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?
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