NASCAR races are among the longest events in American sports, sometimes lasting for more than 3 hours. But the rules and procedures can be confusing as a new fan, as there is a lot going on. Therefore, you may wonder how NASCAR races work.
NASCAR races are normally made up of 3 stages. The first and second stages each take a quarter of the race’s total laps, with the third and final stage lasting for the remaining 50% of the total laps. The driver who crosses the finish line first in the third stage wins the race.
Below, we will outline in detail how a NASCAR race works. We will also go over how to win a NASCAR race, and we will provide a sound explanation regarding stage racing. Later, we will explore the points system, and outline any differences between Cup, Xfinity, and Truck Series races.
How Do You Win A NASCAR Race?
You win a NASCAR race by being the first car to cross the start-finish line on the final lap of the final stage of the race. While winning the stages can earn a driver points, it’s winning the final stage that will yield them victory for the race overall.
Winning a NASCAR race is no easy task. You are competing against 35 to 39 other going at speeds of up to 190+ mph (305 kph) on the fastest tracks in the current Next Gen car. To win a race, you must have a car that runs better than the other 35 to 39 cars on the track, keep your car out of trouble for typically between three and five hours, and to have sound chemistry with your team.
Team Size & Prestige Often Matters
While smaller, lower-funded teams can and do win races, belonging to a large, prestigious team is another way to increase your chances of winning a NASCAR race. In 2022, nearly every winner drove for either Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs, Team Penske, or Stewart-Haas. Before NASCAR relegated equipment to a limited number of vendors, these larger teams could purchase better equipment.
With specifications causing cars to look and run more similarly in the 2020s, the equipment you see on most NASCAR cars is often identical because NASCAR outsources manufacturing of many components to select companies. However, these larger teams can still afford better builders, crew chiefs, spotters, and pit crew members, which gives their drivers tremendous advantages.
How Long Is A NASCAR Race?
NASCAR races vary in length, with some lasting as little as 69 laps, but other races can last as long as 500 laps. The number of laps run at each race is determined through factors like track size and track shape. NASCAR races are typically around 3-5 hours long.
NASCAR races often run similar distances regardless of the number of laps, with 233 miles (375 km) at COTA (69 laps) and 266.5 miles (429 km) at Bristol’s night race (500 laps). However, these are actually outliers, as most races last between 200 and 400 laps, and between 300 (483 km) and 500 miles (805 km).
Races at popular venues like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Auto Club, Phoenix, Kansas, Richmond, Dover, New Hampshire, Darlington, Homestead, and Texas fall into these brackets. Many of the aforementioned tracks hold two events per season, comprising the vast majority of points-paying events on the schedule.
NASCAR runs six road course races per season, and like the race at COTA, they typically do not fall within that 300-500 mile mark. Some events, like the Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, may be confusing, as 350 actually stands for 350 kilometers, not miles, as the race only runs for 218 miles.
Another outlier is the Coca-Cola 600, often referred to as NASCAR’s version of an endurance race. This event starts in the late afternoon and ends after the sun sets, with each driver clocking in 600 miles (966 km) if they finish on the lead lap. It is also the only race on the schedule to run this distance.
KEY POINTS• You win a NASCAR race by crossing the finish line first on the last lap
• It’s generally easier to win if you’re part of a bigger, wealthier team
• Most NASCAR races last between 3-5 hours and run for 300-500 miles
How A NASCAR Race Works
The NASCAR Starting Procedure
A NASCAR race begins with the “Drivers, start your engines” command, giving the 36-40 drivers the go-ahead to start their cars and follow the pace car onto the track for the warm up or parade laps. These laps do not count toward the number of laps run during an event, and instead they give the driver an opportunity to warm up their tires and brakes.
During the parade laps, the drivers typically ride two by two in 18-20 rows. Once the pace car enters the pit lane, the green flag drops, and the race is underway. Drivers will race at full speed during the green flag laps and will only slow down if an on-track incident brings out a yellow flag, also called a caution.
The green flag laps will continue until the race reaches the final lap of its first stage, where the flagman waves the white flag, before ultimately waving the green-checkered flag, signifying the end of Stage 1.
