Daytona 500: How 'Bout Them Stages?

There’s a new rule in NASCAR racing, and it’s a bit of a strange one. If you haven’t heard by now (unlikely), the new format calls for each race to be completed in a series of three stages. The Daytona 500 was the first test of this format, and it’s got fans a bit polarized. Some are blaming the stage format for causing more crashes than usual. Most, however, will remember the 2017 running of the Daytona 500 for producing one of the most memorable finishes in a long time. Spoilers, it was Kurt Busch that won the race, his first, after not having led a lap all day. So let’s talk about that format change and why I really think I kind of sort of like it. 

 For well over a decade, I watched every single NASCAR event held. I grew up in rural Michigan, and if you didn’t have a stylized jacket of your favorite number, you were a nobody. I’ve been to races at Pocono and Michigan International, but there’s nothing that quite compares to the big show at Daytona. With an invitation from Hooniverse partnered Valvoline, I fell back to my roots and agreed to see how the new format affected the racing in person. 
It was all anyone could talk about on all of the big screens. The two big stories were the first Latino racer taking his start in the big leagues, Daniel Suarez, and the race stages. Suarez turned out not so great in his first race, unfortunately, but I was really impressed with the debut of stage racing. With a season points incentive to race to the flag at lap 60 and lap 120, the racing woke up where it was normally processional and somewhat patient. 
A 500 mile race in NASCAR is usually handled a bit like an endurance race, back-timing your final pit stop so you just barely make it on fuel at the finish. Pretty much everyone is on the same strategy to the finish, and it’s all the luck of when the final yellow flag comes out to really make people jump to a different one, perhaps. This time it was different, it was wildly different. 
From early on it was plain to see this wouldn’t be a normal Daytona, as some of the players started to pit out of sequence on lap 17. They wanted those first stage points, and they were determined to get them. Ultimately it would be Kyle Busch to take the “win” in the first stage and net 10 points for the season. He eventually crashed out of the race with a cut tire, but those ten points could be make-or-break come the end of the season. 
There were some teams timing their stops for the first stage, but some teams who couldn’t keep up in the first stage decided to pit before the end of that stage to lose out on stage one in order to maximize their position in stage two when the caution came out. Across stage two there were a minimum of three ‘packs’ roaming around the speedway, and there were a handful of tail-end-of-the-lead-lap guys running just ahead of the leaders, really putting on a show. Having people on multiple strategies really livens up the racing for me, and allows the racers to make moves they might not normally make. 
The only downside to these stages are the caution laps. After closing stage one at lap 60, NASCAR runs a caution to reset the field and get everyone ready to go for stage 2. This procedure should be all of three laps. Shut them down, allow one lap to pit if you are going to pit, and then one lap to get everyone bunched up and back to green. Instead, it wasn’t until lap 67 that things got back up to speed, cutting stage two short by a full 10%. 
The other thing about these forced cautions is the old adage that ‘cautions breed cautions’. When everyone is bunched up in a pack like they are at Daytona, people get impatient on restarts and try to make moves. Restarting the final stage of the race, there were four or five big crashes in a row on the very first lap returned to green. 
While some were blaming the stages for the increase in crashes, I’d like to point out the nearly full green first stage. Everyone was behaving themselves in the first section. And in the final section of the race when everything had shaken out and they decided to get down to some real racing. The problem is largely that this is a restrictor plate super speedway where everyone runs in packs at full throttle. This is absolutely down to the facts of racing at a track like Daytona. 
Personally, I’m sold on the stages. I was absolutely on the edge of my seat for most of the race. I was invested. I was enthusiastic. Is it enough to get me back into NASCAR watching regularly for the first time in a decade? No. Not really. There are so many more reasons to not like NASCAR. But Daytona was really fun. I’ll have a full report of how my day at the track went for you probably tomorrow. 

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15 responses to “Daytona 500: How 'Bout Them Stages?”

  1. Brainrants Avatar

    Haven’t watched NASCAR in years and happened to catch this one by accident, but gotta admit it was fun to watch with new strategies playing out. Thought for sure Logano was going to win after having lead the pack for so long (at the tail end of the lead lap) during stage one.

    1. Wayne Moyer Avatar
      Wayne Moyer

      With everything they changed and in the end it still came down to a fuel economy race.

  2. Alff Avatar

    The event is divided into three, just like a hockey game. I hope NASCAR borrows other things from hockey, too. Like cross-checking.

    1. cap'n fast Avatar
      cap’n fast

      what with thirty five of the forty or so involved in the twisted wreckage, you could say they borrowed cross-checking.

  3. Lokki Avatar

    I watched part of the race because there were no other sports events on TV that I cared about and the weather was too cold to play outdoors, even in the garage. I guess I wasn’t paying enough attention to the race because I suddenly realized I didn’t know if the cars were all stopped because they were cleaning up the track after another big accident, or all stopped because they were taking those lunch breaks. Anyhow, the cars were all stopped when I realized I didn’t care who won and turned off the TV. The cars all look the same, be they Fords or Toyotas, or Chevys. It’s been I long time since I watched a NASCAR race, and it looks like it’ll be a long time till I watch another.

