1. No stage cautions for the first time since 2016. How will strategy change?
The additions of Kimi Raikkonen, Jenson Button and Jordan Taylor to the NASCAR Cup Series field at Circuit of the Americas have generated all the buzz, but there is another aspect to the race that makes it one of the most anticipated of the year: There will be no stage cautions for the first time since 2016.
Stage points will still be awarded at a predetermined lap, but drivers will not receive the green- and white-checkered flag nor the caution flag that follows directly after. Instead, the field keeps racing, just as it was before 2017.
Implemented for all Cup road courses in 2023, the new rule scraps predetermined cautions and dramatically alters pit strategy, an aspect of road courses that has been lacking since the implementation of stages.
First, teams will have to map out the entire race. They can no longer implement individual plans for stage one, stage two and the final stage. This means if the race were to hypothetically run without any cautions, everyone would have to calculate the number of pit stops needed and the opportune laps to come in for service.
But of course, there is almost always a caution. And the timing of those cautions will alter hypothetical plans.
The threat of cautions also creates a danger zone for drivers who have stayed out. If drivers in the back decide to pit while the frontrunners stay out, an unlucky caution would relegate them behind the drivers who have already stopped for service.
And while drivers routinely pitted before the stage caution in order to have great track position for the start of the next one, Sunday’s (March 26) race may see the opposite: Teams may stay out for stage points and immediately head to pit road afterward.
Teams that are outside the top 10 have the luxury to visit pit road before, during or after stage points are awarded. And if enough people pit, that will put the frontrunners at the risk of getting trapped with a caution if they stay out too long.
And given COTA’s status as the longest track on the Cup schedule, no one is in danger of going a lap down with a pit stop. Therefore, pit stop strategy in Sunday’s race will likely be decided by teams outside the top 10 showing their hands. And if their play is to visit pit road at an unorhodox time, the frontrunners will have to respond immediately.
2. Is Kyle Busch right about a lack of respect between drivers?
During last weekend’s media availability at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch was asked about Denny Hamlin’s comments on his incident with Ross Chastain at Phoenix Raceway, as well as his thoughts on incidents between drivers.
The conversation then led to the topic of driving etiquette as a whole, and Busch did not mince words as he said that the respect drivers used to have for each other in the garage area is now gone.
Busch is the second-most experienced full-time driver in the Cup field, and while he has not been immune to incidents himself, he certainly has a point when looking at how several incidents played out in the 2022 Cup season.
- The 2022 Daytona 500 ended with two crashes in the final 10 laps after bad pushes and blocks.
- Kyle Larson put teammate Chase Elliott into the outside wall at Auto Club Speedway while battling for the lead with 20 laps to go.
- Chastain pushed AJ Allmendinger into Alex Bowman on the final lap at COTA, which sent Allmendinger spinning and allowed Chastain to drive by for the victory.
- Chase Briscoe made a Hail Mary send on Tyler Reddick on the final lap of the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt race, which sent both cars spinning and out of winning contention.
- Joey Logano put William Byron into the wall at Darlington Raceway while battling for the lead with two to go.
- Briscoe spun himself out with four to go while battling for the lead with Larson in the Coca-Cola 600. The resulting overtime created a tire mismatch and led to a big crash that junked half a dozen cars.
- Chastain spun Hamlin out twice during the summer of 2022. Hamlin responded by leaving no room for Chastain on a late restart at Pocono Raceway, and Chastain crashed after not lifting in the corner.
- A double overtime restart at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course saw at least three different sets of spins in the closing laps.
- Byron spun Hamlin under caution late in the race at Texas Motor Speedway.
- After getting put in the wall, Bubba Wallace right-reared Larson in the middle of the straightaway at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Both cars were junked, and the collision also took out Christopher Bell.
- Two late restarts at the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course created more crashes than can be counted on one hand.
That’s 11 bullet points for 36 races, and that’s not counting borderline incidents. What does it say about respect between drivers when this list accounts for nearly a third of the races in season?
Busch’s comments ended up being relevant that weekend, as Daniel Hemric washed up the track out of turn 4 on the final lap of the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Saturday (March 18) and made contact with both Parker Kligerman and Austin Hill. Both drivers kept their cars straight, but Hemric then spun Kligerman in front of the field as they headed through the trioval.
Mistake or not, the contact unnecessarily junked four cars after the checkered flag.
When asked about dirty driving and his son Brexton, Busch said that Brexton knows not to drive dirty, as the offending driver gets penalized for spins and wrecks in his races.
The offending driver in NASCAR has only suffered consequences if they admit to it, as seen with Hamlin two weeks ago. And if these late-race incidents start to get out of control, penalizing drivers for contact may be the only way to get the message across.
3. Does the Damaged Vehicle Policy need a facelift?
In a Saturday Xfinity race that featured nine cautions in the first two stages, Josh Williams made headlines beyond the NASCAR world by parking his car at the start/finish line and walking to pit road.
