The final week of the NASCAR season is upon us, and all three National Touring Series embark on Phoenix Raceway to crown their Champions. The highest finisher amongst each of the Championship 4 contenders wins the Championship regardless of stage finishes as no stage points will be awarded to the Championship contenders. So, if the Championship 4 contenders are ineligible to earn any stage points, then what is the point of stage racing at all?
The Argument Against Stage Racing at Phoenix
For 35 races out of the year, the Playoffs, the regular season, and everything in between, stage points mean something for everyone in the field. They count towards the points standings for everyone, so, they truly do matter. Now, in the winner-take-all Championship race, stage points are thrown out the window.
For the four drivers that the fans in the stands, the fans at home, and the broadcast are each focusing on, stages mean nothing. It is all about the finish of the race. The stages serve as little more than a time to stop the race briefly and create another restart
It serves zero purpose to the drivers in the race that most people are paying attention to. Why should stages and stage breaks interrupt the flow of an important race like this when they do not affect the four most looked-at cars on track?
Why They Stage Race at Phoenix
Now, as ridiculous as it may seem to the Championship contenders, there is a legitimate reason why stage racing still exists throughout the field. Every driver in the points standings from 5th-30th have a chance to move either up or back at least one position.
Some battles are very close including 9th-13th, in which five drivers (Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., and Kyle Busch) are within 22 points of each other. Chastain and Wallace are each tied for ninth in the standings.
These spots may not mean much to the casual fan, but they mean a lot to the drivers involved. Wallace, for example, is in a position to potentially finish in the top 10 in points for the first time in his career. On top of that, every position in points means a little extra cash at the end of the season for both drivers and owners.
On top of that, plenty of open drivers compete in Cup Series races throughout the year where either stage points cannot be earned, or they mean absolutely nothing. It’s not like this is a new concept every year at the Championship race, but, that does not mean there cannot be a better solution.
Is There a Better Solution?
Get Rid of Stage Cautions for the Championship Race
The easiest solution may be to get rid of stage breaks, similar to what NASCAR did at road courses earlier in the year. This allows those who are racing for stage points to still race for stage points while also not stopping the race for no reason for the Championship contenders. It also would be a change welcomed by many fans who liked the lack of stage cautions at road courses earlier this year.
However, the caveat to this is that it is a complete departure from the normal race procedure during the biggest race of the year. If NASCAR runs a race one way throughout the year but then changes it for the most important race on the calendar, that does not look good. NASCAR fans do not generally take kindly to changes like this during big races.
Add Stage Points Into the Championship Race
Another easy solution would be to introduce stage points for the Championship 4. Instead of who finishes the highest in the Championship race, decide it based on who scores the most points in the Championship race. This would allow stage points to matter to everyone in the final race, so there is a purpose to stage racing in every race throughout the season.
However, the issue with this is it would derail the simplicity of the final race. The original concept of the Championship 4, aside from creating that Game 7 moment, was for the final race to be simple for everyone to understand. In previous years, the Championship came down to where a driver finished relative to their competitor on track, which was difficult to follow for some. Introducing stage points brings NASCAR right back to that concept, which, not everyone would love.
Changing the Championship Format
The only other solution to this aside from the way the current format works is to change the Championship format to make stage points worth more than they are currently. Many would easily point to the Winston Cup points format or the original Chase format as an example.
However, as we discussed previously, it would take something extreme for NASCAR to change the Championship format. Simply put, this will not happen unless something drastic occurs to question the current Playoff format.
For now, stage racing in the final race of the season will have to be something we deal with in this current format. Could NASCAR make some changes to the format in the near future?