When stages, stage points, and stage breaks were introduced to the NASCAR Cup Series in 2017, the change was met with quite a bit of controversy.
In nearly every NASCAR Cup Series race over the last seven seasons, there have been either two or three predetermined caution flags at different points of the event. The ends of these stages award points to the top 10 finishers, plus a playoff point to the stage winner, as well as a chance to pit before the pack gets bunched back up for a restart.
Few things in NASCAR are as entertaining as a chaotic restart. Still, many saw this change as an attempt to manufacture entertainment.
Believe it or not, stages were a part of the sport before 2017, albeit in a different form. Numerous All-Star Races featured “segments” in which predetermined cautions were called, and different procedures were implemented to spice up the show.
Most were okay with that, since the All-Star Race is an exhibition event made almost purely for the show. But the introduction of these segments in every race on the schedule was and remains a massively controversial move in a different direction.
With NASCAR having removed stage cautions in road course races for 2023, it has gotten fans questioning if that format should be adopted at all tracks, or if stage racing should even be gotten rid of altogether.
Regardless of what people think of stages, they have accomplished exactly what NASCAR wanted them to.
From a business perspective, stages have arguably been the greatest addition to the sport in a long time. For one thing, they have created a lot more unpredictability and chaos. By having the field bunched up for at least three double-file restarts (including the start itself), crashes have increased in a big way.
Aggressive driving has also been on the up since stages were introduced, especially early in the race. For decades, there was little to no incentive for a driver to fight someone for seventh place on lap 42 of a 500-lap race. The mentality was always to let them go, save equipment, and get them back later.
With track position becoming more important, and points being on offer at multiple parts of each race, drivers have felt more inclined to go for big moves earlier in the race. With the sport clearly trying to attract a newer, younger audience, having more high stakes action through the course of an event is paramount.
On the corporate side, stage breaks also act as a form of intermission. Like all other sports, having a break in the play gives ample time for commercials. NASCAR and its broadcast partners, Fox and NBC, have taken full advantage of that.
But stage racing has some big flaws, and NASCAR has become aware of them.
The biggest casualty of stage racing has been race strategy, and this is especially evident on the road courses. Having a perfectly predictable caution flag has allowed teams to effectively manipulate races to best suit their strategy.
Oftentimes, teams will pit just two laps before the stage caution, since the pits close afterwards, so that they can cycle to the front under the ensuing yellow when everybody else pits. On the contrary, drivers racing for points stay out and collect stage points, fully knowing that they will likely drop back several positions when they pit under the ensuing caution.
While these breaks have certainly created a variance in what teams choose to do, they provide little difference in the actual on-track strategy throughout the event, since tire ages and fuel levels still end up being close to the exact same for everyone.
To a lesser extent, this has also affected the oval races. A lot of teams elect to split each stage in half with a pit stop in the middle, knowing that a caution will occur once the second half is over. Since this is the best strategy by far, there are essentially no other race-winning options. Thus, a large part of the strategic element has become irrelevant.
Splitting the race into three (or four) parts also interferes with the flow of it all, as tire falloff and the subsequent “comers and goers” both become less of a factor with stints being shorter.
NASCAR has begun to take notice, however.
Since the start of the 2023 season, stage breaks have been eliminated during road course races. Points have still been awarded at the end of each stage, but the racing continues through the end of the stage. There is no predetermined caution flag period.
Through two races with this new system at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) and Sonoma Raceway, the racing product, as well as strategy, has improved. Prior to the complete mess at the end of the COTA race, there was a great amount of organic, old-fashioned racing, with comers and goers, tire falloff, and strategy variance.
After running mid-pack to start the day at Sonoma, Kyle Busch was able to cycle to the front after a well-timed caution suited the No. 8 team’s gamble on strategy. Had there been stage cautions, Busch’s alternate strategy likely wouldn’t have happened, much less paid off.
It’s that kind of unpredictability and risk-taking that has been missing since 2017 and that fans, teams, and drivers have been clamoring for.
What is the best path forward for stages in NASCAR?
Stages definitely have a place in NASCAR. They have given new life to the sport and suited a lot of its needs both on and off the track. But given how the majority of races have played out since 2017, it’s clear that tweaks need to be made.
While the past two road course races are only a small sample size, they have shown that NASCAR can run stages and award stage points without throwing a caution.
Other than bunching the field back up, stages were created to have aggressive driving occur earlier in races, and to reward consistency with bonus points.
By still awarding points at set times, drivers will remain aggressive to gain spots for a few extra points, even without a guaranteed upcoming caution.
Drivers will still be rewarded for their consistency for running up front throughout a race day, even without a guaranteed upcoming caution.
Heck, you could even still have stage break commercials, as Fox did at the end of stage two at Sonoma.
While NASCAR would lose what are effectively two freebie restarts, and two freebie chances at a bit of chaos, it would put a lot of strategy and natural racing back into the sport.
Cautions will inevitably still occur anyways, given the more aggressive style needed to compete for positions — and subjectively, the “disrespectful” racing style of modern-day NASCAR.
This system also wouldn’t need to be trialed in select oval races before being fully implemented, since the sport raced without stage breaks for nearly seven decades before stages were introduced six years ago.
Having stages without cautions in every race would not only retain everything that NASCAR wants, but it would also bring back a few major elements that have been missing. It would allow all fans, both young and old, new and existing, to get the best of both worlds that NASCAR has to offer.