Stage racing injects intensity into NASCAR’s 2017 season

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said NASCAR implementing stage racing has brought “some intensity that wasn’t there in the past.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. said NASCAR implementing stage racing has brought “some intensity that wasn’t there in the past.” AP

Before the 2017 season began, NASCAR announced wholesale changes to its points structure for the three national touring series, including the Monster Energy Cup Series.

Each race now is broken into three stages with points awarded toward driver standings for the top 10 at designated intervals.

Stage winners also receive a playoff point, which carries into the final 10 races of the season as the countdown toward the championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

It was a gamble, altering the way the playoff field is set and how the playoffs operate, but it was a calculated risk.

“We wanted more potential moments in races, but we also wanted to reward drivers for their performance in-race,” NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer Steve O’Donnell said.

The decision also was driven, in part, to make races more television friendly with the cautions after each stage providing a natural commercial window when there wasn’t much on-track action.

“Fans are seeing a much higher percentage of green-flag racing, so — all in all, it’s still early — but we’re really happy with what we’ve seen,” O’Donnell said.

While NASCAR might be happy, the reaction from its drivers and fans means more, but stage racing seems to have been well-received through the season’s first 10 races leading up to Saturday’s Go Bowling 400 at Kansas Speedway.

“It adds an element of excitement …,” said Paul Menard, driver of the No. 27 Richard Childress Racing Menard’s Chevy. “My initial reaction was I thought it was kind of gimmicky, trying to make the race something it’s not, but the way it’s played out has actually surprised me. It’s been really fluid.”

Gone are the days when the start and finish of the race were the only important parts.

“I feel like the racing has been more intense at the end of the stages …,” said current points leader Kyle Larson, who also there’s a greater premium now on qualifying. “I look back to Atlanta where the first stage I was kind of falling back and could see three or four guys coming in my mirror getting close. I was racing really hard the last few laps to stay in front of them and was able to and gained a point.”

Larson wouldn’t have fretted so much about a mid-race pass in previous years, but the dynamic has changed.

“I don’t know exactly what the intent was and what they are trying to accomplish, but it does bring some intensity that wasn’t there in the past, especially if you are in that eighth, ninth, 10th spot coming down to those last few (stage) laps,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “You are like ‘Man, I don’t want to give up any points. I really want these points.’ That was never the case before.”

It’s been more of an adjustment for some drivers, including seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

He said he’s historically been a better closer than a fast starter — a guy “that maybe don’t qualify as well but always shows up at the front when the checkered falls” — and the stage-racing points have altered the calculus for him.

“It is messing with that flow …,” said Johnson, the reigning Cup champion and a three-time winner at Kansas. “Stage racing has changed the game and I don’t see it calming down. It’s going to continue to ramp up.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that five of the six Cup Series drivers with multiple stage wins this season currently sit in the top seven in points standings, including all of the top four drivers.

“You won’t get any argument from me about stage racing,” said Martin Truex Jr., whose five stage wins lead all drivers as he sits second overall in points. “I said at the beginning of the season I liked the concept and it has definitely paid off for us so far.”

O’Donnell said the only minor tweak NASCAR already is considering involves the beginning of stage two and no counting the caution laps after stage one as part of that second stage.

“What we’re going to potentially look at for 2018 is to make each stage the same amount of laps,” he said. “We’ll still count the caution laps, but we’ll take off laps on the back end and make sure stage two is 50 laps and the last stage is a little shorter.”

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer