Strategy In NASCAR – The Ultimate Guide

A NASCAR race may look like three-dozen or so cars driving in circles – with the occasional road course – to the newcomer. As with all sports, there is more to it than how it appears on the surface. Knowing this, you may therefore wonder what comprises strategy in NASCAR. 

Strategy in NASCAR requires close attention to detail, in everything from the car setup, to knowing when to pit, and even knowing who to link up with on race day. Like any sport, a NASCAR team can also enter the race and change their strategy as the event progresses. 

Below, we will elaborate in more detail on how much strategy is involved in NASCAR. We will explore how NASCAR strategy works, including the ever-important pit stop strategies. Finally, we will also explain the difference between long-term and short-term runs in NASCAR. 

Does NASCAR Involve Strategy? 

NASCAR does involve strategy, with the main components being drafting strategy and pit stop strategy. Teams will begin strategizing days or even weeks before each event, and their chosen strategy may change as the race goes on, as conditions change, and as events unfold around their driver.

NASCAR is a sport where, if you don’t understand it, it is hard to spot the strategy at play. However, motorsports fans will be the first to tell you just how important strategy is to the racing. 

Since there is arguably no other more strategic motorsports division out there than F1, their fans will tell you it boils down to how the entire team strategizes throughout the race, not necessarily what is going on involving the driver during a specific moment in the event. 

Pit Stops & Drafting Partners

While F1 stresses the importance of pit stops, in many NASCAR races, basic strategy before pitting comes first. This involves finding a draft partner, usually a teammate or another driver who drives for the same manufacturer. In NASCAR, it could be two or more Hendrick cars looking to link up, or two Toyotas. 

This draft partner, or partners, become a driver’s go-to, to help reach or maintain a specific position on the track unless that partner gets involved in a crash or another on-track incident. Following the need for draft partners, these fans will elaborate on pit strategy, which can make or break a driver’s race. 

We will go more in-depth regarding pit strategy later, but in this section, you should know that basic pit strategy involves knowing when to pit, how many tires to change, how much fuel a car needs, and any necessary wedge adjustments

Team Members Involved In NASCAR Strategy

Clearly, the driver is the focal point of NASCAR strategy. We also cannot forget about the crew chief and spotter, who are always in close contact with the driver during the event. The spotter does most of the talking, but there are times the crew chief may pitch in along with the car owner. 

NASCAR strategy does not begin when the crew arrives at the track. It begins at team headquarters the second everyone returns home from the previous race. Here, they will tailor the car to fit the needs for the next track, and by Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest, the crew loads the car into the hauler and it gets transported to the next event. 

Team members involved in strategic operations back at headquarters include the engineers, specialists, and mechanics. They will continue to make adjustments to the car throughout the week once they arrive at the track and after the driver runs practice laps. 

How Does NASCAR Strategy Work?

NASCAR strategy works just like strategy in any other sport: Start with an initial strategy and prepare to make in-race adjustments. Strategy begins at the headquarters for each team and their respective drivers and crews, but some drivers and their crews will even begin strategizing for the next race during the plane ride home. 

Accounting For Everyone Else

They will talk about how the car operated at the previous track and begin the process of using that data either for the next race or, at the latest, when they visit a similar track. Unlike many other motorsports however, NASCAR crews must account for between 36 and 39 other cars and at least another 15-plus full-time teams at a single event. 

Not only do crews need to develop their own strategies, but they also need to be aware of strategies coming from other crews. Fortunately for them, there are only three manufacturers, and yes, that brand loyalty will link opposing teams together if they drive with the same manufacturer’s logo. 

Therefore, crews, often the spotters, may end up talking to spotters for other drivers that do not drive for their respective race team and make temporary or race-long alliances during an event. At one time, drivers were able to talk to one another via radio and strategize, but that allowance is now long-gone. 

The Importance Of Drafting

The primary reason for spotters to converse with those spotting for other drivers is to find their driver draft help. This often happens during a caution or even during parade laps. As we said before, a teammate or a driver who is with the same manufacturer is the preferred method, but with between 36 and 39 cars, it is not always feasible. 

At superspeedways and fast tracks, finding a draft partner is a must, because if a driver tried to play the go-at-it-alone game, they would find themselves well off the pace. So, when you watch a race and you see one car line up directly behind another, that is a draft, and it involves two or more cars traveling close enough to ward off turbulence and allow both cars to travel faster. 

The car or cars behind the lead car will travel roughly 5 mph (8 kph) faster, and the lead car’s speed increases even more. This occurs because drag, air that resists a car traveling at high speeds, reduces, thanks to smoother and less turbulent airflow. 

Side Drafting 

Drafting is the bread and butter of every NASCAR strategy, and there are different types of drafting drivers will utilize, with side drafting being the most strategic. You see side drafting employed in every race, and it occurs when multiple cars link up for a draft, but one of the trailing cars breaks the draft, looking to pass the car in front of it. 

When you watch a NASCAR race, notice how slowly the trailing car tends to pass the lead car in these situations, and how drivers strategically align their front bumper beside the lead car’s rear tire. The trailing driver looks to press air against the leader, which instead of reducing, increases drag. This forces the lead car to lose momentum, allowing the trailing car to zip by. 

In NASCAR, you will see side drafting occur regardless of the team or manufacturer loyalty. While NASCAR is a team sport with organizations like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing housing four cars, it is also a sport where drivers and crews within those teams are also looking to win big. And they have their own individual strategies. 

Strategy Per Driver And Their Crew

Suppose there are four drivers on a race team. Although these drivers will strategize to work with one another and even with drivers from other manufacturers, they each have their own individual strategy too. This is something that may differ from other motorsports, who may try to push a teammate to a win regardless. 

You may see this occur at times in NASCAR, but if an individual driver and their crew believe they can win the race or pass a teammate for a better finish, they will do so. Each crew chief will also work with the driver and their spotter to devise a strategy at each track that best suits everyone as the race progresses to give their car its best chance at winning. 

The Impact Of Stage Racing

In 2017, NASCAR adopted stage racing, dividing each event into three or sometimes four clusters. Stage racing incentivizes drivers who finish in the top 10 at the end of Stages 1 and 2, so depending on the level of urgency you will see some drivers strive to finish as highly as possible as a respective stage comes to a close. 

Racing hard toward the end of a stage carries a higher amount of risk, and each driver and their crew must ask themselves whether they are better off staying where they are or if they should compete for at least a few bonus points. These decisions involve several factors, with the primary factor being: Could we use the bonus points at this stage in the season?

For some drivers, this is a resounding ‘yes,’ as they may be hovering at or just below the top 16 in points. Drivers and crews who are entrenched in a playoff spot may be less keen to race hard during the closing laps of each stage. Perhaps they have a playoff spot secured or they simply race better during the latter stages of the race. 

These drivers are not as likely to floor the throttle in the hopes of securing a top 10 finish at the end of a stage or even a stage win. Instead, they are looking for the best overall finish for the race. Whether drivers are looking to rack up points via stage finishes or if they are looking for the best overall finish, pit stop strategies play a huge role. 


• NASCAR involves a lot of strategy

• The main strategies are those involving pit stops and drafting with other drivers

• Strategy may affect how a driver races during the various stages of an event

NASCAR Pit Stop Strategies

Basic NASCAR pit stop strategies, which you see employed during every race weekend, involve a four-tire change, refueling, and if necessary, a wedge adjustment. In early-stage green flag pit stops, you see this occur, and you may even notice this basic strategy during the middle and even later stages of a race.

NASCAR tires are meant to last about as long as a tank of fuel in NASCAR, so when cars get low on fuel, their tires are also pretty worn, which necessitates a pit stop. While this sounds straightforward, pit stop strategies get complex as an event progresses.