The move was done in protest by Williams, who was ordered to park his No. 92 DGM Racing Chevrolet after a piece of debris fell off of his car and extended a caution period.
A car littering debris after being involved in a crash is not a new story, but the penalty is.
Carson Hocevar was involved in a crash in the Craftsman Truck Series race earlier in the afternoon, and a piece off debris off his No. 42 truck brought out the caution just two laps after the race was resumed. He retired due to excessive damage, but he was never ordered to park it.
And even if it is within NASCAR’s discretion to park a team on the Damaged Vehicle Policy, it has almost never been enforced. Why now with Williams?
It’s a question that most likely won’t get an answer, but it also turns attention toward the current DVP policy.
Implemented in 2017, the DVP was designed to prevent critically damaged cars from returning to the track tens — if not hundreds — of laps down. The pit road time a team has to work on damage started at five minutes in the Cup Series before being extended to six, and now, seven minutes for 2023. The idea is that if a car can’t be repaired and reach minimum speed in that time frame, it shouldn’t be on the track.
However, the DVP has had an unintended consequence of forcing teams to rush repairs that would’ve taken longer otherwise. And in the case of Hocevar and Williams, both of their cars dropped debris on the racetrack.
The DVP clock was expanded to 10 minutes during the 2022 Cup playoffs, and while that time did not come to fruition this season, it might be time to think it over again. After all, teams are scrambling to send damaged cars back into the race. Might be a good idea to make sure the car is sent back out in one piece.
Or if NASCAR decides to penalize a team for a damaged car littering debris, it needs to be consistent with rulings going forward.
4. Christian Eckes is off to a hot start in 2023. Will he be a year-long contender?
The present-day iteration of McAnally-Hilgemann Racing in the Truck Series began part-time operations in 2018, and the team ran its first full-time schedule in 2020.
Now, after nearly five years in the Truck Series ranks, the team has its first win with new full-time driver Christian Eckes.
But that’s not all. Eckes scored the win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the second of his career after Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2021, and he also leads the points standings after finishes of third, sixth and first. The new Eckes-McAnally combo has already paid dividends after just three races.
Of course, it should be noted that two of the first three races relied heavily on drafting. But the team was also stout at Vegas, as Eckes was battling for the stage one win before making an incredible save in turn 3.
He fell outside the top 10 after the fact, but he rebounded to finish sixth in a race that ended with a 69-lap green-flag run to the checkered flag.
COTA is up this weekend, and Eckes finished sixth at the track in 2022 with ThorSport Racing after failing to finish the 2021 edition with suspension problems.
Texas Motor Speedway, the Bristol Motor Speedway dirt track and Martinsville Speedway are the three weekends following COTA, and the four-race gauntlet will provide a large enough sample size for teams. And if Eckes can start off the stretch by contending for a top five at COTA, he will be a key player in the Truck playoffs come July.
About the author
Stephen Stumpf joined Frontstretch in September 2021 and currently pens the weekly columns 4 Burning Questions and Stat Sheet. He also contributes to Frontstretch with social media, editing and rotating commentary while occasionally serving as an on-site reporter. A Texas native, Stephen started following NASCAR at age 9.
Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.
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Damn! When listing the most egregious examples of bad behavior and lack of respect, how do you leave out the Bubba/Larson deal? Conspicuous by it’s absence.
And yeah, you bet your ass there is no respect out on the track. Or the football field. Or in congress. Or on social media. Or on…..
he mentioned bubba/larson deal….but sugarcoated it. didn’t say how bubba went after larsen on the front stretch grass.
as i say bubbles is special.
Wow, my mistake. I swear I checked twice and didn’t see it. All apologies to Mr. Stumpf.
Wee Willy pinched Logano into the wall, it is on YOUTUBE. Joey’s in-car camera. That is a fact, it wasn’t something organic Logano decided to do because he could…hey there’s Wee Willy I think I will fluck with him! There was a legit reason.
And what a complete gloss over regarding the insane behavior of Darrell Wallace going completely nuts on Kyle Larson in front of millions? That is the biggest story regarding this topic. And Kyle B. by the way should NOT talk!!!! What a putz.
when i read “headline” i thought isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black.
i’ve asked about the josh williams incident. was he told to park it or was he told to park it in the garage. if no specific place was communicated to him where to park it, he parked it where he felt it should be parked. i know i’m splitting hairs. just saying though. interesting how the parked him for a race instead of fining him since hamlin publicly said he’d pay the fine for him.
Hamlin should drive his car for him. For free!
Classic. Every year there’s a veteran complaining about the young guys, who has completely forgotten that HE used to be the guy the veterans complained about. It’s as old as racing itself (see: Darrell Waltrip).
I love Kyle Busch, and I don’t even really disagree with him about what he said. Just think it’s comical hearing this refrain every year.
Sure Kyle is right but let’s just remember these new drivers (kids) are under a lot of pressure to deliver. There are plenty of wanna be drivers with big financial backing waiting in the wings.