Race Weekend Central

Stage Cautions Are a Band-Aid for a Much Larger Problem

Sunday’s (Aug. 20) NASCAR Cup Series race at Watkins Glen International was polarizing, to say the least.

It was the second straight Cup race with just one caution, and it was difficult for drivers to pass each other all day. Throughout it, there were plenty of instances where one slow car was holding up a freight train behind them. While the cars ahead were able to gap the train by seconds, the cars behind were almost helpless as the rest of the field continued to shrink in the windshield.

Combine Watkins Glen’s passing difficulties with long green flag runs, and it led to a largely mundane product in the modern era’s shortest race, timewise.

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The elephants in the room that everyone will point to after The Glen are the long green flag runs and the removal of stage cautions. After all, the top six finishers made no passes for position in the final 30 laps, and the top 11 finishers had no passes in the final 16.

Earlier this week, it became known that NASCAR is considering changes to the road course stages in 2024.

On paper, it makes sense. More cautions mean more restarts, and more restarts mean more battles on track.

But stage cautions are not the silver bullet to fix road courses, or any track in general; anyone expecting them to do so will be left disappointed, because stage cautions don’t improve the racing in Cup. Instead, they only mask one of the biggest problems: the car.

The Next Gen car has largely been a success on 1.5-mile tracks and other intermediates, but it’s been no secret that the short tracks, flat tracks and road courses have regressed in return. Short tracks – tracks traditionally known for close-quartered, side-by-side racing – have lost some of their magic as drivers struggle to get close enough to even attempt a pass.

Sunday’s race may have drawn the ire of fans for its lack of cautions and its long green flag runs, but those alone did not make the race a bust. Would people sing a different tune if the drivers could easily pass each other throughout the runs?

For the criticism that the lack of stage cautions has brought, they allowed for racing and strategy at Watkins Glen and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that wouldn’t have been possible at any oval this season.

The last two weekends have brought more attention to qualifying than it would’ve received otherwise. With just the one caution, the qualifying sessions at Indy and The Glen were arguably the most important ones of the year. If a driver and team missed the setup and laid an egg in qualifying, they were done.

Qualifying should hold a greater importance, but starting in the back should not be a death sentence either. And it would not have been a death sentence last weekend if the faster cars were able to drive their way to the front of the field.

Going in line with intangibles like qualifying mattering more, it also gave teams no room for error in driver mistakes and mistakes on pit road. And as we saw with Daniel Suarez at Indy, just one slow pit stop early on was enough to take him out of winning contention for the rest of the race.

This is where the difference between stage cautions and no stage cautions shines through. If Suarez’s slow pit stop happened with the cautions, he and the team would know that they have an upcoming break to regroup at. Therefore, the team could’ve elected to shoot for a pace or number while running in third because the future caution would put them right behind the leaders anyway.

That’s not the case without the stage cautions. Drivers and teams don’t know when the next caution will come, or if a caution will even come. When that part of the equation is unknown, the teams and drivers have zero room for error. Because if they make a mistake, they may not have a chance to overcome it.

That unknown is what makes pit strategy and on-track battles all the more enticing; all that goes away with scheduled caution breaks.

And if awarding drivers for running up front is the key, awarding points without a caution accomplishes just that without disrupting the equilibrium of the race.

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Now, let’s hypothetically say that stage cautions are brought back on road courses for 2024. What benefit would they have to the racing, and what benefit would it have to races like Indy and Watkins Glen?

First and foremost, they would allow for more restarts. The field gets bunched up double file, and for a few laps, the drivers are going to battle for position. But what happens once the post-restart pandemonium sorts out? The exact same thing that plagued last week’s long green flag runs: a difficulty to pass. The restarts would only fix the passing problem for a handful of laps, and the viewers would have to sit through a lengthy caution period only to be back at square one after a handful of circuits.

The scheduled restarts are a temporary solution to spruce up the racing, and a solution with flawed logic. Would there be any interest in the first 75% of a football or basketball game if the teams were automatically tied heading into the fourth quarter?

That’s because the problem isn’t long green flag runs. The primary issues, which the stages help mask, are the car and, of course, the dreaded dirty air.

Of course, it would be foolish to look at the past with rose-colored glasses. The Gen 6, the Car of Tomorrow and the Gen 4 all dealt with clean and dirty air; the Next Gen is no different.

But on road courses, short tracks and flat tracks, the racing has taken a dramatic step back from the Gen 6. Track position and clean air have become paramount at these tracks more than before, and when drivers either have to wait for a car to make a mistake to make any sort of progress on the cars in front of them, the car, the horsepower and the aerodynamics need an overhaul.

Clean and dirty air is a problem that may never be solved and asking the Next Gen to eradicate the issue entirely is foolish. The air has been a problem in the past, and it will always have some effect no matter what car is trotted out. But the Next Gen was hailed as a step forward from the Gen 6, and at short tracks, flat tracks and road courses, it has only taken a step back.

Stage cautions won’t fix that.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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8 Comments
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TiminPayson

NASCAR needs to run a different chassis on road courses and tracks under 1.5 miles. The Gen 6 car would be better.

DoninAjax

They should be in Super Late Models and real “dirt” cars.

DoninAjax

So what! The green flag started what turned into an actual “race” and not the “product” that has turned into a farce. It actually played out like a real “race” should and the right car won for a change.

Christopher

The claim that ‘no one can pass’ is clearly disproved by McDowell’s run through the field after first his pit problem.

As to aero, NASCAR shot itself in the foot with this car: no full field testing during actual races, as they did with the oft-mocked CoT. If NASCAR really wanted to try and fix the aero problem they’d take the underpan and diffuser off, take the right side window out on every track except the (now three) superspeedways, and increase horsepower back to 800. Instead they nibble around the edges, then scratch their heads when none of it works.

Racer919

Wow! You’re reading my mind. Take away the aero and give ’em more power so they actually have to drive the cars.

Ben Volpian

Larson was also able to pass, but was undone by his speeding penalty. While we’re also talking about Green Flag restarts – it might not be as fan friendly, but I’d consider “single file restarts” after a caution with maybe 5-10 laps to go. This would be a MUCH more fair way to race – especially if a car has a 3-4 second lead erased by a caution towards the very end of a race.

John

Stage racing stinks–get rid of it at all tracks.

Craig P.

I agree that they should get rid of all fake cautions! It’s a damn race! We don’t want to see a slower car win the race because of some lucky cautions coming out. May the best driver and car of the day win! Don’t they all get a participation trophy already?🤣

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