Did You Notice?… The weird start to the 2021 NASCAR season, made even weirder by stage points?
Let me explain.
We’ve talked to death about four surprise winners in the first four races, only one of whom earned a victory in 2020. Michael McDowell is the sport’s Cinderella story, capturing the Daytona 500 while names like Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski have been shut out early on.
Yet a closer look at the standings shows these big names are doing just fine. In fact, Hamlin already leads by 38 over Keselowski. It’s an impressive number this early for a driver who hasn’t even won yet. Further back, McDowell has slid down to ninth in points despite still being tied for the series lead with three top-10 performances. His average finish (8.0) is better than anyone else except Hamlin.
So why is McDowell already some 61 markers behind? Simple: the No. 34 Ford has struggled to come alive until the final stage. That costs him up to 20 stage bonus points each week.
And stages are where Hamlin is making his money thus far. A whopping 62 bonus points is 25 better than anyone else in the series, while three out of eight stage wins have provided valuable playoff points. It’s allowed him to build a comfortable lead while lifting others like Keselowski, Elliott and Blaney over these underdog stories.
Here’s a quick look at the standings without stage bonuses included.
2021 CUP STANDINGS – NO STAGES
- Denny Hamlin 125
- Michael McDowell 122 (+7 positions)
- Kevin Harvick 121 (+4)
- Christopher Bell 117 (+1)
- Brad Keselowski 112 (-3)
- Kyle Larson 111 (-3)
- Joey Logano 107 (-1)
- Ryan Preece 103 (+5)
- Chase Elliott 104 (-5)
- Martin Truex Jr. 102 (-2)
- Kurt Busch 97 (-1)
- Austin Dillon 97 (Even)
- Kyle Busch 93 (+1)
- Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 88 (+3)
- William Byron 84 (-4)
- Cole Custer 76 (+3)
Take a look at the sport’s smaller programs without stage points. McDowell would be just three markers off the lead, more representative of his surprise season to date. Preece and Stenhouse, who have overachieved with JTG Daugherty Racing, would both be safely inside the top 16.
Even among the sport’s big names, there’s serious movement. Harvick, struggling to maximize ill-handling Fords at Stewart-Haas Racing, gets rewarded for grinding out top-10 finishes. Bell, a winner already in 2021, would close to within eight points of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate instead of being 49 behind.
Instead, the field is a bit more strung out from a system designed to make racing more competitive. It’s also led to a disturbing trend: just once (Byron at Homestead) has the actual race winner scored more points than anyone else. Week after week, drivers finishing further back still gain ground in the standings based on speed they had earlier in the race.
Should drivers get that much of a benefit for the speed they showed on lap 80, not lap 267? It’s tricky. The concept of stages made sense upon their introduction in 2017. Replacing the phantom debris cautions, they broke up the race, increased competition early in the event and given fast drivers a bigger cushion in the playoffs. But, as Harvick learned in 2020, it’s still not a strong enough cushion for even the best regular season performance to glide through to the Championship 4.
Let’s take a closer look at Harvick’s 2020 near miss. His playoff bonus included seven stage victories to Hamlin’s 11. It’s only four points, right? Well, that margin would have been enough to put the No. 4 car, not the No. 11, into the championship finale at Phoenix Raceway. Instead, Harvick was forced to spin out in desperation at Martinsville Speedway after falling 1-3 points below the cutline in the closing laps.
Certainly, Hamlin shouldn’t be faulted for maximizing the system in place. It’s clear the No. 11 team has learned the value of stage points and how it helps you both in the regular season and November. But should being fast at certain points of the race make that much of an impact on who’s the champion? Is an honest attempt to increase competition and boost those with early-race problems simply entrenching NASCAR’s caste system at the top?
Curious to see what the fans think on this one.
Did You Notice?… Toyota has led all manufacturers with five wins in 11 starts across the sport’s top three series. That includes going three-for-three in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series with Thorsport Racing (Ben Rhodes twice) and Kyle Busch Motorsports (John Hunter Nemechek).
For years, the knock on Toyota has been there aren’t enough full-time rides to match a plethora of talent. But the winds might be shifting a bit after watching a few of their drivers slip away (Erik Jones being the most recent example). Michael Jordan’s investment in 23XI Racing leaves room to expand down the road, and there’s a handful of young drivers in position to fill future spots. Harrison Burton looks to be a NASCAR Xfinity Series championship contender while teenager Ty Gibbs is in position for a Cup ride three, maybe even two years from now. Nemechek has already proved the value of building back better by dropping back into the Truck Series.
Brandon Jones won consistently in NXS and could be deserving of a Cup spot by 2023. The truck roster also includes two mid-20s drivers flashing potential in Austin Hill and Ben Rhodes. It adds up to about a half-dozen drivers, a quality group that’s in line with the smaller Cup roster Toyota’s chosen to keep in play.
Compare that to Ford, running just a handful of teams in Xfinity and Trucks (nine overall were entered in those two divisions this weekend). Austin Cindric is the only serious prospect and he’s already been earmarked a Cup ride for 2022. Chevrolet, meanwhile, makes up the majority of teams in the sport’s minor leagues but has its top teams already maxed out with young talent. Kurt Busch, near retirement, might produce the only short-term opening among the top eight Chevy cars of Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
The end result is the Goldilocks theory between the sport’s two other manufacturers: too little talent or too much. Toyota, finally, appears to be in the sweet spot of balancing just enough quality talent with rides to fill them.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off….
- 22-year-old Santino Ferrucci deserves kudos for taking less than a month to get a top-15 finish in NASCAR racing (and with an underfunded, single-car team, no less). More open-wheel converts are good for the sport, and vice versa. I wish Jimmie Johnson was still running a part-time stock car schedule to bring fans of both types of racing into the fold. As I’ve said before with the Indy 500 – Coca-Cola 600 double, cooperation can only benefit both parties looking for a TV ratings boost.
- In one month, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon have made the FOX Sports pre-race show a must watch. It’s hard to make a more impactful signing in the broadcast booth than Dale Earnhardt Jr., but the way production has maximized Bowyer gives NBC a run for their money.
- Which Phoenix will show up this weekend? The 12-caution, 20-lead change thriller before the COVID pandemic, won by Logano in a squeaker where multiple drivers spent time up front? Or the four-caution, yawner-of-a-fall where the title chase provided the only drama? (And where, it seemed, drivers were more than willing to cater to the Championship 4).