For the most part, stage racing has brought added excitement and different forms of strategy to NASCAR Cup competition in the first 15 races of the season.
But how stage racing will impact Sunday’s road course race at Sonoma Raceway remains a mystery that won’t be answered until the checkered flag falls in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.
First of all, the first stage ends on Lap 25 and the second stage ends on Lap 50 of the 110-lap race.
How those stages change the pit stop strategies devised by crew chiefs can range from little impact to radical changes.
While much of the strategy onus will fall upon crew chiefs, Cup drivers are also concerned how much stage racing will impact their race. Here’s what some of them are thinking about:
Sonoma polesitter, Cup points leader and Michigan winner Kyle Larson: “Yeah, I think stage racing or the stages will play into effect. I still haven’t talked to my engineers about it. We will have a pre-race meeting (Sunday) and kind of go over what their race plan is, as far as how many stops we are going to do and stuff like that. I don’t know yet, how it will affect it, but I’m sure it will be interesting.
“I don’t think it would turn into a four-stop race, but possibly a three-stop race rather than typically being a two-stop race, but I don’t know. I would have to talk to the engineers, they are smart. I just pit when they tell me to pit.”
Outside pole sitter Jamie McMurray: “The fact that we have a good starting spot at the beginning is going to be big. The stages are going to be interesting to see how that affects the race or if it does. But, yeah, got a good car and just ready for (Sunday).”
Denny Hamlin: “With the stages and everything that goes into play, the field’s going to be flip-flopped all day long and we just hope to be on the right end of it at the right time.”
Brad Keselowski: “The stages are going to throw these races … the road course and tracks like Pocono where you can pit and not lose a lap. … it throws these races a complete curve ball. I think you’ll see that here.”
Martin Truex Jr.: “I feel like if you win the first stage, you’re probably not going to have a chance to win the race at the end. I think you’re going to see a lot of guys pit before the first stage is over. … I don’t play strategy, I don’t do strategy, I’ll leave that up to Cole (Pearn, crew chief), and hopefully he’ll figure it out. But it’s definitely going to be interesting. It’s going to be a lot more difficult, I think, to call this race than it has in years past. In the last few years we’ve seen tires play such a big role in winning this race that I think it’s been since about 2013 since this was won on two stops, or maybe actually 2012. So it’s been a long time since anyone done it on a one‑ or two‑stop strategy, and tires are going to be a big deal. So I think everybody stopped a least four times last year, and we’ll see what this year brings.”
Clint Bowyer: “It will certainly change a lot about this track. Who knows? That (stage racing) has been such a big thing and a good thing I guess for our sport. If there ever was an exception to that rule you hope it is not here. You make those rules to try to ramp up the competition everywhere across the board and sometimes there are race tracks that maybe didn’t need it. This is one of those places where you didn’t need anything but obviously you have to make rules to be good for everywhere. … I think the strategy side will kind of go by the wayside and you will have to push as hard as you can. We have been pretty easy on our equipment over the years by being able to pace ourselves, save fuel, not just dive-bomb every single corner of every lap. You might see some attrition show up because of it. And you will see desperation show up at the end.”