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Is it Time to Bring Back Stage Breaks on Road Courses?

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Joshua Lipowski

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The Chicago Street Race was the third road course race of the season, and all three have not had a key element of modern NASCAR, stage breaks. The lack of stage breaks have made an impact on the races so far, but has it been positive or negative? Here is a look at how the lack of stage breaks has impacted road course racing this season.

The Benefits of No Stage Breaks

1) Varying Pit Strategy

In the previous few years, road course races came down to two distinct strategies. Go for stage points, or go for the race win. If a driver pitted right before the stage ended, they would lose stage points, but they would give themselves good track position later on in the race. If a driver pitted under the stage caution, they would get stage points, but they would lose track position later on.

Not pitting at all around the stage break was not really an option because of the impact of tire wear on road courses. This meant that teams had to choose between stage points or the race win, which did not sit right with many.

The lack of stage cautions allows crew chiefs to strategize for the entire race rather than separate segments. This is part of what allowed the field order to be jumbled up at times during the Chicago Street Race and at Sonoma. It also set up rarity in NASCAR nowadays, a fuel mileage race at Circuit of the Americas before it turned into a wreck fest of a finish.

Teams now have more options to jump the running order, and a well-timed or poorly-timed caution can throw the race for a loop. The risk to pitting or staying out is not knowing when that next stoppage will come, and that causes some interesting strategy. Something that is not seen as much on ovals.

2) A More “Natural” Race

One of the biggest problems people have with stage cautions is that they feel “artificial”. It’s an arbitrary caution that is only there to both separate the stages and bunch the field up. It’s not there for the normal purpose of a caution flag.

The lack of stage cautions means the race plays out naturally. If a poorly-timed caution comes out and traps guys one lap down, well, that’s just how the race went. If the leader pulls away to a 10 second lead and wins the race on a final green flag run of 75 laps, then that’s just how it works.

Sure, it may not be as visually exciting, but it feels more natural to some. The guy who won the race truly earned it because of what happened on track, not because of, what some would call, arbitrary cautions. Also, some would NASCAR has enough “natural” cautions to keep the race bunched up.

Sonoma is an exception, but Chicago and Circuit of the Americas both had eight yellow flags. That opens up the argument about whether or not NASCAR really NEEDS stage cautions every week.

3) It Tests the Endurance of the Cars and Drivers

One of the thing that differentiates NASCAR from Formula One and IndyCar is that NASCAR races are more of a marathon while Formula Ona and IndyCar are sprints. F1 races are less than 200 miles and last no longer than two hours. IndyCar races typically sit at around 200 miles or so with a few exceptions including the Indianapolis 500, but they typically last about two hours.

NASCAR races are closer to endurance races, and the lack of stage cautions means that the equipment and the drivers are tested. It’s something that is missing from NASCAR racing today, and the lack of stage cautions allows for that to be tested. The fact that drivers strap into their cars and roll off the starting grid knowing that the race could go green the entire way.

It’s interesting, and it adds an entirely new dynamic to the racing. It’s something also that is missing to some degree when it comes to NASCAR

The Detractors of No Stage Breaks

1) The Race Can Get Strung Out

Racing is more exciting when cars are closer together. Stage breaks ensure that the cars stay closer together at different points during the race. Just when the race begins to feel a bit drawn out or spread out, well here is a caution to bunch everyone back up.

With no stage breaks, that is not a guarantee. That is no more apparent than at Sonoma back in June, when there were only two caution flags during the race. Many complained that the race felt too strung out, and many felt there was a lack of passing because of this.

It’s just not exciting to watch the leader ride off into the sunset, and see everyone behind him with 1-2 seconds of daylight between them. With no stage breaks, there is no guarantee that field will get bunched up again. If it gets spread out, that’s just how the race plays out.

2) More Green Flag Racing Interrupted by Commercials

Something that many have mentioned about stage breaks is that it benefits the TV companies. Not only does it provide more action on the track with more restarts, but it also gives TV companies places where they can sell ads. As opposed to playing a commercial during green flag racing where something can happen, these stage cautions allow for points in the race where commercials can be played.

The lack of stage breaks means that more commercials will have to be played during green flag racing. TV companies still sell advertising for races whether they have scheduled cautions or not. Those commercials are going to get played no matter what.

It’s a necessary evil with NASCAR broadcasting. The bottom line is this, the less caution flags there are, the more green flag racing is interrupted by commercials.

3) It Could Deter Strategy in Some Instances

Does every race track benefit from a driver going off-sequence and trying a different strategy? Not every track does. How often do you see someone stay out at a track that eats up tires like Darlington and actually make that strategy work, or at a track like old Atlanta?

If the race goes green for an extended period of time, the only practical strategy is to pit once the fuel window runs out. If you pit too short, then you have to make extra pit stops. Yes someone can short pit, but if the race spreads out, then at best they can get maybe one or two positions.

Caution flags are what allows for more complex strategies oftentimes. Stage cautions are scheduled, sure, but they are something to consider when it comes to strategies. At least it throws some wrinkle into it rather than a straight caution-free race.

The jury is still out on whether or not stage breaks should stay or go on road courses. There are three more road course races left this season, so that will give more insight into how road course races fare with no stage breaks.

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Joshua Lipowski

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