NASCAR races were once run start-to-finish with no mandated breaks in the action. For almost all of its history, the only time a caution flag flew was because of an incident on track. However, this is no longer the case. You might be wondering why NASCAR races now have stages.
All NASCAR races across the 3 major series have stages because the sport wanted to create a better television product by adding more urgency during the middle portions of a race. Drivers now earn bonus points by finishing in the top 10 at the end of the first and second stages of a race.
Stage racing has been controversial among fans but is now a staple of NASCAR competition. There is a lot to dissect regarding the stage racing format, including how it works and why it was introduced in the first place.
What Are The Stages In NASCAR?
There are 3 stages in nearly all NASCAR races. The first 2 stages of a race are usually between 25 and 30 percent of a race’s total laps each, with some variation depending on the length of a race and the track itself. Stage points are available at the end of stages 1 and 2 for the top 10 drivers.
The third and final stage decides the winner and all other positions. It is almost always the longest stage, often 40 to 50 percent of a race’s total length. The final stage most closely resembles a traditional, old-school NASCAR race, as there are no more mandated cautions once the green flag flies and drivers hit the gas.
Once the checkered flag flies, normal points are distributed throughout the field based on finishing order. All stage points a driver accumulates are added to this number.
How Do NASCAR Stage Points Work?
Stage points are awarded to the top 10 finishers after stages one and two. The winner earns 10 points plus 1 playoff point and each subsequent finisher earns 1 fewer point. So, the 2nd-place driver earns 9 stage points, the 3rd-place driver earns 8, and so on.
Everyone who finishes a stage 11th and after earns no stage points. This creates a higher sense of urgency, forcing drivers to fight hard for every position much earlier in a race than what used to occur prior to stage racing implementation. Having points available at predetermined increments during a NASCAR race has changed the way races are run in other ways as well.
It is now somewhat common to see teams gamble with their pit strategies to maximize stage points. By doing this, they will often trade worse track positions on the next restart to try banking stage points on the front end. This is especially true of teams near the playoff bubble as the season progresses because they know every single point matters.
A crew chief may decide a guaranteed 9 or 10 points after stage 1 is worth the unknown that comes with racing in the back of the pack later. Sometimes this gamble pays off and other times it backfires greatly. This added intrigue and strategy is exactly what NASCAR hoped stage racing would accomplish.
Playoff points are awarded to stage winners and the ultimate winner of the race. Race wins are worth 5 points, while stage wins are worth 1. These playoff points are added to the driver’s point total at the beginning of the playoffs if they qualify for the 16-car field. Playoff points are also distributed to the top-10 finishers in the regular season standings on a sliding scale.
Playoff points are extremely valuable during each 3-race round of the playoffs. Drivers who reel off multiple victories during the season enter the playoffs on much better footing than drivers who point their way into the playoffs with no victories. Playoff points are NASCAR’s version of home-field advantage seen in other sports: they are a way to reward regular season success in the playoffs.
Advancing teams carry their playoff points all the way through to the Championship Race at Phoenix Raceway in November. There are still stages during the season finale, but the Championship 4 earns no stage points in that race. This is because only the finishing order matters in determining a NASCAR champion. Whoever crosses the finish line first among the final 4 drivers is crowned champion.
Are All NASCAR Races In Stages?
All NASCAR points races now have stages. This applies to all top 3 levels of NASCAR competition: the Cup Series, the Xfinity Series, and the Truck Series. All 3 series use the regular season point and playoff points system, meaning all stage winners receive 10 points and 1 playoff point.
The Xfinity and Truck Series stage structures are also much like the Cup Series description listed above. Most first and second stages make up about 25 to 30 percent of the total distance while the final stage is 40 to 50 percent of the total distance.
The only NASCAR races without stages are 2 non-points races, the Duels at Daytona, and the Busch Light Clash. The Clash is an exhibition race that opens each NASCAR season. The 2022 event was raced on a short track created inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. This race had heat races to set the field but did not have stages during the main event.
The Daytona Duels are 2 qualifying races that set the field for the Daytona 500. Half the field competes in each one based on the results from single-car qualifying held earlier in the week. The 150-mile races are too short for stage racing, so NASCAR drivers race all 60 laps with no designated breaks. The top 10 finishers in each duel do earn stage points in the same manner as every other race.
Do All NASCAR Races Have The Same Number Of Stages?
