How stage racing has changed the championship landscape

John K Harrelson/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

With a slim, 18-point cushion, Martin Truex Jr. needs two more strong runs to keep Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin at bay for the regular season crown.

Behind the leaders, five drivers are dueling for the final three playoff positions on points. Jamie McMurray and Clint Bowyer sit just clear of the bubble, while Chase Elliott holds the final place in the postseason field by 35 points over a distant Matt Kenseth. Rookie Daniel Suarez is still mathematically eligible with a 55-point deficit, but he and Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) teammate Kenseth will likely need a win to sneak into the playoffs.

Sound farfetched? It shouldn’t.

One year ago it could’ve been reality.

You see, the above statements aren’t just fabrications based on some fan’s hopes or dreams. They’re how the current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings would look if stage points were taken away.

Current Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Standings Without Stage Points

Rank Driver Points Total Stage Points Points W/O Stages
1 Martin Truex Jr. 951 314 637
2 Kevin Harvick 824 205 619
3 Denny Hamlin 753 142 611
4 Kyle Busch 850 244 606
5 Kyle Larson 845 249 596
6 Clint Bowyer 642 67 575
7 Jamie McMurray 700 125 575
8 Chase Elliott 711 139 572
9 Matt Kenseth 703 166 537
10 Brad Keselowski 728 192 536
11 Ryan Newman 574 46 528
12 Daniel Suarez 537 20 517
13 Kurt Busch 586 72 514
14 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 528 22 506
15 Jimmie Johnson 628 138 490
16 Joey Logano 583 105 478
17 Erik Jones 574 106 468
18 Ryan Blaney 623 168 455
19 Trevor Bayne 470 18 452
20 Austin Dillon 437 19 418
21 Kasey Kahne 451 36 415
22 Paul Menard 408 6 402
23 Ty Dillon 395 5 390
24 Chris Buescher 387 0 387
25 Dale Earnhardt Jr. 416 36 380
26 Michael McDowell 378 7 371
27 A.J. Allmendinger 381 21 360
28 Danica Patrick 352 18 334
29 David Ragan 303 7 296
30 Aric Almirola 268 0 268

Setting the Stage

Stage points have helped keep Matt Kenseth in the playoff conversation. (Photo: John K Harrelson/NKP)

Looking to make the postseason in his final year with JGR, 45-year-old Kenseth has endured one of the quietest seasons of his 18-year Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career. The Wisconsinite has gone winless to date – the second time he’s done so to this point in five years with JGR. Kenseth’s 15.1 average finish is the worst he’s had since 2009, and at 9.75 laps per race (234 total thus far), he’s on pace to lead the fewest amount of circuits he’s managed since a winless 2010 campaign with Roush Fenway Racing that saw him lead just 108 laps all year.

Yet despite the chaotic race to the 2017 playoffs, Kenseth still finds himself in the 16-car playoff grid heading to the penultimate race of the regular season at Darlington Raceway.

How, you ask?

Stage points.

While he ranks just ninth in points accumulated from the final stage of each race this season, Kenseth’s 166 stage points are good for seventh in the Cup Series field. Most important, Kenseth’s totals also surpass each of his competitors on the playoff bubble.

Elliott has just 139 stage points on the year, 27 fewer than Kenseth. McMurray (-41) sits even further back with 125 stage points. Bowyer (-99) is the worst of the bunch, having totaled just 67 points – less than half of Kenseth’s total – in the opening two stages of each race.

The result of Kenseth’s stage success is evident.

With average finishes of 13.8, 13.5 and 13.4, respectively, one would expect Elliott, McMurray and Bowyer to sit far ahead of Kenseth in the standings. But Elliott holds just an eight-point edge on Kenseth, while McMurray and Bowyer actually trail the 2003 Cup Series champion by three points and 61 points, respectively.

While Kenseth has feasted on stage points, his JGR teammate Suarez has felt the famine.

A quick glance at Suarez’s results would typically show a season with enough strength to warrant a playoff effort. The Monterrey, Mexico native has an average finish of 15.5 – just half of a position per race behind Kenseth. The run has been impressive, particularly considering the defending XFINITY Series’ champion’s unexpected late ascent to Cup over the offseason and the relative proximity to the 14.6 average finish that young phenom Elliott mustered in a highly lauded 2016 rookie season.

Yet Suarez sits mired back in 17th in the series standings, a full 163 points out of the playoff field due to the paltry 20 stage points he’s accumulated throughout the year. Save for occasional moments of contention – a Watkins Glen International stage win among them – Suarez has largely been an afterthought this season.

The reason for that is simple – finishing position no longer means everything. How drivers perform early in the race is nearly as important as the position they take the checkered flag in.

Such has been the tale of the opening year of stage racing for NASCAR’s top tour.


An Early Advantage

The two best qualifiers in the Cup Series garage have combined to claim 25 of the 49 stage races held in the opening 24 events. (Photo: John K Harrelson/NKP)

There are other areas of the sport where the effects of stage racing have been evident as well, though a few may be unmeasurable.

The first that comes to mind is qualifying.

 

Often an underrated aspect of the race weekend, qualifying has become more important than ever under 2017’s new race format.

Where in the past qualifying was as vital for pit stall selection as it was for track position, in modern Cup Series races the early track position has become invaluable due to the stage points that become available early in each event.

At this point in the past three seasons, the driver with the best average starting position ranked third (Brad Keselowski, 2014), second (Joey Logano, 2015) and seventh (Denny Hamlin, 2016) in the championship standings.

This year he ranks first by a noticeable margin.

Truex has been the strongest Cup Series qualifier this year, with an average starting position of 7.2. It’s no surprise, then, that the New Jersey native has tallied a series-best 15 stage wins and the playoff points that come with it.

