- Sorry, guys, the stages are pretty ok
I know there are some fans who are not behind the race structure, but after nearly half a season of racing, has it really changed the racing all that much? The answer is yes…and no.
Why it works is that the actual race remains more or less unchanged. Other than knowing when two caution flags will fly, the fundamental way in which the race is run really hasn’t changed. It hasn’t really added more cautions; you have to think at least some of the time, the caution would fly for debris anyway if the notion hit in the tower, so that’s kind of a wash.
And the positives outweigh the couple of cautions. We’ve seen teams change up strategies and race much harder at mile 100 of a 400-mile race, than they would with no incentive. The only incentive before was to save the car for the end, which contributed to strung-out fields. Now, there will be fuel and tire gambles and strategy shakeups as well as some pretty intense racing at times it wasn’t happening before.
Is it a gimmick? Of course it is. But in the scheme of things, it’s fairly innocuous. If the playoff points awarded make the entire season more important in the championship picture, that’s even better—it’s still a one-race title, but at least the new system gives the drivers who really deserve to be there the ones fighting for it.
- But the execution could use a tweak
One issue with the race format that will hopefully be addressed for next year is the length of caution laps between stages. A lot of laps are wasted under yellow, depriving fans of green-flag action. I appreciate the sentiment that a lot of commercials can be burned off here, but it’s hard to say this has an impact on the number of advertisements overall.
I’m not necessarily in favor of simply not counting the laps, though. That has the potential to lead to some things that just don’t sit right…namely somebody deciding that if the laps don’t count, let’s just make it 10 minutes and let teams work on their cars and go back on track in the order they entered pit road, something that was done in some all-star events once upon a time. That was not good
for the race overall.
Instead, I’d like to see the cautions be quickie yellows: throw the flag, open the pits next time by, let all cars pit, lead lap or not, and give the one to go on the following lap. NASCAR can get the scoring right on a quickie yellow for an incident, so that should not be an issue (and if it is, extend by a lap to get it right when necessary). This would end one stage and begin the next as seamlessly as possible and give fans as much green-flag racing as necessary without unnecessary delays.
- The Rookie Battle
If you don’t follow rookie standings, here’s a rundown:
Going into the season, this is about how I pictured it looking, though I sort of expected Jones to have that small lead over Suarez instead, just based on experience. The difference has been that while Jones has been more brilliant at times, he’s also failed to finish a quarter of this year’s races due to crashes. There’s nothing really alarming in that; lots of drivers who race as hard as Jones had crash-filled debut years and went on to win titles. Suarez, by contrast, hasn’t had a DNF since the season-opening Daytona 500, and has progressed nicely.
Interestingly enough, the standings here reflect almost exactly the money each of these teams have to spend. Suarez drives for powerhouse Joe Gibbs Racing, Jones for JGR satellite Furniture Row Racing, Dillon for Germain Racing, one of the better small teams, and LaJoie and Gaulding for bottom-of-the-barrel BK racing, while Gaulding did announce on Tuesday that he picked up a ride with Premium Motorsports after missing the last two events at Michigan International Speedway and Sonoma Raceway.
While money doesn’t equal talent, this list is also pretty on-target. You can argue an edge for either Suarez or Jones as the best in this group, both a step over Dillon. LaJoie and Gaulding are relatively so inexperienced, it’s hard to pinpoint how good they could be, though LaJoie has earned enough respect on the short tracks that some would certainly put him at least on the level with Dillon.
- If there’s a connection here…
Earlier this season, I wondered aloud if the exodus of three of the sport’s most popular drivers in two seasons was a contributing factor in falling ratings. It’s certainly not the only reason, as the decline has covered years in which this wasn’t the case, but ratings for Sonoma are worth revisiting the question of whether the retirement of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards virtually all at once was the final straw for some fans who had become more casual observers in the Chase / playoffs era.
And if that is the case, what does it mean for the sport when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. becomes the fourth top driver to step away in what will be a scant-two-year span? No, it won’t be the end of NASCAR as we know it, but the sport needs to be marketing the young guns aggressively. The talent behind the wheel is as outstanding as it ever was, but the sport needs to find a way to make personalities stand out and draw fans’ loyalty. They also need to start with drivers in the XFINITY and Camping World Truck Series’ and build on them as they progress. Most die-hard fans have a driver they stand with through thick and thin…and there have to be drivers they can relate to for that to happen.
- Stand up
So, about those points. I already touched on how playoff points, which are carried through the first three rounds, are a good addition in that they make the first 26 races count for something, and that’s important. The only potential downside is that a driver can grab a whole lot of stage wins, and while a race win is worth more points, enough stage wins will give a driver as much playoff standing as race wins.
Look at Martin Truex, Jr. With 11 stage wins, the No. 78 team has a whopping 21 playoff points, eight more than points leader, Kyle Larson, as a matter of fact, though each has two race wins. Jimmie Johnson, who has the most race wins of any driver this year, also trails Truex in the playoff point department, though the No. 48 team has been inconsistent this season (he has three wins, which account for his only three top-five finishes for the year). In the long run, race wins are still the best way to accumulate these points; Johnson, with three race wins but just one stage victory, has a whole lot more to his credit than Kyle Busch, with four stage wins but no race wins. Still, a few more points for the race win might be in order.
A few other observations on the 2017 standings:
- If luck was on Truex’s side a little more, he could easily have more race wins than he does. Pit and mechanical issues are still a big factor in the sport.
- I’m a little surprised that the stage wins haven’t been a bit more spread through he field, mainly because I figured some of the mid-tier and small teams would play the strategy card a bit more often because they have a smaller chance of being there at the end of the race. Through 16 races, 11 drivers have stage wins…the same number who have won a race (though not the same 11 drivers)
- Is this the year we see 17 winners before the playoffs? Doubtful, but maybe. At this point, there are three drivers you kind of expect to win this summer: Busch, Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. Add Chase Elliott to that as well, and that’s 15. The most likely other non-winner is Jamie McMurray, still a bit more of a longshot. Jones has been fast but next year is more likely. Despite top 10 runs at Sonoma, Clint Bowyer and Earnhardt don’t quite look like they are there yet.
- On that note, should NASCAR raise the bar a little and make the point cutoff with a win the top 20? I say yes. Sure that means less leniency if there’s a long-term medical absence, but with so many teams capable of winning and running well every week, it’s hard to say a driver lower than 20th deserves to make the cut, even with a win if the weekly performance isn’t there to support it.
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