The first stage typically lasts for the first quarter of the race, but there are some outliers. Drivers that finish in the top ten of the first stage earn bonus points for the race. Following a stage, the flagman waves the yellow flag for a competition caution, allowing drivers the opportunity to pit during the intermission.
NOTE: Drivers can pit during green and yellow flag laps as well, but these competition cautions are predetermined, allowing drivers an opportunity to pit without risking losing as much track position.
Once a predetermined number of laps are run under yellow flags, the green flag waves again for Stage Two. This stage also typically lasts for a quarter of the race, and it runs similarly to Stage One.
Once the green-checkered flag waves to signify the end of Stage 2, there is a second intermission. The top 10 drivers get their bonus points, and drivers are also presented with the opportunity to pit once more. In Stages 1 and 2, basic pit strategy comprising four-tire changes and full fuel refills are the norm, but race strategies tend to change as Stage 3 begins.
The third stage often lasts for the second half of the race, with the exception of the Coca-Cola 600, where it lasts just a quarter and the event proceeds to run a fourth stage. As the race nears its conclusion, you will see teams still typically take full four-tire changes unless they feel they can be just as fast by taking only two fresh tires.
You will also see them opt for less fuel, as teams look to keep the cars lighter so they can theoretically be faster for the final laps. Once the white flag waves for the final time, the race has reached its last lap. The go round one more time, and the flagman will wave the black and white checkered flag, signifying the end of the race.
The race winner often drives to the start-finish line, where they celebrate and give an interview before proceeding to Victory Lane, where further interviews are held and the driver accepts their trophy or other unique item, like the Grandfather Clock if they win at Martinsville.
How Do NASCAR Stages Work?
In 2017, NASCAR introduced stage racing, which made the sport better resemble its counterparts in the major North American sports, whose games are divided into quarters, periods, and innings, with a small intermission following each. Most NASCAR races have 3 stages, although the Coca-Cola 600 is divided into four.
Each stage will end with a stage winner, who will receive 10 bonus points for winning the stage. The driver who takes second in the stage will get nine points, and drivers who place in third through 10th will earn between eight points (third place), and one point (10th place). The same points system holds true following the second stage.
During the intermission, pit road opens, meaning it is possible for drivers to gain and lose track position between stages if they opt to pit. The driver who wins the stage could start the next stage in second, third, fourth or even lower if they end up having a bad pit stop. Likewise, a driver who finished in the middle of the pack could wind up in the top 10 if they had a perfect stop.
The first two stages typically last for just a quarter of the race, while the final stage at most events lasts for the second half of the race. Further, if a race reaches its third stage and inclement weather strikes, NASCAR can declare the race to be over, and whoever is leading during the third stage when the race is called is declared the winner.
Reasons For Stage Racing
One major reason behind stage racing is that it gives drivers who ran up front all day an opportunity to collect more points than they would have otherwise collected under the pre-2017 system, where stages did not exist. Under the old system, even if a driver ran up front all afternoon, they could have still suffered in terms of points if they crashed out of the race or blew an engine.
One freak incident (possibly outside of that driver’s control) could have slashed the total number of points and dollars earned for that particular race. Since stage racing’s introduction in 2017, a driver could finish the race in a low spot, like 30th, and still collect middle-of-the-pack points if they received bonuses for where they finished following a specific stage.
Stage racing also helps keep the race closer. If a driver creates a big lead and dominates a stage, the field now has a chance to catch up and challenge that driver because the competition caution following the end of the stage will bunch the cars back together. This helps negate the guarantee that one driver will end up dominating the majority of the race, ideally helping improve the race for fans.
KEY POINTS• NASCAR races are divided into 3 or 4 stages
• There are points awarded for finishing in the top 10 in these stages
• Stages were introduced to improve the racing, but they’re not universally liked
How Many Points Do NASCAR Race Winners Get?
NASCAR race winners get 40 points after they cross the start-finish line at the checkered flag to end the final stage and the race. Second-place earns 35 points. Each lower-placed car behind second will earn one fewer point. Drivers also get points for winning the preceding stages.
Over the years, NASCAR has made numerous changes to its points system, which has grown less complicated in today’s sport. Race winners typically earn the highest number of points for winning, but in rare cases, they may have won the race, but may not have garnered the highest number if another driver, say, won the first two stages and the race-winning driver finished just outside the top 10.
