How NASCAR Stages Work – Ultimate Beginner’s Guide

Starting in 2017, stage racing has become a mainstay of NASCAR. Gone are the days where drivers raced to the start-finish line just once after a predetermined number of laps. With the format being present in each race, you may therefore wonder how NASCAR stages work. 

Every NASCAR race is made up of 3 stages, except the Coca-Cola 600, which has 4. Stages 1 and 2 make up the first and second quarters of the race, while Stage 3 makes up the race’s second half. At the Coca-Cola 600, all 4 stages account for one quarter of the race. NASCAR stages award extra points.

Below, we will give you a brief explanation on how NASCAR stages work before we dive into further detail regarding when and why NASCAR adopted stage racing. Stage racing is also controversial, and we will reveal why that is the case, even if it has been many years since its implementation. 

NASCAR cars racing at the 2015 race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray at the front, How NASCAR Stages Work

NASCAR Stages Explained

  • Stage racing started in 2017
  • 35 of the 36 NASCAR races have three stages
  • The Coca-Cola 600 has four stages
  • Stages 1 and 2 make up roughly the first two quarters of a NASCAR race
  • Stage 3 makes up the second half of the race
  • The Coca-Cola 600 has four 100-lap stages
  • Drivers who finish in the top 10 in Stages 1 and 2 receive bonus points for the regular season standings
  • Drivers who win Stages 1 and 2 receive a bonus playoff point
  • A competition caution marks the end of Stages 1 and 2 at most races, and also Stage 3 at the Coca-Cola 600

When & Why Did NASCAR Introduce Stage Racing?

NASCAR introduced stage racing in 2017 as a way to make the sport more competitive and to better resemble the other major American sports. The NFL and NBA have four quarters while the NHL has three periods, with intermissions for each half in the NFL and NBA, and after each period in the NHL. NASCAR somewhat replicated this system with stage racing.

They also wanted to make the sport more competitive for smaller teams. With stage racing, the field undergoes a competition caution following each stage. This forces the cars to bunch back together during the caution, placing cars about to go a lap down closer to the leader. The first car one lap down also gets their lap back via a beneficiary rule called the Lucky Dog Rule

Stage Racing Doesn’t Always Benefit Small Teams

At times, stage racing can be unfavorable for smaller teams. Suppose a driver from a small team is dominating the race. Stage racing can be detrimental, as it would place cars racing for the larger teams within striking distance of taking back the lead after the caution. 

However, when you look at probabilities, drivers who race for the best teams in NASCAR often find themselves ahead in the pack anyway. Even in today’s landscape, where the cars are more alike than ever before, larger teams have more funds to attract better sponsorships, and therefore hire a more experienced and talented team around the driver. 

So, stage racing provides more benefit to the smaller teams and lesser experienced drivers, giving them a better chance to place higher, or to even earn bonus regular season points for high finishes following each stage. 

Stage Racing Makes NASCAR More Exciting 

Stage racing gives drivers an added incentive to make every lap count. Before 2017, some of the best drivers liked to run throughout the middle of the pack, or to hold back until the second half of the race. This could create dull racing, and there is nothing more boring than watching cars running single file and making no effort to race hard for the bulk of an event. 

With bonus regular season and playoff points up for grabs, drivers are more likely to race hard during even the opening stage of the race. This becomes more of a case for drivers who need all the bonus points they can get to make the playoffs.

How NASCAR Stages Work

Most NASCAR races are broken down into three stages. Stage 1 makes up roughly the first quarter of the race, though this can vary depending on the track. Stage 2 consists of roughly the second quarter, and Stage 3 makes up the remaining second half. The race can end at any time during Stage 3 at NASCAR’s discretion, often because of inclement weather or, at some tracks, a lack of lighting. 

As we mentioned earlier, stage racing gives drivers an incentive to race their competitors harder throughout the race, instead of just sitting back early and racing hard during the latter portions of the event. NASCAR awards bonus points for drivers who finish in the top 10 after Stages 1 and 2. 

The table below shows you the number of bonus points each driver is awarded if they finish in the top 10 following the first two stages. Note that these bonus points are not handed out following Stage 3

NASCAR Stage Points 

Position After Stage 1 / 2Bonus Points
110 Regular Season Points + 1 Playoff Point
29
38
47
56
65
74
83
92
101

Following the final stage of each race, NASCAR has a basic scoring system that awards drivers. If the driver wins Stage 3 (or 4 at the 600) and the race, they earn 40 regular season points and five playoff points that are added to their points total when the NASCAR Playoffs begin. No other drivers receive bonus points.

Position After Final StagePoints 
140 Regular Season Points + 5 Playoff Points
235
334
433
532
631
730
829
928
1027

Do All NASCAR Races Have 3 Stages?

All NASCAR races have 3 stages except the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which has 4 stages, with each stage comprising 100 laps. The 600 is NASCAR’s longest race, stretching for 600 miles (966 km). As the Coca-Cola 600 has an additional stage, slightly different points rules apply. 

