If any word can define the 2017 NASCAR Cup season, it could be this one: stages. While the new points system that accompanies the new race format will come more into focus once the playoffs start, every week there is talk about how stages will play into that weekend's event.
Midway through the season -- 18 races down, 18 to go -- it's a smart time to wonder if NASCAR did something right in dividing all of its races into three stages. Or four, when talking about the 600-mile race at Charlotte.
Many would say yes. And certainly a group of fans would shake their heads in disgust. Some still wonder, wanting to see how it plays out with stage winners earning one playoff point and race winners earning five. Those playoff points (including those earned in the playoffs) carry over to each reset playoff round, except for the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The top 10 finishers in each stage also earn regular-season points, which is important because at the end of the regular season, drivers ranked 1 to 10 in overall regular-season points earn additional playoff points on a 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 scale.
Confused yet? That's OK. Let's just think about the stages themselves. So what's to like about the stages? And what's not to like?
What's to like about these stages
It creates interest early in the race
The drivers have something to race for, even when it's just lap 20. The leaders know they will vie for that stage win and the regular-season points that go with it. A pit road penalty or bad pit stop early has consequences. It gives drivers reason not to coast (especially at restrictor-plate races) and fans a reason to watch. And it gave Ricky Stenhouse Jr. a reason to bump-and-run to get back on the lead lap, costing Kyle Busch a stage win.
It rewards those who are fast at the beginning of the race
Shouldn't running up front during a race matter for something? There always was a feeling that a driver who dominated but got caught up in someone else's accident or had an engine expire with 10 laps remaining received nothing for those efforts. Now the drivers do get credit for strong starts.
It makes qualifying important
How often do fans moan about qualifying? They want it to matter. They talk about giving points for qualifying. Well, this does in the sense that it sets up who has the best chance to earn points in the first stage.
It adds strategy
Knowing when the caution comes out allows teams to choose between finishing well in a stage or possibly putting themselves in a better position to win the race. It also encourages a mix in the field of drivers on different pitting and tire strategies, which should lead to more passing and action. It also has the added strategy of teams pitting during a stage by dividing the length of that stage in half or thirds, depending on the number of pit stops anticipated during the stage.
It does help to plan snacks!
C'mon, admit it. Watching a race takes some preparation and rationing of snacks. If fans plan ahead, they can figure when to start eating certain snacks. Of course, they could do that anyway without the "stages," but this at least gives fans a starting point.
What not to like about stage racing
The caution flags
The caution laps counting seems kind of right but so wrong. Who wants to waste laps running under caution? The average number of cautions per race (9.1) is well ahead of the first 18 races last year (7.5) but not a ton more than in 2015 (8.4). In that 2015 season, the average number of caution laps through 18 races was 47.1 -- two more than the average this year (45.1). Last year through 18 races, the average number of caution laps was 39.9, but it was as high as 44.2 in 2014. Yeah, we get it. It helps television with commercials because there is no action missed. But it is one part of the system that just seems a little too foreign, riding around waiting for the pits to open until television coverage comes back from commercial breaks. Even if NASCAR just shortens the races and doesn't include those laps, it would still seem right. But ...
The time between stages
... Would that still be good? Do fans, especially those watching on television, like these breaks as real breaks when talking about events that often last more than three hours? This year, seven of the 16 races have taken more than 3 hours, 30 minutes to complete (including red-flag time). There have been eight races this season that have been more than 10 minutes longer than last season (not including red-flag time) and four that have been at least 10 minutes shorter. On average, the races have lasted seven minutes longer this season than in 2016.
When comparing to the five-year averages of the races from 2013-17, 11 races have exceeded the five-year average, but only three by more than 10 minutes. Through 18 races, the races have been a total combined 80 minutes longer -- 4.4 minutes a race -- than the five-year averages for those events.
By the way, Brad Keselowski had an interesting view on this topic:
"The teams are pretty adamant that they want to see the laps count, because they are putting miles on the engines and don't want that to count for nothing," he said. "And I think that NASCAR is pretty adamant that they want them to count, otherwise the teams would run the cars out of gas purposely on the last lap so they don't have to pace around and waste that energy.
"It [not having laps count] would really throw a wrench in the whole strategy game. I think the fans would ultimately lose."
Confusion with pits
As with any new rule, NASCAR is learning as it goes when cautions near the end of the stage mess up plans to close the pits once the leader hits the start/finish line with two laps left in the stage. NASCAR had a problem in a truck race when the pits were closed under caution but were reopened after the leader had passed the commitment line. NASCAR also had a an issue when it red-flagged a stage at Pocono after the pits were closed and then issued a one-lap, green-flag dash to the end of the stage, which didn't allow time for drivers who possibly had driven through debris a chance to pit.
It's just not a race
There are some folks out there who just can't grasp stage racing in the spirit of what they view a race should be. It appears as an artificial way to bunch up the field and give teams extra time to make adjustments. To that, NASCAR likely views its new format as "modernizing tradition" and says something like, "Guilty as charged."