NASCAR: Road races prove one thing about stage racing

Watkins Glen International, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Watkins Glen International, NASCAR (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) /

The two recent NASCAR Cup Series road course races at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen proved that stage breaks serve no other purpose than to manufacture drama.

NASCAR introduced stage racing back in 2017, but a change was made to the format for road and street course races ahead of its seventh season in 2023.

Each race still consists of three stages (four for the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway), and points are still paid to the top 10 drivers at the end of each race’s first two stages (three at Charlotte). A playoff point is still paid to the winner.

From 2017 to 2022, NASCAR also threw the caution flag at the end of each stage. That is still the case in the oval races, but in the road and street course races, stage breaks have been eliminated.

And in the two most recent NASCAR Cup Series road course races, the lack of stage breaks proved one thing.

Aside from the obvious and relatively refreshing absence of unnecessarily long multi-lap parades under caution for no real reason, these two races proved that stage breaks don’t do much more than manufacture drama.

Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for a sport is totally subjective. Some would argue that the racing we saw these last two weeks was boring, while others would argue that anything leaning toward sport over entertainment is always preferable.

Between the races at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen, there was a stretch of more than three full hours of green flag running, and the Watkins Glen race was the shortest full-distance race (timewise) since August 1971.

Keep in mind, the 1971 race was a 100-mile oval race. The distance of Sunday’s 90-lap race was more than twice that, and it was contested at an eight-turn, 2.454-mile (3.949-kilometer) road course.

It goes to show how much NASCAR has relied on stage cautions to pack up the field and thus to create drama, generally in the form of closer racing and more unplanned cautions due to contact. The races at Indianapolis and Watkins Glen saw just one caution flag each.

While it may not seem like the chaos in a race with let’s say 12 cautions is greatly influenced by two measly stage breaks, stage cautions set up inevitable restarts, and there’s a saying that cautions breed cautions.

How many of those 10 non-stage cautions were caused by the field being packed up on a restart and thus only happened because of a designed break in the action that had nothing to do with the on-track product itself?

Is this a good thing for the sport? Should stage breaks be removed altogether? Should they be brought back at courses with both left and right turns?

Stage breaks in road course races did bring an interesting strategy element into the equation from 2017 to 2022. Teams knew for certain when the yellow flag was going to fly and could plan accordingly. Some pit before the end of the stage to gain track position for the following stage, while some stayed out to score stage points.

But doesn’t knowing exactly when the yellow flag is going to fly also take away an element of strategy? It’s the equivalent of knowing exactly when a safety car is coming in Formula 1.

Without stage breaks, there is still strategy involved when it comes to how teams go about stages, since some will try to pit early to avoid the “danger zone” of a potential caution on road courses and/or get onto newer tires before their competitors, while others will stay out to collect stage points — and in the case of the stage winner, an additional playoff point.

And in addition to the fact that nobody knows if or when the yellow is coming, there is no disruption in the flow of the event.

It’s not just at road courses where this has been evident either. Even the race at Richmond Raceway a few weeks ago ran caution-free, minus the two stage breaks, until the last handful of laps. The stage breaks disrupted the flow of an otherwise clean race. Is that really necessary?

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All things considered, stage breaks serve no real purpose other than to stack the field up at predetermined times throughout the race in an attempt to create closer racing. While it’s easy to understand the benefits of NASCAR having such a product, you can hardly blame the fans who say they only tune in for the final stage.