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.
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.