NASCAR Points System
It is important to remember that, just because a driver may finish in 36th with just one point, it doesn’t mean they received the fewest number of points in the race. They might win the first two stages but then struggle in the last one, meaning they pick up 20 bonus points from the stages, taking their total for the race up to 21 points instead of just 1.
Before stage racing, the older system awarded five bonus points to each driver who led a lap, and five points to the driver who led the highest number of laps. This later decreased to just one point, before NASCAR did away with it when they brought in stage racing.
Older NASCAR Scoring Systems
Between 1949 and 1974, the scoring systems went through several changes. From 1949 until 1967, the prize money available for a specific race determined the number of points a driver attained. The most common system, used between 1952 and 1967, saw a race winner earn 200 points if the overall prize money was $4,000, and as many as 1,250 points for a pool of $25,000 or more.
Starting in 1968, and continuing until 1973, mileage determined the number of points. For races under 250 miles (402 km), the race winner received 50 points, and the system operated similarly to what is seen in the table above. The second place driver got 49, third place, 48, and so on.
If a race ran between 250 miles (402 km) and 399 miles (642 km), the race winner received 100 points, second place 98, and third, 96. Each subsequent place behind third received two fewer points, so if a driver finished 10th, they earned 82. If they finished 15th, they took home 72. Or if they took 40th, they got just 22 points.
For races greater than 399 miles (642 km), the race winner got 150 points, while each subsequent placing received three fewer points. So, if a driver took second, they got 147 points, third took 144, all the way down to 50th place (who got three points), if applicable.
In 1974, things got rather complicated as NASCAR returned to determining points by money, this time with winnings from track purses multiplied by the number of races a driver started. They would then divide that number by 1,000. The short-lived system was so complicated that NASCAR did away with it and for 1975 until 2010, a new system was developed.
Between 1975 and 2003, the race winner received 175 points. From 2004 to 2006, the number increased to 180 points, before topping out at 185 points between 2007 and 2010. Second place earned 170 points, third place got 165, fourth got 160, fifth got 155, and sixth got 150.
Seventh place took 146 points, and each subsequent place earned four fewer points, with the eighth place finisher taking 142 points and so on. This continued to 11th place, who took home 130 points. From 12th place (127 points) and down, each subsequent place received three fewer points, from 13th (124 points) to 43rd (34 points).
Under the above system, drivers earned five extra points for leading a lap, and an additional five points if they led the most laps. Between 2011 and 2015, this changed to drivers earning just one point for leading a lap and an additional point for the most laps.
In 2011, the scoring system started to resemble what we see today, with the winner getting 43 points and an additional three points for winning the race. The second place driver took 42 points, and each subsequent finisher received one fewer point, with third place getting 41, fourth place getting 40, fifth getting 39, and so on.
The same system stayed in place for 2016, but with minor modifications thanks to the new chartered system. The winner would still get three bonus points, but earned 40 points for winning. Second place took 39, 38 went to third place, 37 for fourth, all the way to just one point for the 40th place finisher. They still handed out a bonus point for leading a lap, and for leading the most laps.
How Much Money Do NASCAR Race Winners Get?
NASCAR race winnings used to be common knowledge. Before they launched the chartered system in 2016, you would be able to find out how much money each NASCAR driver won for themselves and their team for the race. However, in 2016, NASCAR decided to no longer make their drivers’ winnings public.
NASCAR Cup vs Xfinity vs Truck Series Races
The NASCAR Xfinity and Truck Series follow a similar format to the Cup Series, racing three stages, with Stage 1 taking the first quarter of the race, and Stage 2 taking up the second quarter. Stage 3 comprises the final half of the event. However, the races are generally not as long as those in the Cup Series.
For example, the Daytona 500 goes for 500 miles (805 km), while the Xfinity race at Daytona, classically known as the Daytona 300, runs for 300 miles (483 km). The Daytona 250 in the Truck Series is just 250 miles long (402 km). Aside from race durations, Xfinity and Truck Series races follow most of the same rules as Cup Series races.
NASCAR races work like many other motorsports events, with the driver who crosses the finish line first on the last lap being declared the winner. NASCAR races are split into 3 stages (4 at Charlotte), with bonus points available for the top 10 in the first two stages. The races last 3-5 hours.
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