If you’re just tuning into NASCAR as it comes to Kentucky Speedway this week, you’re going to notice some changes to how the races are run.
The Quaker State 400 at Sparta marks the midway point of the season and a good time to look at how the new stage format influences each race and the season points standings.
Is it complicated? Yes.
Is it consequential? Possibly, but when NASCAR unveiled it ahead of the Daytona 500 this year, it said the four drivers vying for the title last season would have been the same under this configuration.
What the new system does, most certainly, is put a premium on running up front consistently throughout an entire race and throughout the entire season. And unlike past years, the bonuses drivers earn for winning races and stages don’t get tossed until Final Four drivers reach the last race of the season.
Does it enhance the fan experience, as NASCAR stated as one of its intended goals? You’ll have to be the judge of that.
NASCAR hasn’t released attendance figures for years, so it’s hard to gauge the impact at the gate. The system also offers television networks guaranteed commercial time where viewers won’t miss any of the action, a peeve ever since auto racing began airing live, but there are no signs it has improved weekly TV ratings.
Races in all three series — Monster Energy Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Trucks — are divided into three stages.
The first two stages are each roughly a quarter of the race (it’s sometimes tweaked for fuel or tire-wear considerations). For Kentucky, Stage 1 ends on Lap 80, Stage 2 ends on Lap 160 (and marks when the race becomes “official”), and the Final Stage ends on Lap 267.
“I think everybody’s really enjoyed the stage racing,” said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has two race wins, including last week’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. “It definitely has given us another opportunity to play strategy, knowing when cautions are coming out.”
If you’ve ever been to a hometown dirt track like Richmond Raceway or even the Tony Stewart-owned Eldora Speedway in Ohio, you’ve seen the evening broken up into two or three heats and a feature.
Welcome to NASCAR’s version of that, where all the drivers race each “heat.” No one gets eliminated from one stage to the next, but drivers do receive rewards.
Drivers in the top 10 at the end of each of the first two stages are awarded series points on a scale of 10 for first to 1 for 10th.
Additionally, drivers are awarded series points for how they finish in the Final Stage, with 40 points going to the race winner, 35 for second, 34 for third and so on down to 1 for 36th and everybody else at the end of the pack.
So, if Jimmy Johnson wins the race and Stage 1, he gets 40 + 10 = 50 series points. If Kyle Busch finishes second and wins Stage 2, he gets 35 + 10 = 45 points.
You might remember drivers getting a bonus point for leading a lap or leading the most laps. Those points don’t exist anymore. If you were that driver and you don’t win one of the stages, you timed your dominance poorly. Sorry.
But there are a lot more points out there for the taking than in the past, and that might get your favorite driver into the playoffs.
“That’s really kind of shifted the points standings,” Stenhouse said of the stage points. “If you look at the people that have gained those stage points, man, they are really far ahead in the points and have kind of gapped themselves. Those stage points are really what has helped Matt Kenseth crawl his way back into a battle for the playoffs.”
Here’s where we get really newfangled.
Drivers who win races are awarded five “playoff points,” which will be added to their points total when the playoffs begin.
But wait, there’s more: Winners of race stages also get a playoff point.
And the top 10 of the 16 drivers who make the playoffs are awarded playoff points based on their order of finish after 25 races with 15 playoff points going to the “regular season champion” (yes, NASCAR will declare a “regular season champion”), then 10 for second, 8 for 3rd and so on, down to 1 for 10th.
What in the world does all this mean?
Martin Truex Jr. has won more stages, by far, (11) than anyone else. If the playoffs began today, he’d see his points total reset to 2,000 + 10 (two wins) + 11 (stage wins) + 10 (bonus for second, regular season) for a total of 2,031 points.
For the sake of this exercise, we’ll also declare Kyle Larson the regular season champ and give him 2,000 + 10 (two wins) + 3 (stage wins) + 15 (champ bonus) for 2,028 points.
That hypothetical puts Truex ahead of Larson as the playoffs begin, no matter that he actually trails Larson by 18 series points as we head to Kentucky.
Playoff points will matter a great deal. And who’s second in playoff points, so far? Seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
Winning matters most
Winning still gets you an automatic berth in the playoffs, i.e. the final 10 races of the season formerly known as The Chase, so long as you remain in the top 30 in series points and there aren’t 16 other race winners ahead of you in series points (a somewhat unlikely scenario).
And winning gives you the biggest boost in playoff points. Series points matter, of course, but as NASCAR says, “winning trumps all.”
Keeping the edge
Unlike last year, when NASCAR erased all points advantages after the first round of the playoffs (three of the 10 races), drivers now get to keep all the points and bonuses they earn until only four drivers remain for the final race at Homestead.
Just as last year, each of those four drivers are set on equal footing, and whoever finishes best in the finale wins the Monster Energy Cup title.
Will knowing all of this help you enjoy Saturday’s race and the rest of the season? Maybe it’s best to not know how the sausage is made.
Or as Denny Hamlin put it when the system was announced: “You don’t necessarily need to know how a watch works, you just need to know what time it is. You’re going to see better racing on the racetrack, and that’s all that matters.”
NASCAR at Kentucky Speedway
Monster Energy Cup Series
Quaker State 400: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (NBCSN)
Alsco 300: 8 p.m. Friday (NBCSN)
Complete schedule: Kentuckyspeedway.com
The top points earners in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series in 2017:
1. Kyle Larson, 667
2. Martin Truex Jr., 649
3. Kyle Busch, 559
4. Kevin Harvick, 557
5. Brad Keselowski, 535
6. Chase Elliott, 524
7. Jimmie Johnson, 516
8. Jamie McMurray, 504
9. Denny Hamlin, 498.
10. Clint Bowyer, 469
11. Matt Kenseth, 445
12. Joey Logano, 442
13. Ryan Blaney, 435
14. Kurt Busch, 408
15. Ryan Newman, 399
16. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 395
17. Erik Jones, 386
18. Daniel Suarez, 354
19. Trevor Bayne, 351
20. Kasey Kahne, 328