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(Photo: Danny Peters)

Up to Speed: NASCAR Stages Mean Less Strategy at Sonoma

The key to Martin Truex Jr.’s victory Sunday (June 24) at Sonoma Raceway was a pit stop that did not happen.  Cole Pearn, Truex’s crew chief, appeared to call the No. 78 to pit road late in the race, only to have the driver stay out for several more laps.  When Truex did pit later than fellow contender Kevin Harvick, the No. 78’s fresher tires allowed him to chase down the No. 4 and drive away to his third win of the year.  It was easily the most memorable moment of an uneventful race at the northern California road course.

It is too bad the early laps did not have interesting strategy plays of their own.  The risky pit road calls that saved Sunday’s race from being a total dud were instead confined to the end of the event. Unfortunately, Sonoma exhibited one of the biggest flaws with NASCAR’s style of stage racing – less uncertainty about when cautions will occur.

NASCAR is almost a year and a half into its stage racing experiment.  Predictably, the sanctioning body has presented the new racing format as an innovative, positive change.  Reactions from fans, however, continue to be mixed at best.  Stages have occasionally created some fun on-track moments, like Kyle Busch’s run-in with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Martinsville Speedway last year.  But most of the time, stages still feel like an unnecessary interference into racing action.  In essence, the mandatory stage finishes, cautions and restarts have not produced enough exciting moments to justify their existence.

Additionally, stage points continue to create awkward situations relating to point distributions in each race.  For instance, Chase Elliott earned the most points from Sunday’s race at Sonoma.  The No. 9 team had a good performance and ran near the front of the field most of the day.  Yet did Elliott, who finished fourth, really deserve to leave Sonoma with nine more points than Truex, who won the race?

Stage points also allowed Jimmie Johnson, who finished 11th, to earn two more points than Truex. Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski’s total equaled Truex’s despite the fact Keselowski finished 13th.  Truex did get the reward of five additional playoff points. But a system that places so little emphasis on actual finishing position seems like it would be a hard sell to the casual fans that NASCAR so desperately wants to attract.

The reason that Elliott, Johnson and Keselowski earned so many stage points relative to Truex takes us back to the first half of Sunday’s race. There’s an additional problem with stage racing that it exposed.  Crew chiefs always used to plan their strategies for NASCAR road races in reverse.  The main idea was to find a way to either be at the front of the field or be near the leader with significantly fresher tires at the end of the race.  While that would be simple enough if the whole race went green, there were likely going to be caution periods. Nobody knew going into the race when the cautions would happen or how many there would be.

As a result, crew chiefs had to guess when cautions might occur. That would allow them to predict when tires would be most valuable.  They also had to be ready to change their strategies on the fly if a caution occurred at an unexpected time.  Teams had to be on their toes for an entire 220-mile race at Sonoma, where just one yellow flag had the ability to save your day or ruin it.

But stages have changed the game at road courses, and not for the better.  Sunday’s race called for stage one to end at the conclusion of lap 25; stage two would end after lap 50.  While a full fuel run at Sonoma may go over 25 laps, tire falloff has become a major concern.  No team that expected to win the race was going to pass up an opportunity to pit under yellow.  The only other option would be to pit just before the caution and gain track position back when everyone else pitted.

The placement of the stages set up a scenario which took the guesswork out of the first half of the race.  Crew chiefs did have a choice, but it was obvious. They could either pit before the stage, sacrifice stage points, then start up front for the next stage. Or, they could pit under caution, collect stage points, and restart the next stage at the back.  It was only an either/or decision.

The certainty regarding the occurrence of two cautions boxed teams into picking one of two strategies for the entire first half of the race.  Planned cautions led to less creativity for the crew chiefs and less fun for the fans.  And it was only because drivers like Elliott, Johnson and Keselowski used the “pit under caution strategy” that they were able to collect stage points. That allowed them to earn similar point totals to Truex, a faster car who pitted under green each time.

Meanwhile, the second half of the race had an entirely different feel.  While the on-track action was still lacking, the No. 78 team gambled with pit strategy. In doing so, they outfoxed the Stewart-Haas Racing contingent of Harvick and Clint Bowyer.  Both drivers actually came to pit road once more about 10 laps after Truex’s last stop, hoping to gain an advantage on him with fresher tires. They knew their chances of winning were slim if they just followed Truex for the rest of the race.

