Can we talk about how well stage racing has gone for NASCAR this season?
Oh, you don’t agree? That’s OK. Bear with me for a moment and let’s see if I can convince you of one of the best additions to big time stock car racing in recent memory. And I’ll be honest. As a moderate NASCAR traditionalist, I’m always hesitant to change, just because the sanctioning body doesn’t exactly have the greatest batting average on making enhancements over the past decade or so. But like several other decisions in the past couple of years, stage racing has been a welcome addition to the weekly fabric of NASCAR racing.
So let’s back up for a minute and decide if stage racing was even necessary in the first place. And personally, when trying to reach that conclusion, I have a process to get there, and it goes like this:
Ask yourself, if a rules update that we’re discussing right now was already in place for years, and was the way we’ve always done it, would you decide now to do something different? That is to say, if we’ve always had stages races, would you advocate that NASCAR eliminate them to race uninterrupted?
Given the state of intermediate track racing, would anyone decide against a legitimate mandated caution? They’re probably still not needed for short tracks and road courses, but it’s probably a reach to say that many would want NASCAR to encourage a 400-, 500- or 600-mile race to potentially go caution free.
Furthermore, the modern era cars and those who drive them are too reliable, too physically fit, and not prone to mistakes or failure. The reason 400- and 500-mile events became the norm is because it was the truest test of man and machine.
So with that in mind, if NASCAR is reluctant to shorten races too much, and if drivers had largely settled in during the middle stages without providing much action, it was behoove of the decision-makers to go this direction.
And drivers, like Jimmie Johnson, agree that it has successfully upped the intensity level throughout these races.
“It’s tough,” Johnson said over the weekend. “The competition in this garage area, the format and the fact there are points and a rhythm of the race with stages, it’s like three shorter races now and there is a reward at the end of each of them.
“It’s easy to get sucked into an environment to make mistakes as a team and driver. As odd as it may sound, I think we are guilty, we are really guilty of that right now as a team.”
Think about that for a second …
The most successful NASCAR driver of the past decade has admitted that the stage-based format has forced him into making errors that’s left him 14th in the championship standings after six races. To the fans that say drivers were racing as hard as they could no matter what, this is Exhibit A that they weren’t.
Exhibit B took place on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway when leader Kyle Busch struggled to keep Ricky Stenhouse Jr. a lap down in the closing laps of the first stage.The Roush Racing youngster battled Busch tough and even shoved him up the track, a move that cost the 2015 champion the lead, and a stage point, but successfully kept Stenhouse on the lead lap.
That only happened because Stenhouse knew a caution was coming. Eventual race winner Brad Keselowski sat in on the meetings that developed the new race procedure and said the format has accomplished its goals so far.
“In general, (NASCAR) wanted there to be more moments that mattered, more moments that make the SportsCenter highlight reel … That was a key moment in the race, and it’ll be a key moment in the season as we get into the playoffs.
“But that’s what this format is supposed to be about is having moments like that. Whether you agree with specific moves is really neither here nor there, but when you put more on the line throughout the race, you get more moments like that.
“I think in the end, the fans win and the sport wins.”
So again, if this is the way we had always done it in NASCAR, would you possibly advocate the decision-makers to get rid of it? Surely not. We want drivers constantly racing, but NASCAR needed to provide them additional incentive to do so first.
NASCAR really hit on something here, and it’s only going to get better as the playoffs approach and begin.