Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: The Next Step for NASCAR Stage Racing Is Exit Stage Right

Did You Notice? … How much smoother the racing at Circuit of the Americas was this past weekend without stage breaks? (Well, at least until the final few laps of the NASCAR Cup Series race).

We saw the competition Sunday (March 26) play out naturally, two- and three-stop strategies used without the benefit of a planned caution to limit how crew chiefs could separate themselves.

At one point during the race, we had drivers adjusting their speed due to fuel strategy, creating multiple storylines playing out behind an epic battle for the lead between William Byron and eventual winner Tyler Reddick. For the first time all year, it felt like the sport wasn’t hamstrung by aerodynamics, as COTA produced 16 lead changes over 75 laps, a record for this race and more than two oval events (Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Phoenix Raceway) held earlier this season.

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NASCAR deserves credit for an idea that worked, boosting up a 2023 season that had been off to a far more difficult-than-expected start.

“It certainly allows the race to play out more naturally,” Reddick said after Sunday’s event. “Which I feel like in the spirit of road course racing, in my opinion, that’s what it should be more about.”

But after seeing the type of competition at COTA, I wonder … why stop at just this track type? We just went through a pack race at Atlanta Motor Speedway where drivers were running single file through much of the first two stages. It seemed like the knowledge the field would just bunch up anyway for one final stage, superglued together, kept both aggression and competition to a minimum. Survival was the name of the game, drivers simply racing to get to the next caution flag before they showed all their cards inside the draft.

The goal of stage points, now in their seventh year, was to increase competition throughout the course of a three-hour event. They effectively cut the race into thirds with the final portion the most meaningful one; that’s the only stage where a win counts toward playoff eligibility. They also served as an automatic yellow, keeping the race from getting out of hand and replacing a slew of mystery debris cautions that had drivers, teams and fans openly critical of NASCAR by the end of 2016.

We saw some of those debris yellows pop up at COTA, most notably Denny Hamlin’s debris after a mid-race spin and a number of questionable calls about leftover junk from those turn 1 pinball crashes in NASCAR overtime. But overall, it felt like we got a more “natural” ending from stage points occurring without a caution flag (bonuses were simply given on laps 15 and 30) and more unpredictability given about how the race would play out.

Of course, there’s a downside to losing stages at intermediate tracks; you run the risk of places like Michigan International Speedway, for example, running caution-free and a driver nailing the setup, winning by half a lap or more. But is that such a bad thing once in a while? Keep in mind NASCAR’s main rival for racing attention, Formula 1, often has races where the safety car never makes a single appearance. No one’s worried about losing attention spans; they’re simply letting the competitive nature of the race play out. Max Verstappen’s dominance hasn’t stopped the audience from tuning in …

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And while points have taken a back seat in the playoff chase (after last year’s upswing in race winners) should the sizable stage bonuses determine who makes and misses the postseason? One of my issues with stage racing has always been it’s like awarding the starting pitcher for a shutout through the first three innings even though he gave up 10 runs in the fourth and lost the game. There’s too much of a bonus for mid-race performance, to the point where twice in the first six races of 2023 the driver who scored the most points was not the one sitting in victory lane.

It makes our championship system that much more complicated for the average fan to understand. I realize poor luck sometimes deprives an otherwise fast driver of the top-five finish they deserve. But isn’t that part of racing? He who finishes first must first finish?

I think the stage racing experiment has run its course in a sport that must continue to evolve in order to keep its newfound momentum from 2022. COTA opened the door to quietly start minimizing, then eliminating these bonuses down the road, and I hope this sport takes a closer look at expanding it to other tracks beginning in 2024. At the very least, give the race a better opportunity to play out without NASCAR officials and preplanned “competition yellows” flat out getting in the way.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off …

