What did the drivers think of NASCAR’s new three-stage race format after participating in a wild, wreck-filled Daytona 500?
Well, as you might imagine, it kind of depended on which driver was answering the question.
Those who finished well in Sunday’s 500 seemed to like it. Others, well, maybe not so much.
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And they all seemed to agree that like with most things involving restrictor-plate races, there is only so much you can take from one event at a place like Daytona International Speedway.
The 500 was split up until segments of 60 laps, 60 laps and the a final 80-lap run to the checkered flag that determined the race winner.
“To me it seemed like you get five laps to go in the stage, everything would kind of amp back up there,” said AJ Allmendinger, who finished third in his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet. “We were running single file in the second stage. Then with three to go, everybody kind of starts getting racing.”
That, of course, is exactly what NASCAR is hoping the three-stage format promotes.
But it also seemed to promote some chaos that led to the many multi-car wrecks, as Kevin Harvick pointed out.
“We just got some cars up there that didn’t need to be up there and (the drivers of them) ended up doing more than their car could do,” said Harvick, who won the second stage but got wrecked out early in the third and finished 22nd in his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
Harvick did not win the second 60-lap stage easily, either. Joey Logano made a very aggressive move to the inside to try to pass him at the line at its completion – something Logano almost certainly would not have otherwise attempted if a stage win and the bonus points that come with it were not at stake on what was overall Lap 120 of a 200-lap race.
Even race winner Kurt Busch appeared to have somewhat mixed feelings about the racing that the stages seemed to produce.
“With the segments, that threw in another wrench,” he said. “With guys on old tires, guys on new tires, a lot of veterans were taken out. Then there was the Lap 80 wreck when it seemed like that should be the time we all settled in as a group that knows how to race at Daytona. That’s when we had the most wrecks.
“I was thankful that I got through a lot of the wrecks with minimal damage.”
Some have said that breaking the race up into the stages is little more than adding two competition cautions. But Ryan Blaney, who finished second in his No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford, disagreed with that assessment.
“I don’t really see it as a competition caution mainly because you’re benefitted for running in the top 10 at the end of the stage,” Blaney said. “So you saw some teams and cars group-pit early, just to try to maybe short pit and get out front before the end of the stage and get some points, if there was a caution that fell maybe 10 laps before or earlier.
“I thought the communication, the strategy side from the drivers to the crew chiefs, all of that was very important. Honestly, I think it’s going to be more important on other racetracks, not the speedways.”
That was something Allmendinger wanted to stress after the race. The restrictor-plate races are their own animals, and therefore jumping to any kind of judgment about the stage racing after just one event at Daytona is premature.
“I think Daytona and Talladega are going to be the extreme because, you know, it comes down to trying to get your track position,” Allmendinger said. “You see people lay back. Now with the stages, there are points on the line. I think Daytona is the most amped up.
“It kind of changes how people race. To me, at any of the other 32 races that we’re going to go to, we’re all driving as hard as we can every lap anyway. Yeah, you get a caution with eight to go before the stage ends, there’s going to be strategy. Maybe guys on old tires and that, that might make some difference when it comes to the stages.”
In other words, cautions that fly at different times within the stages are going to present opportunities for different strategies that should mix up the racing at the end of stages. And to Allmendinger, that’s a good thing.
“Yeah, you get a caution that falls at the right time, maybe some guys stay out and some guys pit trying to get that stage win or points. It might be,” he said.
“Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that what we’re trying to do, beef up the middle of the races so people stay entertained? That’s what it’s all about. If nobody’s watching, it doesn’t matter.”