and that’s probably the biggest issue… those cautions are long.  There is merit to wanting to squeeze a lot of commercials into those built-in time periods if it cuts down on the number of them later.  Television will argue that they need time to interview the stage winners in their cars, but that’s a little off-base; most fans would probably rather see more green-flag laps than listen to the stage winner on the radio, unless it happens to be their favorite driver.

Commercials aside, a quickie yellow, where all the cars pit together and the race goes back to green as soon as possible, would serve fans better.  Is there enough less time later spent on commercials to justify the longer cautions to fans?  That still needs to be answered and the answer carefully considered.

So no, the stage game isn’t perfect.  It is a gimmick, though you won’t find a racing series that has no gimmicks…and this one is pretty benign.  It effectively does what a questionable debris caution does, but it adds the excitement of a lot of action leading to that caution, which Jaques Debris does not do.  Yes, it’s possible for a gimmick to make the racing better… and this one, so far, has, nearly every week.

It has also appeared to throw more than one team off its game.  Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have been terrible this year…is the varying strategy playing a role? Is Kyle Larson leading the points because this style of racing and strategy is more in his wheelhouse?  While the answer is no, not entirely, some teams are clearly adapting their race plans to the new format, and it’s working for them.  The racecar package also plays a role thee, of course, but the changing game does seem to rattle some teams and motivate others.

At the end of the day, the stages are just another couple of cautions each race.  They don’t really change how we watch races, but they do make the races more exciting. And isn’t that what race fans asked for?

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Sol Shine

I think it does cheapen the races, that move by Stenhouse is a prime example of a zero percentage stunt and it’s not what I want to see happening during a race. And goon can take out the guy ahead, he’s largely a sitting duck. And Stenhouse did it simply to stay on the lead lap, nothing at all to do with stage points. It was the most watchable race so far this year, but Marty always is. So far, I am not convinced this stage business has changed anything.


Best thing ever!!!!!! Love stage racing!!!!!! NASCAR’s best decision in years!


It seems to me that it’s the same drivers who run up front every week who get the points. They’re in the best cars and can do that (with one exception) because they want to. The problem with having a TV time out is that the pit stop can screw up their whole race if something bad happens and they’re taken out of contention, like a collision or broken air gun. Or maybe they get stuck in the outside line at Martinsville. Did anybody else notice Elliott slow down exiting the pits so Kesolowski was second and got the outside line on the restasrt and Elliott was third?

Bill B

Who is that one exception…. I wonder?


I’ll give you TEN guesses. Sometimes I have the subtlety of a sledge hammer. Which is what someone should use to talk to Kyle with. But don’t hit him on the head. It’s the only place it won’t hurt.


You have to wonder if Johnsons, lay back and wait to make a charge at the end is working against him in this stage setup. How many races has he been awful the first part of the race, then miraculously pass everyone in the last 1/3 to win a race. cough cough Homestead. Now all the good cars are up front to get those stage points so its proving more difficult to sandbag.

Bill B

I don’t believe Johnson could afford to play games for the last few years. I don’t think he is “the guy to beat” anymore week in and week out. Harvick, Truex, Kyle Busch, Logano and Keselowski seem to have surpassed him. He backed into the championship last year and I don’t think you can afford to sandbag until you are the one that is leading all the laps.


STAGED racing…another gimmick and purposeful manipulation.

Carl D.

I think the stages have made the races more exciting but we really have to wait until more races have been run to make a valid assessment.

BIff Baynehouse

Imo, respectfully, you’re out to lunch!
Stopping a race to give fans a “pee break” – good?
Hinging championship contention on “pee breaks points” – good?
NO SALE, but nice version of reality. Full-disclosure: I am so uninterested & have not even bothered to learn the “staged” points or rules. All comical, if not horrible ideas! A “stage” defies & contradicts the definition of the word – RACE.
Why re-invent the game for imaginary peeps that have no interest &/or lack the attention span required to endure a NORMAL race? It is very unfortunate & ill advised to believe destroying the integrity of race & a brand that legions of avid devotees formerly followed will improve anything, let alone inspire droves of imaginary peeps to suddenly become inspired in a brand whose integrity you just destroyed. As with “cookie-cutters” & the “chase”, Nascar has thrown race & sporting integrity, & many cash paying fans out with the bath water, on a hope & a prayer, that non-existent short attention peeps will suddenly be inspired to endure LESS integral races that are actually LONGER due to the inclusion of “pee breaks”. Astoundingly ill-advised!
It is an absolute farcical gimmick that further makes a mockery of a brand that, not so long ago, represented the epitome of the motorsports world. Fans are & will continue to leave in droves. If the “chase” did not do it, “staged” “pee breaks” will.
It is heaven sent for Indycar, IMSA, TransAm, F1, Aussie V8 Supercar & just about all other forms of motorsport. That is where my disposable motorsports budget will be exhausted, as I can hardly maintain interest in Nascar broadcast anymore, let alone buy a ticket. I endured the destruction of the championship (ie: the “chase”), but “pee breaks” is a bridge too far. Each one disenfranchises me more.
AND, it has NOT lessened the prevalence of advertising during event broadcasts in the least. No! That is just a blatant LIE! The opposite is true! No doubt TV advertisers sponsors love it, but those are not Nascar’s end customers, are they? As per “Cawsnjaws dot com” [since graphics & script ads are indeed ads, I recalculate the grand total]:
March 20 2016 Los Angeles Commercials
Total laps: 202
Total commercials: 175
– Total traditional: 86
– Total split-screen: 18
– Total graphics & scripted: 71
March 26 2017 Los Angeles Commercials
Total laps: 202
Total commercials: 216
– Total traditional: 92
– Total split-screen: 25
– Total graphics & scripted: 102

Bill B

Wow, I never thought of that. I can pee during those stage breaks.
Now I think the breaks are the best thing they’ve ever thought of (because I could never find a good time to pee before during the rare commercials and debris cautions). : )


And Brian wonders why old fans are pissed off!

Biff Baynehouse

Sorry, type-o, 92+25+102=219 …in a 202 lap race? THERE’s your “attention span” problem! Viewers rarely see 3 laps strung together without an ads fragmenting the race integrity …hello? McFly?
Bill: you had me up until you said “rare commercials”, lol. That made your vialed comedy self-evident! Ha!

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