NASCAR Makes Mistake in Changing Playoff Race Format and It’s Not a Good Sign for the Future
NASCAR has been on a roll in 2023, and it’s due in large part to change. The Next Gen car has undergone multiple changes and proven to be safer. A completely new style of track was added this year, racing through the streets of Chicago. And on that course, and the others with right and left turns, the sanctioning body modified the format to remove cautions during stage breaks.
And that brings us to this week, when NASCAR’s momentum of good changes came to a screeching halt when it reversed the stage break cautions decision for the sixth and final road course race on the Charlotte Roval.
NASCAR deserves credit for making changes
There was a lot of anticipation last year with the debut of the Next Gen car. It delivered with great racing on most of the tracks, but there were serious issues regarding safety. Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman suffered concussions on rear impacts.
NASCAR made changes to the rear clip this past offseason and those types of impacts have been a non-issue in 2023. In addition, there were changes made to the front of the car after the violent crash between Ryan Preece and Kyle Larson at Talladega in the spring. Those modifications were put to the test at Daytona last month and, according to Ryan Blaney, who suffered a nasty hit when his car went nose first into the wall, they passed.
Outside of the car, NASCAR has continued to try and improve the overall racing product in various other areas, including adding races to the schedule like the Chicago Street Race, which was a huge success, or modifying the rules, like removing cautions during stage breaks on road courses.
Removing stage cautions changed the racing product
For the most part, fans received the removal of stage cautions favorably through the first three road course races this season at COTA, Sonoma, and Chicago. However, questions began to arise after races at the Indy Road Course and Watkins Glen.
That’s because both races had a single natural caution, resulting in long green-flag runs and dramatically shorter races. Indy ran for two hours and nine minutes, and The Glen ran for one hour and 58 minutes.
One group of fans was outspoken and critical of the races because there wasn’t enough “action.” Translation: more crashes. Others appreciated the fact that the races ran their natural course, required varying strategies, and did all of this without including artificial stoppages.
Interestingly, three of the five road races this season were rated favorably in Jeff Gluck’s Good Race Poll.
NASCAR gets it wrong in reverting back to old format
Despite those numbers, this week, NASCAR announced that it would be returning to the old format and including cautions during stage breaks in the final road course race of the season at the Charlotte Roval in the middle of the playoffs.
“Starting at the Roval, we will introduce the stage break cautions. And I’m sure the question from our fans and even from our competitors is, why do that now?” NASCAR Senior Vice President of Competition Elton Sawyer said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “One reason is we want to make sure that throughout the playoff, in the 10-race Cup Series playoffs, we want to make sure we’re officiating across the board the same way. Now we will be. All of our races will have caution stage breaks. That includes the Roval here in a few weeks.
“And No. 2 and the most important part of this decision making is if you look back at our five previous road course races, although they were competitive, there were some that felt like there were some things we could do differently, obviously going back to the caution stage breaks, that would potentially make our races better. So we had the option to pull that lever, working closely with our broadcast partners, our folks at Speedway Motorsports in Charlotte, and our industry stakeholders and it felt like the timing was right to do that as we head into the playoffs and finish up the first round and head into the second round.
The first reason given by Sawyer is absolutely ludicrous. NASCAR knew all along that the format of the Charlotte Roval race would be different, just like all the other road courses, when they announced the change before the season. Plus, there have been zero problems officiating all the other road races without stage breaks.
As for the second reason, Sawyer admitted that the racing was competitive, but there was a desire to make it better. Better than what? As mentioned, three out of the five races have been seen as positive. And if we’re being honest, those fan ratings have nothing to do with stage breaks but how the race ended and who won it. That was proven at Indy and Watkins Glen.
But now, NASCAR officials believe adding two cautions during stage breaks is going to somehow, some way make the racing product better? It might result in more accidents — cautions breed cautions — but that’s not necessarily better racing.
Thankfully, it’s just for the one race. However, this single decision doesn’t bode well for the removal of stage cautions at road courses in the future, and that’s a shame and a move in the wrong direction.