No stage breaks?
That’s at least the sentiment drivers expressed ahead of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race (FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Circuit of the Americas — the first road-course race of the 2023 season that’ll inevitably spotlight one of NASCAR’s newest rules.
Before the season, NASCAR made the decision that there would be no stage breaks for Cup road course events in 2023. Teams will still score stage points based on when the stage ends on a designated lap, but a caution won’t come out. Racing under green will continue.
As a result?
“The strategy will be back,” said Kevin Harvick, one of the most veteran drivers in the Cup garage area. “You had two strategies before: win or collect stage points. So that was not what it needs to be. And with the rolling stages, I think it opens up the ‘what do you want to do’ category to be much wider than two options.”
The no-stage-breaks rule at road courses was established to bring back an element of strategy that was largely lost.
How road-course stage breaks normally went down with the old rules: Race teams going for race wins would pit right before the first stage to achieve better track positioning for the final two stages — and race teams going for stage points would finish Stage 1 the way they could and then pit during the caution.
AJ Allmendinger knew this reality well.
Last year, Allmendinger ran in the Xfinity Series full-time, and so when he ran at select road courses, he never had to worry about stage points. This circumstance — mixed in with the fact that he’s known to be one of the best road-course racers in NASCAR — made his decision-making easy in 2022. (He came oh-so-close to a win at COTA last year, specifically, at least in-part because of that strategy.)
That’ll all change this year.
“Last year, when you’re not racing for points, you can kind of go all out and ultimately just try to go for the win,” Allmendinger told reporters on Wednesday. “But I think ultimately this year, with not having any stage breaks at the road courses, qualifying up front and being up front early on is going to be very important.
“COTA last year, I had to start at the back of the field, and I was able to pass cars. But there were a lot of road courses last year where it was tough to pass, even if you had a fast car. ... At the end of the day, at least in my mindset and our team, it doesn’t change our outlook.”
Joey Logano, who won the race at Atlanta last weekend, said the new rule has made everything appropriately simple: The fast cars are going to score points.
“(You) used to be able to leave a road course and, even if you didn’t have a fast car, you could manipulate the stages to where you could have a decent day out of it,” Logano said. “Now, the fast cars are going to score the most points. And as it should, right? That’s how it should be. But you used to have to make the decision of, ‘Do I want to score stage points or do I want to have a good finish?’ Now that decision is most likely not going to come into play, unless there is a timed caution that comes out near a stage, which can happen here or anywhere.”
Denny Hamlin said that having no stage breaks in road courses is a double-edged sword. Cup races this season have been pretty clean through the first two stages. For a long run in Atlanta, a lot of the field ran single file.
“I don’t think you’ll see many cautions,” Hamlin said, “so it could potentially just get a bit more strung out.”
Another difference to keep an eye on at COTA? A return to shorter restart zones.
Through the first five races of 2023, NASCAR experimented with lengthening the zones to which the leader can accelerate through. The sanctioning body has since said that the restart zone will go back to its 2022 dimensions at COTA this weekend.
Christopher Bell, driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Cup car, said that the biggest variable in road-course restarts aren’t the length of the restart zone — but the difficulty of Turn 1. Remember the wreck-riddled right turn from Indy a year ago? Bell does, at least.
“The biggest thing on the road courses is just Turn 1, whatever that first corner is,” Bell said. “At COTA, it’s a very sharp left-hander. Indy is a very sharp right-hander, and we see a lot of wrecks there, so I would expect that to be the same.”
Other story lines to watch as COTA race unfolds
▪ It’s worth remembering: A year ago, at this racetrack, Ross Chastain’s life changed forever. The driver of the No. 1 Cup car’s win at COTA marked the first of Chastain’s career and the first milestone in his ascension from relative obscurity to codified stardom. Chastain celebrated his win by smashing a watermelon — an ode to his eighth-generation watermelon farmer identity — and then went on to make a run to the Championship 4 that included a magical wall-riding move at Martinsville that won’t ever be replicated.
▪ As of publication, there has been no verdict on appeals made by Hendrick Motorsports and Denny Hamlin. NASCAR dealt out hefty penalties to Hendrick after finding that the organization illegally modified the Hendrick cars’ hood louvers, the vents in the hood that help transfer air out of the radiator. The sanctioning body also penalized Hamlin for “race manipulation.” (One penalty that is going unquestioned? Josh Williams. The driver of the 92 Xfinity Series car will serve a one-race suspension at COTA after parking his car at the start-finish line in the middle of a caution-cluttered race at Atlanta. He released a statement shortly after learning of NASCAR’s penalty, in part saying, “I stand behind what I did, and I don’t regret any decision I made. I also stand behind NASCAR for these decisions and will continue and always continue to support them.”)
▪ The driver field in COTA will have an international and legendary flair. Among the driver field beyond the week-to-week Cup drivers: 2009 Formula 1 champion Jenson Button; 2007 F1 champion Kimi Räikkönen; Legacy Motor Club co-owner Jimmie Johnson; and multi-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor. Could the 20-turn, 3.426-mile road course deliver another first-time Cup Series winner?
How to watch COTA Cup Series race
Race: EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix
Place: Circuit of The Americas
Date: Sunday, March 26
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 231.88 miles (68 laps)
Stages: Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 15), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 30), Stage 3 (Ends on Lap 68)
Starting lineup at COTA
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Martin Truex Jr.