It’s no surprise that qualifying position affects stage points. But it’s not as simple as the fastest cars always making their way to the front. Stage racing forces crew chiefs to balance points and track position.
Stage points will be crucial for the eight drivers trying to reach the championship four. At least one of these drivers will make the championship race on points.
Chase Elliott leads Joey Logano (in second) by 20 points. Logano has five points over third-place Ross Chastain. But the drivers from Chastain to Chase Briscoe (the eighth seed) are separated by just 12 points.
Winning Stage 1
The Next Gen car has upended expectations in 2022, so we should start by asking whether previous years’ results are applicable to this season.
I tallied stage winners between 2017 — when stage racing started — and 2022, along with their starting positions. Drivers who started the race from the back of the field have their own category.
I omitted the Bristol dirt race because it is so different from other races, which leaves 210 stage ones in the dataset.
Stage 1 is pretty consistent across the years. For example: From 2017-21, 62.6% of Stage 1 winners qualified in the first five positions. In the first 32 races of 2022, the percentage is 61.3%.
Each slice in the pie chart below represents the percentage of drivers who qualified in that position and went on to win Stage 1. Qualifying positions are listed in order, going counterclockwise around the chart. “TTB” indicates drivers who started the race at the back.
Fewer drivers who qualify at the rear win stages. One driver corresponds to about a half a percent. That’s not enough drivers to make distinctions between, for example, qualifying 11th or 12th.
However, the data does show that drivers qualifying in the first three positions claimed 51.4% of stage 1 wins. Top-10 qualifying drivers took 83.1% of all stage 1 wins.
Only once in 210 stages did a driver win stage 1 after being sent to the back. That was Martin Truex Jr. at Michigan in 2019.
Playoff drivers and crews must be at peak performance for these next three races. Errors will be costly in terms of stage 1 points.
Winning Stage 2
Stage 2, in contrast to Stage 1, varies significantly from year to year. The table below show the percentage of Stage 2 winners for different groups of qualifying positions for each year.
The importance of starting in the top five or even the top 10 in terms of winning Stage 2 has diminished over the years. Even so, 58.1% of all drivers winning a Stage 2 this year qualified in the top 10.
But whereas the top 50% of Stage 1 wins came from drivers qualifying in the top three, 50% of Stage 2 wins in 2022 come from drivers in the top seven.
My working hypothesis to explain the year-to-year changes is that it took a while for crew chiefs to become comfortable strategizing for stage points. Crew chiefs unable to earn decent Stage 1 points are much more willing now to give up Stage 1 points in favor of track position.
Starting from the back of the pack isn’t as much of a penalty for Stage 2 as for Stage 1. Ten out of 210 Stage 2s (4.8%) from 2017-22 were won by drivers who started the race from the back of the field. It’s been accomplished twice this year, both times by Ross Chastain.
How qualifying impacts winning six or more stage points in Stage 2
Winning a stage is usually extra important because of the playoff point awarded for each win. The final race decides the championship strictly by who finishes ahead of the other three drivers, so playoff points aren’t important. There isn’t much difference between winning a stage and earning nine points.
Because we can’t combine the data from different years, and there isn’t enough data for Stage 2 winners, I investigated how qualifying affected drivers who earned six or more points in Stage 2s.
In 2022, 51% of drivers earning six or more points in Stage 2 in 2022 started the race in the top 10. Nine percent of drivers won six or more stage points in Stage 2 despite starting the race from the back of the field.
The table below shows the total stage points earned during the playoffs for each driver in the round of eight.
The top four drivers are within four points of each other over six playoff races. Elliott ranks only sixth out of eight in this metric, despite having earned the most stage points of any driver this season.
Elliott beats only Denny Hamlin and Briscoe. Briscoe, with a 3.8 stage points per playoff race average, really needs to step up his strategy going into the third playoff round.
Or cement his spot in the final by winning this week at Las Vegas (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).