  4. GTXcellent Avatar

    I’ve been a NASCAR fan for ever. I can still picture it clear as anything: little 8 year old GTXcellent jumping up and down and yelling as The King won his 200th race. I can remember being just crushed when my favorite driver Tim Richmond was kicked out due to failed drug tests (and if you’ve never heard of that sad, sad tale, just google Tim Richmond’s life and death). I cried real tears when Alan Kulwicki, Neil Bonnett, and Davey Allison were killed. I’ve been to half a dozen races all over the country. I was all about NASCAR.
    All that being said, my interest has DRASTICALLY waned the last few years. Really it started when they switched from bias ply tires, and then allowed a front-wheel drive Ford Taurus to be raced, and cut out North Wilkesboro, but these last few years have completely ruined it for me. The homogenization of the cars, the stupid-ass chase, the lackluster racing. But – but – yesterday was different. I haven’t felt excitement watching Cup level stock cars like that in a long time. I feared the worst with this new format. I think I was wrong. We’ll see what future races hold, but they may have actually done something right.

    1. Bradley Brownell Avatar
      Bradley Brownell

      THIS is the response I was looking for!

    2. cap'n fast Avatar
      cap’n fast

      ah the innocent, true believer that i am. i too have faith that nascarnage will make it all go away. it would seem that the main attraction to nascar is no longer racing(you know, where one person gets out front and runs away from the carnage and gets the gold cup) but carnage itself. why else would the rules be set up so every one is always bunched up and the winner is the one that didn’t run out of gas. stupid game. and it costs how much to play?

  5. Wayne Moyer Avatar
    Wayne Moyer

    I’ve been an active fan since 2008 but a part time fan for much longer. I had my doubts about these stages but I was willing to give it a chance. NASCAR needed to do something to keep things going other than mess with the pointless chase at the end of the year. After attending enough three hour races where nothing happens it was good to see a change that made me want to watch the entire race closer. This change is really going to be interesting on the smaller tracks as well since it only effects the top ten.
    I think what we saw was the beginning of how it changed strategy. From a television standpoint there is something Fox needs to do though. I want to see the total laps all the time. Not the stage laps. I really don’t care that we are on 20 of 60 on stage 2 when stage 2 started at lap 67. I don’t feel like doing the math in my head.
    Of course this Daytona was a bit different though. Heck it wasn’t just the Monster (I want to say Sprint) race. It was the trucks and Xfinity (nee Nationwide) race as well. Everyone was out there like a bunch of kids trying to show off. Nobody showed patience in any of the series races. It was a downright scary weekend to watch. This isn’t the fault of the rules. Something got into the head of the racers.

  6. Fred Talmadge Avatar
    Fred Talmadge

    The first 400 miles is just to feel each other out. It’s the last 100 miles when they get serious. So yea I’m in favor of the shorter sprints. In the end there wasn’t any more or less big wrecks than usual.
    As far as NASCAR goes, I’ll soon be moving to an area where I can get cable and watch all the F1 (in English at least) and sport car racing I want. I’ll still watch NASCAR but mostly for Watkins Glen and Sears Point.

  7. CraigSu Avatar

    NASCAR has taken a cue from the cycling world here. If you’ve been to a local cycling criterium the event is often broken up with sprint laps that offer prizes (cash, gift cards, etc.). They’re known as Premium laps and the prizes are known as Preems. It gives riders who may not have the wherewithal to actually win the overall event to sprint their hearts out for one lap to win a prize. It makes for lots of jockeying and adds a great deal of excitement to an otherwise typically dull stretch of the race. I like it and it will be interesting to see how the NASCAR teams adjust their strategies to suit the new format. I don’t think anyone saw the 6 Toyotas pitting together early as a potential strategy.

    1. cap'n fast Avatar
      cap’n fast

      bicycle racing is so fair. everyone wins. there are no losers. everyone gets a little prize. just like peewee soccer. how very nice.

    2. outback_ute Avatar

      Exactly what came to mind for me.
      Not so much everyone gets a prize as trying to create some interest in the race prior to the last fuel stint. Perhaps a sign that the races are too long? Not Daytona of course, and there should be some epic-length races, but through the season they shouldn’t all/mostly be that long.
      For one thing it diminishes the epic races, for another who has got time to watch a 6 hour long race every week?

      1. CraigSu Avatar

        Yeah, I don’t know what cap’n fast was yammering on about. I never said everyone got a prize in cycling or that the races were fair. The Preem laps are simply a way of giving less experienced or newer riders a shot at proving themselves in a race. It’s also not unusual for a cycling criterium to be more of a Pro-Am event.

  8. P161911 Avatar

    Something just seems wrong that after one race, the guy that come in second is not second in the points. I didn’t watch the race.