Stage racing has ushered in a new era of competition in NASCAR.
It’s no longer just about making it from the green to checkered flag. The focus is now on how a team gets there, and that has created even more captivating racing through the first 17 races of the season.
Race strategy has been redefined as drivers and teams balance putting themselves in position for the win while battling for the championship and playoff points awarded following the first two stages.
Teams are approaching the races in new ways as the most prevalent goal has shifted from positioning themselves towards the lead for the end of the race to competing up front for the entire distance.
Martin Truex Jr. has mastered this approach. He often dominated events in recent seasons but fell short of victory by the finish, leading the most laps in seven races between 2015 and 2016 that he ended up losing.
The Furniture Row Racing driver has again excelled in multiple events that he didn’t win this year, but stage racing influences the outcome as those runs are now rewarded with points during the race in addition to the post-race payout.
He has accumulated 11 stage victories, nearly triple the amount of his closest challenger, Kyle Busch with four.
Playoff points may be the most underrated advantage as part of stage racing. These points will be added to a driver’s points total to begin each round of the post-season except for the season finale.
Previous championship runs have proven that every point matters when competing for the title and playoff points allow teams to collect them ahead of the final ten races.
While drivers such as Truex Jr. with 21 and Johnson with 16 are gearing up to battle for the title, other drivers may be left behind by not actively seeking out these points in the regular season.
Deciding which points to compete for has created a major decision for teams as they choose between going for stage victories or the race win.
While some can do both, a competitor’s day often favors the opportunity to compete for the stage win and collect some points versus going for the trophy which may not ultimately pan out.
Two weeks ago at Sonoma Raceway, race winner Kevin Harvick didn’t finish inside the top-10 in either of the first two stages. Truex Jr. and Jimmie Johnson won Stage 1 and Stage 2 respectively, but by the end, they were mired outside the top-10 after Truex Jr. blew an engine and Johnson faded late.
In the NASCAR XFINITY Series, series regulars will typically stay out during a caution towards the end of a stage to collect the playoff and championship points while others who are not competing for the title in that series pit and set themselves up in a favorable position for the Final Stage.
Stage racing has created seemingly endless strategy plays. With varying stage lengths and pit windows at different tracks, teams can implement a variety of approaches each week.
It has also created additional thrilling moments ahead of the finish as the conclusion of the stages often features intense battles to claim the points up for grabs, making a driver’s performance in the first half of the event matter more than ever before.
Significant changes in NASCAR are often met with skepticism by fans, and this format has been no different. However, by simply sitting back and enjoying the racing, those questioning the new style of racing can see that it’s more exciting than ever before and has enhanced the sport in numerous ways.
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