There are few reasons to believe that NASCAR will end stage racing, since the concept has numerous benefits. However, NASCAR is a data-driven sport. So, if they see those benefits wane over the years, you can expect NASCAR to end stage racing.
NASCAR will not end stage racing any time soon. NASCAR has implemented changes to its events in the past that haven’t lasted long, but stage racing has so far stood the test of time. Since NASCAR gives bonus points for stage wins and top-10 finishes, stages have made races more competitive.
Below, we will reveal in detail what stage racing is, and when and why NASCAR implemented it. We will discuss its advantages, but we will also touch on its disadvantages before we reveal whether NASCAR will end stage racing in favor of another concept.
What Are Stages In NASCAR Racing?
Stages in NASCAR are divisions within a race. In the past, a NASCAR race was just a single stage, and a driver in the lead the entire time could finish in last place if they suffered a wreck or a blown tire. Stages put an end to this by rewarding drivers for their performances in early stages.
So, if a driver led the entire duration of Stage One but crashed out in Stage Two, they at least recouped some lost points because they won the first stage. If a driver collected victories in both Stages One and Two but crashed out with 20 laps remaining in Stage Three, they still completed a rather successful race.
Stage Racing Length Variations
You now see stages in the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity, and Truck Series. Most races use three stages, with Stage One often comprising the first third of the race, Stage Two lasting for the second, and Stage Three, the third. The Coca Cola 600 divides the entire race into four stages.
When divided into thirds, you would see a 200-lap race divided with 50 laps for Stage One and Stage Two, and 100 laps for Stage Three. In an odd number of laps, like the Southern 500 at Darlington, you would see Stages One and Two for 115 laps (a combined 62.6 percent of the race) and Stage Three for 137 laps (37.3 percent).
Tracks that have fewer laps also have stages. Watkins Glen, for example, runs just 90 laps. For this course, Stages One and Two go for 20 laps each (a combined 44.4 percent) and 50 laps for Stage Three (55.5 percent).
How Do Points Work In Stage Racing?
Points in stage racing work to benefit the top 10 drivers throughout an event. If a driver wins a stage, they receive 10 points plus an additional playoff point. The second-place driver gets nine points, third place gets eight, and so on until the tenth place driver who gets 1 point.
Stage racing does not just benefit the top cars in a given race, though. The points system only accounts for the first two stages. At the end of the race, all drivers receive points, and the winner of Stage Three and the race receives 40 points.
The Coca Cola 600 is the only exception, since the event runs for four stages. Therefore,the Stage Three winner still receives 10 points plus a bonus point. And the race winner gets 40 points.
In all Cup races, second place receives 35 points, while third place earns 34 points. Those points descend by one with each placing. For example, fourth place earns 33 points, and fifth place, 32, descending down to just one point for the driver who finished in 36th.
Xfinity And Truck Series
The points system in stage racing for the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck Series races remain roughly the same as in Cup. The only differences come in the points awarded at the end of the race. For the Truck Series, the winner still gets 40 points, but the last place finisher earns five points instead of one.
Second place receives 35 points, also like its NASCAR Cup counterpart, and third place gets 34. Between fourth place and 32nd place, the total number of points awarded descends by one, just as it does in the Cup Series. So if a driver finishes in fifth, they get 32 points. Sixth place gets 31.
As for the Xfinity Series, everything remains the same as it does in the Cup Series, with the only difference coming toward the end. As of 2022, only 36 cars race in Xfinity events, so the last place finisher is the only one who receives a single point. If a driver finishes in 35th, they get two.
Previously-Complicated Points System
Before 2011, NASCAR’s points system was complicated. We can dig deep into NASCAR’s timeline, but they made numerous changes to their points system over the decades, so we will stick with a recent example that preceded stage racing by ten seasons.
Between 2007 and 2010, drivers received 185 points for finishing first, 170 for finishing second, and 165 for third. The five-point decrease per place finished ended at sixth place, when the driver earned 150.
Seventh place received 146 points, and eighth place got 142. The four-point decrease continued through 11th place before the points decreased by three from there on out. If a driver finished in 24th, they received 91 points, while 25th place had 88. Drivers also received five bonus points for leading a lap, and an additional five points for leading the most laps.
Points System Simplifications
Between 2011 and 2015, just before NASCAR adopted stage racing, they simplified things. At that point, first place received 43 points, second place earned 42, and each driver who placed lower than second scored one point fewer. So third place got 41 points, fourth place, 40, etc.
Winners also received an additional three bonus points, meaning that, at minimum, they earned 47 points per win. This included the 43 points for a win, 1 bonus point for leading a lap, and the three bonus points for the win (43 + 1 + 3 = 47).
In 2011, NASCAR simplified the bonus points system. Drivers now received just one bonus point for leading a lap and an additional point for leading the most laps. In 2016, NASCAR reduced the field to 40 cars. The winner received 40 points plus a bonus point for leading a lap and three bonus points for winning, totaling 44 points minimum. Second place received 39, third place, 38, and so on.
When Did NASCAR Start Using Stages?
NASCAR started using stages in 2017. The intention was to make the race more exciting by incentivizing drivers to be more aggressive throughout the event. Before stage racing, some drivers had a more conservative strategy, waiting until the second half of the race to make their moves.