In the above section, we stated that there are no bonus points handed out following Stage 3 in a race. This is not the case for the Coca-Cola 600. Instead, the bonus points shown in the above table following Stages 1 and 2 also apply for Stage 3 at the 600. The table depicting the points the top 10 drivers earn following a race’s final stage apply following Stage 4 in Charlotte. 

KEY POINTS

• Most NASCAR races feature 3 stages, with the Coca-Cola 600 the only one that has 4

• They were introduced in 2017 an effort to improve the racing

• NASCAR drivers receive extra points for performing well in stages

Why Is Stage Racing Controversial?

As with any new innovation in NASCAR, controversy will always follow changes that are made. With stage racing, we have seen some fans hop on board, believing it makes for more exciting and fairer racing. Since stage racing makes it tougher for a handful of drivers to pull away from the pack and dominate the race, it allows for more drivers to contend for wins. 

Phantom Debris Cautions

One annoyance regarding NASCAR races in the past were phantom debris cautions, when track officials waved the yellow flag because debris was supposedly present on the racing surface. Often, we either never saw this debris, or it was so small that it had a minute chance of causing actual damage to the cars. 

Many speculated that these cautions were simply thrown towards the end of the race to artificially make the racing more exciting at the finish by bunching the pack up. The phantom debris cautions still exist, but to a lesser degree since stage racing began. 

Another Chance At Glory

Proponents for stage racing also like how it makes NASCAR more closely resemble other major sports leagues. And if their favorite driver had some bad luck early on, stage racing still gives that driver a fighting chance to finish the race with a high placing

Before stage racing, if a driver blew a tire or if they hit the wall at the fault of an opposing driver, they often fell out of contention early. With stage racing, this isn’t always the case, as drivers who wreck early or need to make an unplanned extra green flag stop will still race for more than just points

This raises the probability that fans will keep watching the race even if their favorite driver has a bad start to the race. Since they know their driver can be back in contention following Stage 1 or Stage 2, they don’t necessarily need to wait until next week to see their favorite driver run a competitive race. 

Criticisms Of Stage Racing

Other fans believe that stage racing can be unfair to drivers who may have the best car, as they are constantly forced to relinquish any large leads they build up during stages. Like the NASCAR Playoffs, some fans have labeled stage racing as gimmicky, despite the added race strategy required from NASCAR teams

Some fans that oppose stage racing feel that the competition cautions create artificial racing and manufactured strategy. They may bunch the field back together to give smaller teams a better chance for a respectable finish or a rare win, but they also take away actual racing from competitors who are routinely in front of and breaking away from the field as a race progresses. 

Rewarding The Wrong Drivers

Fans critical of stage racing also believe that, because it brings the field together following a pre-planned competition caution, it rewards drivers who make errors early in the race, such as hitting the wall. Further, they feel stage racing rewards drivers who crash out of races late. If a driver wins Stages 1 and 2 but crashes out in the final stage and finishes 36th, they still collect decent points. 

In the above scenario, a driver winning the first two stages would receive 20 points, plus another point for their 36th place finish. This gives them 21 points, equivalent to a driver who finished the race in 16th place! 

Has Any NASCAR Driver Won All 3 Stages Of A Race?

7 NASCAR drivers have won all 3 stages of a race (or all 4 at the Coca-Cola 600), with Martin Truex Jr becoming the first driver to accomplish the feat in 2017 at Las Vegas. It has happened a total of 22 times since the introduction of stage racing in 2017, with Martin Truex Jr doing it 6 times.

TrackDriverYear
Las VegasMartin Truex Jr. 2017
KentuckyMartin Truex Jr. 2017
Las VegasKevin Harvick2018
Auto ClubMartin Truex Jr.2018
DoverKevin Harvick2018
Charlotte Kyle Busch2018
Auto ClubMartin Truex Jr. 2018
DoverKevin Harvick2018
TexasKevin Harvick2018
Auto ClubKyle Busch2019
MartinsvilleBrad Keselowski2019
Watkins GlenChase Elliott2019
MartinsvilleMartin Truex Jr. 2019
MiamiDenny Hamlin2020
MichiganKevin Harvick2020
DoverDenny Hamlin2020
DoverKevin Harvick2020
DarlingtonMartin Truex Jr. 2021
CharlotteKyle Larson2021
SonomaKyle Larson2021
AtlantaChase Elliott2022
Miami Kyle Larson2022

NASCAR has run 216 points-paying races between 2017 and 2022, meaning a driver wins every stage of the race just over 10% of the time

Final Thoughts

Most NASCAR races have 3 stages, where the first two stages make up the first two quarters of the race, and Stage 3 makes up the second half. Drivers earn bonus points if they finish in the top 10 in each of the first two stages. The Coca-Cola 600 is the only race with 4 stages. 

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