Denny Hamlin’s adoption of an unpopular rule will anger longtime NASCAR fans
This weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a bad time to ask if stage racing is unnecessary. It’s on par with the confirmation that the sky is blue, the water is wet and a lot of NASCAR fans don’t care about Denny Hamlin.
Hamlin, the driver of the #11 Toyota, may have made things worse with his attitude towards stage racing during a race actions harmful podcast, but he would never win the Most Popular Driver award anyway. The thing is, though, he’s not wrong. NASCAR needs stage breaks, even when the fans don’t.
The difference between stage race stops and traditional warnings
NASCAR introduced stage racing in 2017, dividing the races into three segments (the Coca-Cola 600 Marathon has four). Winners of the first two stages each receive a playoff point, and cars placed in the top 10 receive regular season points on a scale of 1 to 10.
Over a 26-race regular season, these points can add up and affect who makes the playoffs. Don’t you think so? Ross Chastain scored six stage points and Denny Hamlin none in the Martinsville playoff race that set the field for Championship 4. The difference in the overall standings at the end of this race was exactly six points. Chastain made the Championship 4 and Hamlin didn’t.
The stage disruptions go hand-in-hand with warning flags counting towards the start of the next stage, which eats into the live action. Even if NASCAR wanted to pass on the points without raising the warning flag at the end of the stage, the control tower could easily keep tabs on places when the green-checkered flag came down.
Race warnings are a different matter. Whether it’s because of debris on the track or because The Big One is happening at a superspeedway, the disruption almost always lasts at least as long as a stage precaution.
That plays a part in why Hamlin says stage races on ovals will stay here even after NASCAR has done away with them on street courses.
Denny Hamlin: “Stage races are a good thing”
Stage races understandably frustrate longtime NASCAR fans. Although it pools the field for restarts and makes for more competitive racing, the rule penalizes fast cars. A rider who has a 1.5 second lead in a stage with five laps to go has no incentive to extend the lead to two seconds.
Still, Denny Hamlin stands somewhere between tolerating and defending stage racing.
“A) It’s good for our TV partners, they know when warnings are coming,” Hamlin said on his Actions Malicious Podcast. “You can schedule these commercials. And B) we plan the stages strategically, so I think it’s an absolute must. We see it on Speedways, it’s a game changer. People are now racing instead of hitting a wall 180 laps out of 200.”
Realistically, either of these two considerations is more important to the financial health of the sport. The TV partner aspect is the main catalyst for stage races.
Stage races allow Fox and NBC to forgo commercials at a predictable moment and for a predictable amount of time without missing green flag laps. These commercials help the networks pay the rights fees that allow NASCAR and its teams to foot the bills.
Atlanta Motor Speedway has completely changed
The reason stage racing is a particularly sensitive topic when the NASCAR Cup Series comes to Atlanta Motor Speedway now is because the track’s overhaul ahead of the 2022 season has completely transformed it. A 1.5 mile track, not much different from most other intermediate tracks, suddenly became a superspeedway.
Two key numbers related to the change:
- From 2016-21, there was an average of 4.7 cautions at seven races in Atlanta, including stage or competition cautions. In the two races last year there were an average of 12 warnings.
- In the same period, there were an average of 18.4 lead changes in races in the Cup series. The number rose to 36.5 in 2022.
On the surface, this points to exciting races. Realistically, many warnings resulted in two lead changes – one when the leader came into the pits and the other when the new leader drove through to his own pit stop or was passed by a better car shortly after pulling out.
Stage warnings add to the problem and further anger many fans.
Do you have a question or observation about racing? Sportscasting’s John Moriello does a mailbag column every Friday. Write to him [email protected]