NASCAR, like other sports, strives to reach new audiences. To do this, they must make their product more exciting yet attempt to hang onto their traditional fans who have stuck with the sport for decades. Every year, NASCAR makes tweaks to its rules, some larger than others.
With stage racing, drivers who would otherwise run in the middle of the pack may take the bait and strive to earn some bonus points. For example, if Driver X liked running between 15th and 20th before stage racing, they may try to run in the top 10 to collect as many bonus points as they can.
Why Does NASCAR Have Stages?
NASCAR has stages to prevent a good race from going to waste due to one unfortunate crash or busted tire. Drivers can earn points for winning stages, even if they don’t finish the full race. Simultaneously, however, NASCAR also has stages to limit the chances of one driver dominating a race.
Take the four-stage Coca Cola 600. Suppose Driver A led the first 100 laps and is three car lengths in front of Driver B. Farther, Driver A is about to lap Driver C, who is running on the lead lap with a fast car, but is stuck in 29th place.
When Stage One ends, Driver A and Driver B are now side-by-side at the competition caution. Meanwhile, Driver C is able to return to the rear of lead cap cars, and Driver D, lapped because they were forced to pit due to a tire issue at lap 50, got their lap back after running in 30th position.
Now, Drivers A, B, C, and D, all of whom have equally fast cars, are on the lead lap. If Drivers C and D are teammates, they can help one another return to the front of the pack while Drivers A and B battle for first.
Possibly More Level Playing Field
There is no salary cap in NASCAR, so teams can spend as much as they want on drivers, team members, and equipment, regardless of what another team can afford. Some teams have big-time sponsorship, while others are struggling to keep a handful of sponsors. Stage racing may help out smaller teams if they have a car that is running a good race.
Suppose a single-car NASCAR team with Driver Z is running in 35th place in Stage One and their car just can’t keep up with the others. Driver Z gets behind and starts working with Driver E of a big-budget team whose teammates, Drivers F and G, crashed out of the race.
Stage racing would give Driver Z a chance to place in the top 10, or even to win the race. Without the competition caution aligning Driver Z with Driver E, Driver Z probably would have raced the entire event toward the back of the pack while Driver E may have worked with someone else.
Did Stage Racing Ruin NASCAR?
Stage racing ruined NASCAR for some and improved it for others. Every professional sport makes changes in an attempt to become more competitive and keep things interesting. Some of these changes are more popular than others, and they are always marked with controversy early on.
When Major League Baseball (MLB) adopted Instant Replay, there was pushback from fans,because they embraced the human error element. The same can be said for NACAR. There were fans who loved it, but others believed stage racing would ruin the sport.
There are some complaints that persist. One gripe that fans have is that stage racing has not made races more competitive. The same drivers are still winning races and contending for the Cup Series Championship year after year.
Race Length Issues
Another reason some fans believe stage racing is not good for NASCAR is that it offers more points to drivers at the four-stage Coca Cola 600. They argue NASCAR should not award more at the Crown Jewel event, since 300-mile races and 500-mile events offer the same number of points.
The same goes for events like the 133-mile Bristol Dirt Race or the 220-mile Watkins Glen race. Why should ultra-short races offer the same number of points as the 500-mile Daytona race? It makes little sense in the eyes of stage racing opponents who argue that, if the Coca Cola 600 comprises four stages, why not split shorter races into just two stages, or no stages at all?
Pit Stop Issues
Following the first two stages of each race, a competition caution waves and most drivers take pit stops. According to opponents, this waters down the pit strategy. At Sonoma, for example, teams once had to determine whether to risk just two stops or take the safe route and go with three.
Two stops at Sonoma and other road courses would give drivers an ample lead, but they would slow later in the race. A three-stop strategy would set the driver back, but it would also give them faster tires.
Before stage racing, nobody predicted when the yellow flag would wave. This further forced teams to perfect their pit strategy. Now in the first two stages, one bad pit strategy or one mistake on pit row is basically giving drivers and their teams mulligans since there are two guaranteed cautions.
Is Stage Racing Here To Stay?
Stage racing in NASCAR has its supporters and its opponents. However, it boils down to how competitive the races are. If the drivers continue to stay aggressive and strive for bonus points by taking the top ten following Stages One and Two, then expect to see stage racing remain.
It would only end if you begin to see drivers and their teams adopt strategies that were prominent before NASCAR started stage racing. This would only occur through accumulated data that NASCAR teams would weigh to see if it is worth trying for stage wins.
In other words, if teams notice that regardless of if they win or place well in Stages One or Two that their position in the standings would be no different had they just tried to win the race, then stage racing’s days are numbered.
NASCAR is a data-driven sport, and teams constantly collect data to help determine their racing strategies. This data takes time to collect. As of 2022, we are still too early into the Stage Racing Era to make a call as to whether trying to win or place highly in early stages is worth it.
NASCAR won’t end stage racing unless teams stop valuing points they can earn from winning and placing well following each stage. Stage racing exists to keep an accident from ruining a driver’s race and to prevent one driver from dominating. With pros and cons, stage racing will remain in NASCAR.