By David Morgan, Associate Editor
Stage breaks or no stage breaks? That is the question.
Since the dawn of stage racing in the NASCAR Cup Series, road course racing has been void of strategy thanks to the pre-planned cautions built into the race. But thanks to a rule change by the higher ups, Sunday’s EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas will be the first race since 2017 that will play out like a normal race with no pre-determined yellow flags.
How the new rules for the road courses will play out this weekend has the driving corps mixed on what they think will happen as the race plays out organically.
Daniel Suarez explained that the drivers and teams won’t be locked into either racing for points or racing for the win and will now have the freedom to try and do both.
“In the past we were coming into a road-course race with two mentalities – either you’re going to fight for the win or you’re going to fight for points. You couldn’t do both. It was impossible to do both,” said Suarez.
“I was in both situations last year. It was fun but when you were going for points, it was almost like you already knew you weren’t going to win the race or it was going to be a longshot to win the race. If you were going for the race (win) and something was happening, you gave up a lot of points. It was almost like we put ourselves in a box every time.
“Now I feel like it’s going to open the options a lot and the strategies and lot of things for the teams. I was talking to my team last night about all the different options – the fall-off that we have, the different strategy options and all that kind of stuff. It’s going to be dependent on a little bit of luck. When the caution depends on where you are in your pit cycle. I’m excited for that. I’m excited to bring back the smarter engineers and put them back to work!”
Michael McDowell was in the same frame of mind as Suarez as he pointed out the ability to fight for both stage points and the win.
“I think what I like about this is I think you’ll be able to do both,” McDowell said. “Where in the past I haven’t been able to, right? Like last year I think we probably could have won three or four stages, but we wanted to make sure that we pitted before the stage break to have that track position at the end to try to win the race.
“We always went on the give up stage points to have a shot at winning a race. Now, I don’t think you’ll have to do that because of the fuel windows. I don’t think you’ll have to pit before the end of that stage to be in the windows that you need to be. We’ll see how it plays out.
“You add in there tire wear, tire fall off. Maybe you do, maybe you still split it up a little bit. But I feel like this will give us an opportunity to score a lot more points than we could last year with staying aggressive on the strategy to try to have track position. Could this be a two-stop race for somebody? You know, I think everything would have to play out right with timely cautions and tires. That’s the one thing we don’t know.”
Martin Truex, Jr. noted that the lack of stage break cautions will be a throwback to the days before stage racing entered the sport.
“It will be like we used to do at road courses,” said Truex. “You will have to have a car that takes off okay, and runs well on the long run depending on how many cautions we have. Fuel mileage could come into play – I haven’t really talked to James (Small, crew chief) about how that plays out or looks. I think everyone is going to be close, but I’m sure guys will be taking chances. It will be something we haven’t done in a long time, and something we’ve never done here.
“You are still going to run as hard as you can. You don’t want to throw caution to the wind and smoke the tires off of it, because you are going to pay the price. No matter what – that would happen. I think just knowing that it could come down to long runs and strategy, and things like that. You have to be smart and hit your marks and be smooth in how you do things and maybe put yourself in position to take advantage of guys on older tires.”
The lack of stage break cautions also opens up the chance for Sunday’s race to be a more grueling event with the possibility of long green flag runs on the demanding road course, as Christopher Bell explained.
“It’s going to be a tough race on Sunday,” Bell said. “That is for sure. I know I’ve never ran a road course race without breaks and it has been a long time since the veterans have too. I think that it is going to be a very good race as far as rewarding those cars that run well.
“At road courses in the past, it really was two different races between collecting stage points and racing for the race win. Now I think we will see the same guys be able to run for the race win and collect the stage points, so you are going to have be good on Sunday to get points for sure.”
Polesitter William Byron expects some differences in the race on Sunday, but also pointed out that the pit stop cycles will be more of the same as we have seen in the past.
“It should be a little bit different tomorrow but there’s still probably going to be one or two times that others cycle forward that you kind of have to get through traffic,” said Byron. “A race is never that easy to kind of be out front the whole time in NASCAR racing, so there’s going to be some period of time that you’re going to cycle back, like to eighth or ninth, but you’re going to have to make up that ground.
“You just got to focus on those time periods, and making up the track position you can, and then managing what you have so you’re not getting beat up back there, beating up the brakes, the tires. It’s management, but hopefully we can be towards the front the whole time.”
Denny Hamlin explained that without the stage breaks, the likelihood of Sunday’s race getting strung out is significantly higher and does not want to hear any complaining if that indeed is the case.
“I think we got pressured into this one. I think this one has the potential to get really strung out – a lot,” said Hamlin. “If we do, I don’t want to hear any complaining on things being strung out, because that is the potential. We had stages, certainly on road courses, this will make for more strategy, but if you are 10 seconds behind the car in front of you, strategy isn’t going to matter a ton.”
For defending series champion Joey Logano, there are pros and cons of the new rules and how they weigh out in the end is still up in the air.
“I didn’t vote on this one,” Logano said with a laugh. “Because I guess I can see both sides, right? When we added stage cautions to road course racing, it didn’t ruin the strategy piece of it, it just changed it. Right? You think of like the old Watkins Glen, there’s always maybe a three stop or do you two stop, right? And you know, it kind of goes a little bit back to that.
“I’m a fan of yellows every now and again because it resets the field, it gives you some recovery opportunities, it makes big moments. Obviously here restarts are stupid. So, you have some big moments for our fans that way, but I also see the authentic racing and letting it play out and letting natural cautions happen. I guess I see both sides.”
Likewise for Brad Keselowski, who made note that there are positives and negatives for each style of racing on the road courses.
“I don’t have a strong feeling on it either way,” Keselowski said. “There’s parts I like and parts I don’t like about it. You know, I like it for the fans that there’s more green flag laps or should be more green flag laps. But then on the flip side of that, I think you’ll have less race variability with people coming and going and if you’re the leader it’ll be much easier to defend the lead. So, it’s probably pluses and minuses.”
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