NASCAR’s Stage Racing Format Looks Permanent
Every NASCAR off season results in a storm of announcements as Daytona Speedweek approaches. Sometimes the storm is a drizzle, with not a whole lot of earth-shaking changes, and sometimes it’s a pretty big deal, with new ideas that create both controversy and acceptance across the spectrum of drivers, fans, and media. 2017 was one of those really stormy race season kick-offs, highlighted by the sanctioning body’s format change called “stage racing.”
In case you missed the flurry of announcements at the beginning of the season, this general definition from NASCAR.com covers the basics of the change: “Under the new format, races will consist of three stages, with championship implications in each stage. The top-10 finishers in each stage will be awarded additional championship points. The winner of the first two stages of each race will receive one playoff point, and the race winner will receive five playoff points. Each playoff point will be added to a driver’s reset total following the 26th race, if that competitor makes the playoffs.” (This three-stage structure was altered slightly for the May Charlotte race due it’s length. A fourth stage was added.)
The points awarded for each stage are 10 for the stage winner down to 1 for the 10th place finisher. Some quick math will tell you that a driver winning the first two segments of a race will earn 20 bonus points, plus an additional five points if that driver would go on to take the checkered flag. These 25 points would be added to the 40 points the driver gets for a first place finish, bringing the per-race total points available to a single driver to 65. Conversely, a driver finishing out of the top 10 in both segments and ending up in last place would earn only one point for the race. To further stimulate competition within the race, each stage winner will bank a bonus playoff point–points that they carry into the playoffs and that enhance their seeding in the playoff rounds.
Some accounts likened the partitioning of a race into distinct pieces (segments) as a shift from “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” to “if it ain’t broke, break it.” Others welcomed the format change as a way to breakup the doldrums that can creep in to a 400- or 500-mile race when on-track action wanes. Still others recognized that the “win and in” format for playoff qualifications needed an incentive for those earning wins early in the season so they don’t sit back on their cushion with a guaranteed playoff spot.
While in many minds the jury’s still out on the “stage racing” concept, NASCAR has taken a firm position that the concept is achieving its objective of creating a more exciting and stimulating racing event. NASCAR vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnel affirmed that “Stage racing is definitely here to stay” (1) in a recent interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, although he indicated there is the likelihood of further tweaking to make the concept even better.
In case you’re wondering how the stage concept has affected the standings, here’s a recap of the top 10 stage points awarded season to-date through race number 16 (Sonoma):
- Martin Truex Jr. (215 stage points, 11 stage wins)
- Kyle Larson (201,3)
- Kyle Busch (150,4)
- Brad Keselowski (135,2)
- Kevin Harvick (132,3)
- Ryan Blaney (115,3)
- Chase Elliott (112,2)
- Jimmie Johnson (110,1)
- Denny Hamlin (92,2)
- Matt Kenseth (90,1)
Now, take a quick look at the total season points standings after Sonoma (race no. 16) and you’ll see that Truex Jr. and Larson have pulled away sharply from the rest of the field, primarily by virtue of their stage points.
Complicated? Maybe, but the points system does make strategy and racing within a race so much more important. What say you?