NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice?: NASCAR Stage Points Keeping Big Names Afloat In 2021

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

  1. Denny Hamlin 125
  2. Michael McDowell 122 (+7 positions)
  3. Kevin Harvick 121 (+4)
  4. Christopher Bell 117 (+1)
  5. Brad Keselowski 112 (-3)
  6. Kyle Larson 111 (-3)
  7. Joey Logano 107 (-1)
  8. Ryan Preece 103 (+5)
  9. Chase Elliott 104 (-5)
  10. Martin Truex Jr. 102 (-2)
  11. Kurt Busch 97 (-1)
  12. Austin Dillon 97 (Even)
  13. Kyle Busch 93 (+1)
  14. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 88 (+3)
  15. William Byron 84 (-4)
  16. 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).

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Joseph

Great article Tom! I think the stage points vs actual finish points should be revised slightly. Totally think there should be incentive to race for the bonus points but maybe take a page from IMSA on endurance races. Give points to the Top Ten as such: 5,4,3,2 and positions 5-10:1. So there won’t be such a huge advantage leading at lap 75 compared to 267. Or add more points to the finishing order. I’d at least make the winner earn 50-55pts. So hypothetically the 2nd place finisher (if they actually won both stages) would either tie or be slightly behind the race winner. The winner should earn the most points to add to the value of the win.

The way the playoff format is set up. The points don’t really matter until the end of the year. When the playoffs begin.

The only way to make points really matter is keep the playoff format to 16 drivers. Win and you’re in. However in order to keep all your playoff points you must be in the Top Ten standings at the end of the regular season. If not, all your hard work results in 0 bonus points and you’re going to have to race hard or win to advance during the elimination rounds.

Again, hypothetical and long post about a point system debate that will never change haha. We all have ideas but this is the sandbox we play in and we don’t set the rules. Just have to play the game.

Bill B

“The concept of stages made sense upon their introduction in 2017″… Really? I don’t remember anyone asking for them or saying they made sense. You should be able to run a race without having fake debris cautions or predetermined stage cautions. The only stake holder for whom they made sense were the TV networks. TV should be reporting/showing the event as it unfolds not determining how the event will unfold.

The Phoenix spring race should always be better than the fall/championship race, after all there are 40 guys racing in the former where only 4 are racing in the latter with the other 36 just driving around logging in laps.

Not sure about your opinion on the Gordon/Bowyer pre-race show. A little too much buffoonery for my taste.

janice

agree with you on the gordon/bowyer pre-race stuff. too much for me. i tune in for racing, if i want entertainment i’ll watch something else. doing away with the charlotte hoopla and the gordon/bowyer stuff might make race start 10-15 min earlier! but as dw always said, it’s about the show.

Tom B

Just when I thought the buffoonery on pre-race shows and race broadcasts could not get any worse, they bring in Gordon/Bowyer. You can tell Jamie McMurray thinks it stupid and really doesn’t want to participate in the pre-race buffoonery. Mike Joy has to know how terrible it looks/sounds when he is trying to describe the racing action. But he wants to keep his job and joins in, trying to compete without being upstaged too much. After all (I) am the voice of Fox Racing with over 20 years in the booth.
I guess the Waltrips did not look that bad in comparison.

Bill B

You are wrong. IMO the Waltrip’s buffoonery far exceeded the current version.

Steve

Stage points, Try welfare points because that is what it is,

Bill B

Not really welfare points as they are earned by finishing well at that predetermined, arbitrary moment in the race.

The welfare point are given at the end of 26 races when those that had a substantial lead have it taken away and those that had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the championship have their deficit (debt) wiped away.