When To Pit

The crew chief, spotter, and driver remain in constant communication, and they collaborate on deciding when to pit. The crew chief has tire and fuel calculations on hand, meaning they know when a driver needs to come in for tires and fuel. A driver may pit earlier or later than this calculation suggests depending on their track position and what other drivers are doing. 

A driver who believes they have a car capable of taking the lead at any stage of the race may use a technique called undercutting. If the driver is running in seventh, they may pit before those ahead of them, even if it means temporarily losing a lap or deviating well off the pace. This gives them a chance to refuel and change tires. 

If all goes according to plan, the cars ahead of them will pit too. The car in seventh now has faster tires and they may drive harder than they normally do for a temporary period to try and close up the gap. This gives them the opportunity to gain track position over those who are in the pits. You’ll the undercut used in Formula 1 too.

Pit Strategy In Stage Racing

In the earlier stages, expect to see more basic pit stop strategies at play. As the race reaches its third stage, you will see more in-depth strategy come to fruition. We talked about the undercut, and in Stage 3, this will occur more often as crews strive to put their drivers in the best possible position for a win. 

It is also in the latter stages that you will notice that a car’s weight will matter even more. The lighter the car, the faster it will go. So, during the final pit stops, you will see drivers and their crews take a risk on giving the car just enough fuel for it to cross the start-finish line after the checkered flag waves. 

You may even see drivers take a risk and opt for two-tire changes. They run the risk of being slower on the track, but the upside is that if they utilize this strategy with just a few laps left, they spend less time in the pits, which might allow them to keep track position or even get ahead of their rivals that pit for 4 tires.

Pit Strategy Can Go Wrong

Any NASCAR pit stop can go wrong at any stage of the race. If something goes wrong earlier in the event, drivers and their crews can make up for it since there is still a long way to go. But if something goes wrong when the race is well into Stage 3, it could ultimately cost the driver a race even if everything else goes right up until that point. 

There are no fuel gauges inside NASCAR cars, so if a crew chief miscalculates the amount of fuel needed to cross the start-finish line at the checkered flag, even the best car on the track will lose the race and could even fall out of the top 10

What Is A Short Run In NASCAR?

A short run in NASCAR is when a driver looks to gain an advantage on a restart and across a short distance. Essentially, the car is set up to perform best on short stints, with the goal being to make up positions on restarts.

This often lasts around 10 laps at an intermediate track, and you can often tell which cars are built well for a short run by how quickly they can get in front of their opposition. The weakness of a short run in NASCAR is that the car will wear down faster and could ultimately wind up at a disadvantage if there are fewer cautions in a race. 

Short run setups are often used at money races like The Clash and The All-Star race, where short stages dominate the game. If you compare NASCAR to American football, a short run in NASCAR is akin to an NFL offense that is aggressive and tries to score the bulk of their points during the first half. 

What Is A Long Run In NASCAR?

A long run in NASCAR is when a car is setup to be not as fast on restarts or in the opening laps following them, but they do not wear down as quickly. Having a car built for the long run can be advantageous during a race with fewer cautions, but a disadvantage exists during a caution-laden race. 

A long run in NASCAR is the opposite of the short run, but as with races where the majority of the cars can be built for short runs, there will be events when cars built for long runs are more optimal. The Coca-Cola 600 is one of those races, given its status as the longest race on the NASCAR schedule. 

Using the same NFL analogy from the above section, a car built for the long run in NASCAR is like an NFL offense that utilizes ball control. They won’t score as often in the first half, but they will steadily build their lead as the game progresses. 


• Pit stop strategy can make or break a NASCAR driver’s race

• A driver’s pit strategy will evolve as the race goes on and depends partly on what their rivals do

• Cars may also be set up to perform better over short or long stints

Final Thoughts

Strategy in NASCAR is every bit as important as strategy in other sports and motorsports. NASCAR teams will come up with their strategies well in advance of the race, but they can change throughout the event too, and it can involve different forms of drafting, pit strategy, and car setup choices.