Second highest driver in the standings is Kyle Busch. The 2015 Cup Series champ also has the second-lowest average starting position at 7.8, and the second most stage wins with 10 on the year. Jamie McMurray has the third-lowest average starting position at 8.1, while Brad Keselowski (8.3) and Ryan Blaney (9.6) round out the top five.

Of the six drivers with an average starting position below 10.0 – Kevin Harvick sits at 9.7 in sixth – none sit lower than 11th in total stage points earned. Five of the six have won stages this season, with the quintet combining to claim 35 of the year’s 49 stages, an astonishing 71.4 percent of all stages ran thus far.

Those stage wins account for extra playoff points for each driver that’s earned them, which takes us to another observed effect of stage racing on the championship picture – their complete twist on the playoff picture.

Without stage points the postseason field would be almost too easy to keep track of.

Another offseason addition, NASCAR implemented a new aspect to the season-long championship battle known as playoff points in 2017. The premise is simple – teams are awarded points that they can use in each round of the postseason up until their elimination or the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Stage winners get one playoff point, race winners get five, and at the end of the regular season the top 10 drivers in the standings get playoff points on a descending point scale of 15-10-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1, assuming they clinch their way into the playoffs.

With four wins on the year, Truex would be the top driver in playoff points regardless of format. But the Furniture Row Racing driver has benefitted heavily from his many stage wins this season.

Due to his 15 stage wins, Truex heads into the final two weeks of the season with 35 guaranteed playoff points. The Toyota driver also has the potential to clinch the regular season title at Darlington next weekend, garnering an additional 15 playoff points in the process. That would give Truex 50 playoff points as things stand – a near-indestructible advantage that should carry him to Homestead.

If it weren’t for stages, the gap would be a bit smaller.

Playff Points if Postseason Started Today – No Stage Points
Driver Points
Martin Truex Jr. 35
Kyle Larson 21
Kyle Busch 17
Kevin Harvick 15
Jimmie Johnson 15
Denny Hamlin 13
Brad Keselowski 11
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 10
Jamie McMurray 5
Clint Bowyer 5
Ryan Newman 5
Kurt Busch 5
Ryan Blaney 5
Austin Dillon 5
Kasey Kahne 5
Chase Elliott 3

While he would still have an advantage of nearly a full race over the back half of the field, a stage-less postseason would currently see Truex within reach of Busch, Kyle Larson, Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

Would he still be the favorite? Absolutely. But the current belief that Truex can essentially go on vacation during the playoffs and still be fine for Homestead would be put through a much more severe test.

As one might expect from the earlier stage win stat, the top qualifiers would be the ones that stood to lose the most from a lack of stages. Busch would drop behind Larson for second in playoff points. Keselowski would drop three points and fall to seventh in the standing entering the opening weekend of the playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway.


Evolving Strategy

The first year of stage racing has seen a plethora of surprise winners. (Photo: Rusty Jarrett/NKP)

Beyond playoff points and starting position the effects of stage racing on the championship picture become difficult to diagnose. However, while they may be near-impossible to quantify, the ripples of stage racing have been felt elsewhere in the field – most notably on pit road.

While bold strategies have long been the norm in NASCAR – particularly since the advent of the ‘win and you’re in’ playoff format in 2014 – never have the strategies seemed as varied as this season. While pit road closes two laps before the end of each stage in all three of NASCAR’s top tours, most races with cautions late in a stage or the potential to pit without losing a lap have seen multiple drivers dive onto pit road in the waning moments of a stage to set themselves up for the ensuing run.

The resulting chess games in the pits have caused the running order to flip upside down in a litany of races, allowing drivers who were otherwise unable to contend for wins and top fives to factor themselves into the end of events.

While it’s impossible to guarantee correlation between the two subjects, it’s no hidden fact that the opening year for stage racing has seen more regular season winners than any of the “Chase” years before it.

A total of 14 different drivers have won in the opening 24 points-paying events of the season, though one winner (Joey Logano) did so in an encumbered finish. The crazy year has seen three drivers pull into Cup Series victory lane for the first time, two victors (Kasey Kahne and Austin Dillon) that are set to make the playoffs despite sitting 20th and 21st in the standings, respectively, and, for the first time, a driver (Bowyer) who appears poised to miss the postseason despite sitting inside of the top 10 in the standings.

Others haven’t won, but it hasn’t been for lack of trying. The struggling Dale Earnhardt Jr. has searched for wild ‘Dale Mary’ opportunities. Trevor Bayne has found himself in contention in multiple races due to tire or fuel mileage strategies only to see them undone by caution flags.

While it’s yet to be seen, it’s also likely that the extra points associated with stages will keep all but drivers like Truex and Busch from even contemplating the idea of sandbagging through any playoff races, a concept seen last season when three of the four JGR drivers effectively mailed it in at Talladega Superspeedway – riding behind the field and refusing to race and risk crashing out.

In truth the overall effect of stage racing is difficult to measure, because it’s likely each race would have played out a bit differently without the incentive and opportunity for pit strategy that stage racing provides.

Still, the data that is available shows that stages have already begun to make their mark on the tour, and likely will for as long as NASCAR keeps them as a part of their race format.

One Comment

  1. Sol Shine

    August 25, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    Ignores the fact that Kenseth’s season has been a disaster of other people’s wrecks since Daytona. It’s a miracle he’s as far up in the points as he is. He’s also a lame duck at Gibbs and there’s no doubt the best stuff is going elsewhere. Being saddled with a crew chief who is consistently unable to keep up with the track has been Kenseth’s biggest problem at Gibbs.

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