Josalyn

I say introduce a new, permanent point system rewarding the entire season, not just 4 drivers. The champ should BE the champ. For example:
1 80 pts
2 77 pts
3 74 pts etc
Once you hit 10th, decrease by 1 the points awarded. Also… leading a lap is +2 points and the most, +5. Award the winner +3, so theoretically, 90 pts is the most you could take home. This way you reward the winner. Do away with stages…I attend NFL games in my hometown and when televised, the game is stopped for commercial breaks. Foolish and neither should a race be randomly stopped….let it unfold as it should….phantom cautions for debris? Well I’ve read much on that and find that oftentimes what we armchair quarterbacks think is phantom is something Nascar sees–be it a piece of shiny hotdog paper they think is metal or too much trash on the track. I let them officiate. Sure they want excitement but I agree, the networks should not influence our racing. Stage breaks suck and take laps from the race. I like the chose rule and green white checker rules along with freezing the field, but stage racing is gimmicky and stage points….don’t get me started. Do away with the yellow line rule as well. First and foremost, the champion, as stated earlier, should Be the best driver throughout the year-when I am buying a car I want durable, not the guy that finished top 10 18 times but won 3 racea at THE END OF THE YEAR. That said, I still believe most drivers try to race as hard as possible throughout the year-a couple exceptions would be JJ and Tony S who often started strong but then faded out just to suddenly reappear. No more stage racing!!! A permanent points system like we had with Winston Cup and allowing real humans to officiate (along with a return to short tracks but that’s another post) would rebuild the fan base and regrow the sport.

Jo

All you want is to back to the Latford system, which put absolutely NO PREMIUM on winning a race. Your system says the difference between finishing 9th and 10th is exactly the same as the difference between first and second. In what alternate reality is that true in any sport? You want to make “first” just another finishing position and give all the losers a participation trophy. The Latford system gave us Matt Kenseth and Alan Kulwicki with a combined 3 wins in their “championship seasons.”

The only good thing about your idea is that it will never happen again. And there is no perfect method of determining the “best” driver. I’d prefer to give the championship to the driver who won the most races, rather than cruising around points racing, which is what the Latford system gave us. Since NASCAR has discarded that option, the current system provides the best combination of risk and reward.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR might want the segment points but no one believes they have to throw a caution for them. Maybe they should award points when the “Competition Caution” flies.

Jill P

The “Competition Caution” is already being used as a way to give a free pass to a backrunner or a driver penalized a lap when the race begins.

DoninAjax

Everyone knows the “Competition Caution” is a TV time out like the segments. Lots of time for commercials and wasted laps, especially on non-ovals.

Tom B

That’s a good idea about not throwing a caution at the end of the segments. Award the points and keep on racing!

Jo

The points system is not going to change. Bowles and the rest of FS will continue to write click-bait articles on this subject because its grey-beard fan base hates the current system. The only thing I would consider is a bigger bonus for winning, but I’ve been advocating for that ever since the flawed Latford System was in place.

I love the stage racing because it changes the strategy of the race. Pit or not to pit? Pit early to gain track advantage in the next stage? Or go for points? It makes it more of a mind game (which, of course, is not the forte of NASCAR fans). And just looking at last Sunday’s race, the first two stages had better finishes than the long green-flag stage at the end. If anything, I’d make the final stage equal to or shorter than the first two stage to give us a better finish than we have seen the last two rac.es. Everybody claims to hate late-race cautions, but they are the only thing that makes finishes exciting, so if we are not going to have wrecks anymore, let’s have a short final stage.

WJW Motorsports

I’d be willing to bet any amount of money that the points system will change – just that it may not change any time soon. Stage racing is awful – simply because it alters the strategy of a race. All opinions valid of course, but for me a driver and team should never know with any certainty when the caution will fly. Personally, I don’t care a lick about the champion or how they decide it – but I’d prefer a system that doesn’t mess too much with the integrity of the race itself. The final race – in theory the most important race of the year, is now a complete sham. Last, you seem to put a lot of thought into your posts and do seem to be a NASCAR fan, so I can’t quite understand why you’d insult the intelligence of a group to which you belong.

Jo

I just get frustrated by the knee-jerk reaction of fans of this site to dislike anything that has changed since the 1970’s. I hated stage racing when it was introduced, but since then I have come to like it for the strategy issues it introduced. It’s like a chess game for the crew chiefs.

DoninAjax

The point system will continue to change because NA$CAR will continue to make it easier to understand, because the Latford system was too confusing for their fans.

Jo

The Latford system wasn’t hard to understand; it was just fatally flawed.

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