Not all NASCAR races have the same number of stages. The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway is the only NASCAR race that does not have 3 stages. This race has 4 because it is NASCAR’s longest race, 100 miles longer than the next highest event. The race is split into four 100-lap stages.
This quirk technically makes the Coca-Cola 600 the most valuable points race in NASCAR because it has 1 extra stage worth of points available. A driver who wins the first 3 stages would earn 30 points and 3 playoff points at this race, whereas sweeping stages at any other race only earns the winner 20 points and 2 playoff points.
Why Did NASCAR Go To Stage Racing?
NASCAR created stage racing in 2017 to increase competition throughout the race. In its press release, NASCAR termed stage racing “competition format enhancements.” NASCAR hopes viewers will be more engaged in watching miniature races within the framework of a traditional race.
Then-NASCAR CEO Brian France addressed the media upon announcing stage racing’s implementation and was confident the leadership group made the correct decision. “Simply put, this will make our great racing even better,” France said.
The now-former CEO also cited fan engagement during his announcement, saying stage racing resulted from industry-wide collaborative brainstorming sessions with the ultimate goal being “strengthening the sport for our fans.” Modern-day NASCAR always strives to put on a great show for fans and is willing to alter tradition to do so, even if the decisions are not always beloved by everyone.
The Television Factor
The televised racing experience was also a key factor in NASCAR’s decision to alter the framework of its races. By having 2 designated caution periods, broadcast networks can burn 2 full-screen commercial periods per stage break: 1 right after the stage ends and 1 after pit stops are completed before the race resumes under green.
This is important because it reduces the number of full-screen commercial breaks during green flag racing, something that often irks fans watching from home. It is frustrating when green flag racing is interrupted by a commercial break, leaving fans mostly clueless as to what is happening. Stage racing and the subsequent cautions provide organic commercial breaks during which fans miss nothing.
Stage racing also creates more restarts, sometimes the most action-filled laps of a NASCAR race at certain tracks. All the drivers are bunched together, 2-by-2, trying to make the most of their fresh tires and improve track position while they still can. Instead of the field being strung out halfway through a race, the leaders are suddenly brought back together, creating more intensity.
NASCAR needs fan viewership to remain a viable product in the crowded sports and media landscape, so it opted to make drastic changes to its race format in an attempt to do so. Officials believed this was a great way to improve its races. Then-NASCAR president Brent Dewar talked about stage racing and its effect on television viewership in 2017, saying “our fans are eating it up.”
Contrary to Dewar’s proclamation, not all fans enjoyed the new stage racing format. Some longtime fans and NASCAR purists met the change with skepticism and outrage. Common critiques of stage racing from these fans usually revolve around the idea that stage racing is gimmicky. They claim that NASCAR just wants more restarts because a certain type of NASCAR fan only tunes in to see big crashes.
These criticisms are all fair. It depends on what you watch NASCAR for and what you wish to get out of a race. Similar complaints have been levied about the various playoff formats NASCAR has used to crown its champion since abandoning the season-long format after the 2003 season. Even some drivers were skeptical about the pending changes, wondering aloud if stages would negatively impact races.
But NASCAR is, first and foremost, an entertainment entity and recent history has shown its decisions will most often reflect that reality. Stage racing falls exactly in line with this philosophy. And current drivers seem to have quickly grown accustomed to stage racing and accepted it.
Brad Keselowski was initially against the premise of stage racing when rumors first spread about the concept in the early 2010s. But after the first season with stages, Keselowski said “I like stage races because there is a reward at the end of each one of them.”
Will NASCAR Get Rid Of Stage Racing?
NASCAR currently has no plans to get rid of stage racing in favor of a traditional, unsegmented race format. By all public indications, leadership is happy with the increased urgency during the middle portions of the race and the different strategies which come from them.
With NASCAR, it is always possible future officials could change course in favor of something new and inventive. Bigger changes have happened seemingly out of nowhere. However, nothing public has been floated surrounding any imminent stage changes.
Whether or not stage racing is good for NASCAR may always be a debated topic for as long as it exists. There are vocal, passionate fans on both sides of the issue. Some like the different element stages add during the middle of races, while others consider stages an abomination and will never support the concept. No matter which side you fall on, it seems like stage racing is here to stay.
Stages split NASCAR races into 3 segments and afford the opportunity for more points if a driver runs well all race. NASCAR instituted stages prior to the 2017 season in a dual effort to create closer competition on the track and make a better television product for fans watching from home.