BOWLES: CREAM RISES TO THE TOP AGAIN AT SONOMA

The second-half strategies were more compelling because they involved guesswork about time spent in the pits, new tires and cautions that might occur.  Pearn looked like a hero after the race was over. However, if a caution had come out with around 10 laps to go, Truex would have been sunk.  The No. 78’s race hinged on the gamble that the race would go caution free to the end.  Unlike the first half of the race, there was no certainty.

NASCAR instituted stages on the flawed premise that it had to make the first half of its races more meaningful to the end result.  But everything that happens on the track or in the pits early in a race can impact the outcome.  We do not know how races will play out each week. Instead, like crew chiefs, we make our own guesses about how each race will unfold.  Uncertainty is compelling.

Stages at Sonoma took uncertainty out of the first half of the race.  They produced a disjointed event that felt more like two different races.  As a result, NASCAR might as well have cut the race in half. Everything up through the second stage felt like drivers just logging laps, waiting for the pit stops that they knew were coming and trying not to do anything too risky until after the beginning of the last stage when the real battle would begin.  Isn’t that the exact scenario NASCAR was trying to avoid by implementing stage racing?

It may not be the worst idea that NASCAR has ever come up with, but stages have not made the big, positive splash that the sanctioning body hoped they would.  While stages are only a nuisance most weeks, they were clearly a detriment to the racing at Sonoma.

Unfortunately, the sanctioning body will probably continue to prop up stage racing, like the playoffs, no matter how much of a detriment it becomes.

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About Bryan Gable

Bryan Gable
Bryan returns to Frontstretch in 2018 for his third season. As a longtime race fan, he brings 20 years of insight and passion to his motorsports analysis. Bryan is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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12 comments

  1. The only thing I see with stage racing is another gimmick that ain’t needed since
    we have championships determined by the highest finisher in Miami making the
    other 35 races mean nothing at the end of the year.

  2. Don in Connecticut

    The old points system was ridiculous but suggesting that stages are the solution is absurd. I’ve stopped watching races except, I thought, the road races which I always enjoyed. After watching that snooze fest yesterday, I guess I’m going to have more time available for my other interests. Sad.

  3. Your bias is showing again, Bowles. Chase Elliott was the ONLY driver who maximized stage points without risking his finishing position. So, of all the drivers who have been points racers over their careers, you single him out as the villain of this story! I say Kudos to Chase and Alan Gustafson for running for both points and the win! Truex, Harvick, Bowyer and KyBu didn’t need the points, so their strategy was obvious and they took a meaningless hit in points because of it.

    Stop your whining already. With only 6 winners all season, there are 10 drivers fighting for the Playoffs, so points matter more than ever. The old Latford System was a travesty in its points distribution. Whatever harm France and Co. have done for the sport, at least they got rid of that disaster which put NO premium on winning.

  4. The easy solution for the points discrepancy is to give the winner at least 56 points. That way, even if the second place car won both TV time-out stoppages they could only get 55. But the World 600 messes that up with three stoppages but that’s Brian’s fault. Again.

  5. Stage POINTS would be fine, as the incentive would still be there to spur on drivers instead of laying back. It’s the stage CAUTIONS that completely screw up the flow and tension of a race.

  6. The entire ‘stage’ and ‘playoff’ scenario are totally bogus for stock car racing. Manufacturing ‘excitement’ never produces the expected results.

  7. The broadcasting company is going to get their commercials and nascrap will accommodate them one way or the other. All to the detriment of the sport and fan. Funny that ESPN and TNN didn’t have such problems; better hush lest I incur the wrath of Kenny Wallace.

    • That’s a good point. I’ve always felt that commercials should be run during all pit stops until the last 30 laps or so. Broadcasters would save a bundle by not having to have all those reporters running around the pits (and, in the case of NBC, wearing those stupid firesuits) and the main announcing team could always recap anything dramatic that happened during stops that affected the race lineup and viewers would see more racing as a result.

      • Geez, there are some races where the only place passes take place is on pit road. It shouldn’t be that way, but often times it is. Stop televising the pit stops and we will be watching a parade most weeks.

  8. Nice analysis of how stage racing affects strategy.
    I will point out though that one of the unacknowledged reasons for the stages was to get rid of the need for fake cautions to bunch the field up.