  • Give a call to Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who six races in still sits 12th in the standings and earned a surprise seventh-place finish at COTA with JTG Daugherty Racing. Stenhouse, who’s 70 points ahead of his pace from last year, has just two fewer points than Reddick and sits ahead of drivers like Ty Gibbs, Bubba Wallace, AJ Allmendinger and Austin Dillon.
  • On the flip side, Aric Almirola and Ryan Preece combined have 20 fewer points than Stenhouse. No wonder why Preece was looking to kick someone’s ass at COTA, right?
  • It’s got to be frustrating for Stewart-Haas Racing, who has more speed than they’ve shown but racked up eight DNFs already with their four-car operation — six of them from this duo. Almirola has accomplished the dubious feat of failing to finish or spinning out to cause a caution in every single race this year.
  • Conventional wisdom is that Todd Gilliland will be looking for a new ride for 2024 after Zane Smith’s Craftsman Truck Series success (plus the fact he’s replacing Gilliland for a handful of races at Front Row Motorsports later this year). But keep an eye on Michael McDowell, who lost out on a top-10 finish after a late COTA spin (Gilliland wound up 10th). After a career year, McDowell’s one of a half-dozen full-time drivers yet to score a top-10 finish six races into 2023.

Follow @NASCARBowles

About the author

The author of Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 40+ staff members as its majority owner and Editor-in-Chief. Based outside Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild. He most recently consulted with SRX Racing, helping manage cutting-edge technology and graphics that appeared on their CBS broadcasts during 2021 and 2022.

You can find Tom’s writing here, at CBSSports.com and Athlonsports.com, where he’s been an editorial consultant for the annual racing magazine for 15 years.

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Christopher

Agree. End stages, but also limit the GWC to one try only (or just end the GWC as well). As to NASCAR’s ‘newfound momentum from 2022’, 2023 ratings so far would indicate that momentum has reversed. Bad news for NASCAR as it negotiates a new TV package.

Kevin in SoCal

Fans complained about ending races under yellow, so we got the GWC, Now fans are complaining about GWC. NASCAR can’t win.
I like the stage points, but dislike the cautions which interrupts pit strategy. At the very least, these caution laps shouldn’t count.

Kurt Smith

I’m not arguing with your statement Kevin, you’re not wrong, but speaking for myself I never had a problem with races ending under yellow. It was a part of the game and sometimes a driver poised to take the lead got screwed. To me that’s better than six potential winners finishing in the 20s because of multiple restarts.

Kurt Smith

“Keep in mind NASCAR’s main rival for racing attention, Formula 1, often has races where the safety car never makes a single appearance. No one’s worried about losing attention spans; they’re simply letting the competitive nature of the race play out. Max Verstappen’s dominance hasn’t stopped the audience from tuning in …”

Tom in one short paragraph you summed up what i have been feeling about NASCAR for over 20 years. The leadership just needs to leave the damn sport alone. Ever since the “Chase”, the sport has been trying to “create excitement”, and the results continue to harm the sport and drive the core audience away.

Bill B

Agree. I was going to comment on that paragraph as well.

F1 wants their series to be a sport. Entertainment be damned. You either get it or you don’t. The fans they want are those that want to watch a race.

NASCAR wants their series to be entertainment. If competition and fairness in awarding wins and championships takes a hit, so be it. NASCAR continually tries to create fans with gimmicks.Most times they end up losing more fans than they gain, but that’s another rant.

Kurt Smith

One of the things that separated NASCAR from other sports in the pre-Brian era was that they were proud not to be like other sports. It was one of the reasons the sport was exploding in popularity. The decline started when they tried to be like the NFL.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kurt Smith
Rob smith

Not stock cars anymore it bulls#!+ nascar lol stop being fooled

Phil

I can live with stage points, and even GWC, but I’ve always thought stopping the race at the end of a stage took all the energy out of the race.
The idea has always been, when the green flag drops, get to the checkers first. No fake cautions.

John

I agree that stage cautions (and even stage points) need to go–they are a gimmick.

Another thing that needs to go is the overtime finishes. They drag out many of the races and often rob the leader at the end of regulation time of his win. I am happy that Reddick held on and won, but how many times has that not happened?

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