Setting the stage: Racing renewed under new format – Nascar
Just six weeks into the 2017 season, the implementation of stages for all three NASCAR national series has grown from mild concern to garage-wide positive reviews.
The format change, announced Jan. 23, provides two pre-determined breaks in each championship points event and rewards those drivers running in the top 10 at the end of each stage with additional championship and playoff points.
The format is used in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, XFINITY Series and Camping World Truck Series.
The move does more than just generate additional opportunities for drivers to earn points — it also creates more up-on-the-wheel moments throughout the course of each event.
“I don’t think any of us went into it thinking that we were going to have incredible action at the end of every single stage,” Scott Miller, NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition, told NASCAR.com on Wednesday. “But I think we have produced enough stages that were intriguing and compelling. One of the things I think has been really good for us — scoring in that top 10, a lot of times we’ll find a pretty intense battle for seventh, eighth, ninth just to get some more points built up. That’s something I don’t think we would have seen had we not had the stages laid out as they are.”
Additional points earned in-race, a change in the end-of-race points structure and playoff points for not only stage “wins” but also race wins created a lot of questions.
But once the cars got on the track at Daytona in February and the system was put into play, concerns and any confusion began to abate.
“I think it’s a huge plus for our sport,” said Denny Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing. “At no point will you ever hear that stage racing has made the racing worse. There are only positives that come out of it.”
Drivers inside the top 10 at the end of Stage 1 or Stage 2 receive between one and 10 points (10 for first, 9 for second, etc.) based on their running position. A driver that runs in the top five all day, for example, might actually earn more points than the race winner. That was the case at Phoenix earlier in March when Kyle Larson finished second in the race, and also was second in the first and second stages to earn more points (53) than race winner Ryan Newman (42), who earned only two stage points.
Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing) has earned 70 stage points through five races, the most of any driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. He has been running inside the top 10 at the end of the first two stages of all five of this season’s races. Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott has earned 63 while Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski has earned 58.
Twenty-two drivers have earned one or more stage points; 16 have yet to collect, including Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard and Daniel Suarez.
“It does bring some intensity that wasn’t there in the past,” said Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Especially if you are in that eighth, ninth, 10th spot coming down to those last few laps. You are like ‘Man, I don’t want to give up any points. I really want these points.’ That was never the case before. We never had points to race for, so we were just kind of getting through the day hoping to be there at the end to get the points and now we are having to worry about points throughout the day.”
This weekend, the series is at Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s STP 500 (2 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Hamlin, a five-time Martinsville winner, says the stages will have big impact at the .526-mile track.
“I think there are various strategies that could play out on this track; you don’t always have to pit at this track,” Hamlin said. “We saw at Las Vegas the varying strategies, some played out OK for the guys and some of them didn’t work at all.
“I think at this track, if the caution falls at the right time, you could see someone who potentially dominates the race end up having to go back to 20th position and have to make up all those positions before the stage is over.”
The lengths at Martinsville are 130 laps for each of the first two stages, with 240 laps making up the final stage. Stage lengths vary for each race depending on the length of the race. For the season-opening Daytona 500 at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, stage lengths were 60, 60 and 80 laps each.
Miller said stage lengths were determined based on several elements, not the least of which was fuel mileage.
“There’s a lot more that meets the eye than maybe where the stages breaks are located,” he said. “A huge concern as we laid out the stages was not to place a stage where it immediately became a fuel conservation event to make it to the end of the stage.
“We had to make the stage long enough to where they absolutely had to stop for fuel or short enough to where they (all) could make it. It’s worked out different on different length tracks, like Phoenix they could make the stage ends (on fuel) but at the mile-and-a-halves and Fontana they couldn’t make the stage ends.
“So to get three stages to work out to where you don’t set any of them up to be a fuel mileage event is a little bit tricky, and I think we’ve done a good job at that.”
Miller said officials will continue to look at the stage lengths, but that there are “no plans on the near horizon to change anything up.”