At New Hampshire Motor Speedway, races start as polite affairs, although they usually turn prickly by the end.
Last July, the first yellow flag that flew was a predetermined one. Because rain had washed away some of the rubber the previous night, NASCAR issued a competition caution for Laps 37 to 40 to allow teams to gauge tire wear. Trouble did not arise until Chris Buescher twirled his No. 34 Ford on the back straightaway, prompting yellow to wave between Laps 101 to 108.
September’s Bad Boy Off Road 300 was even more tranquil. Forty of the world’s most aggressive drivers raced each other at full speed and with zero issues until NASCAR spotted debris in Turn 1, slowing down the field for Laps 125-131.
Sunday’s Overton 301 will not be as tame. Drivers used to sipping their coffees during quiet early segments will have to grip their wheels with both hands. The checkered flag will wave on Lap 75. It will come out again on Lap 150. This is by design.
Before this season, NASCAR turned the Monster Energy Cup Series upside down by splitting each race into three stages. The top 10 finishers of each of the first two stages receive bonus points. Stage winners receive playoff points to be carried into the Chase pending qualification. Whoever claims the final stage is recognized as the race winner.
Stage lengths are determined by the size of the track. At stamp-sized Martinsville Speedway, the first two stages are 130 laps. At Watkins Glen, a road course, they are 20 laps.
At Loudon’s 1.058-mile oval, the stages are marked at Laps 75 and 150. The race will conclude on Lap 301.
The purpose is to energize what can be sleepy events, especially early in races. Drivers, being who they are, can’t help but sprint for the checkered, even if it waves hundreds of laps before a race’s conclusion. There are now three races inside one.
“I don’t think we’re really doing anything different from what we have done all year, even before we got the win,” said No. 21 Ford driver Ryan Blaney, who has one race win (Pocono Raceway) and three stage victories (two at Texas Motor Speedway, one at Kansas Speedway). “You go out and you try to win stages and win races just like before and just do what we all have been doing all year. I think we’ve done a pretty decent job at it. We’ve won a few stages and won a race. You’re just kind of trying to keep building your playoff status and trying to cushion everything from each round that just carries over.”
The new format has made life busier for those whose schedules were already skinny jeans-tight. Crew chiefs, the men who make the calls from atop the pit boxes, are now tasked to solve two more problems per race. They approach the adjustment as just another challenge, much like a car that won’t turn or a pit crew that misfires.
“You definitely look at it in thirds now,” said Cole Pearn, crew chief of Martin Truex Jr.’s No. 78 Toyota. “It changes your mind-set. You think about what will get through the first stage and onto the second. The second one is the real interesting one. It sets you up for the third. It’s a lengthier caution when you have stage breaks. You can assess, figure it out, and let yourself refocus for the next one.”
Last week at Kentucky Speedway, there was no doubting the horsepower or the handling of the No. 78. It was the classiest car throughout the Quaker State 400.
In previous seasons, Truex could have coasted to the win by staying in front and out of trouble the entire night. But because of the new format, Truex had to dash for two stage wins as well as the overall – and manage the cautions following each segment.
It is one thing to lead the pack on green-flag runs. It is another for a car to stay competitive through three stages. Consider the variables:
■ A driver can wear down his equipment sprinting for stage wins.
■ Competitors, once satisfied with staying in line under green, are now more eager to sniff for the front at the end of the stages.
■ Some drivers don’t click through the gears on post-stage restarts as well as others.
■ A car’s dynamics change at yellow-flag speeds, when tires cool off and water temperature goes down.
■ The usual pit-road decisions (how many tires to change, how much fuel to pump into the tank, whether to duck in for service at all) float around a crew chief’s mind.
These are choices that crew chiefs take the job to make.
“I love it,” said Brian Pattie, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s crew chief. “It’s allowed me to be more aggressive. It’s how I’m used to calling races. We also have more speed, so Ricky can bail us out if we make the wrong call. Fuel with the segments hasn’t really come into effect. Tires, on the other hand, at most tracks are worth it. It’s what Goodyear’s done with getting the tires to fall off and create passing moments. I love calling these races. It’s whatever it takes to get the car up front.”
Workflow has not changed during the week when teams set up their cars for the weekend. But stage racing has affected qualifying.
It’s always been hard to pass at NHMS. Even strong cars sometimes need double-digit laps to gain position. Now, with the yellow guaranteed to fly on Lap 75, performing well in qualifying has become even more critical.
Matt Kenseth won last September’s Loudon race. But Kenseth may not fare as well at Loudon because of the stages. In 34 appearances, Kenseth has never won the pole. His average starting position is 19th. The No. 20 Toyota, therefore, may not be one of the favorites to claim Sunday’s first stage.
“With the stages, you’ve got to start with good track position,” Pearn said. “Before, if you were a little bit behind qualifying-wise, you had all race to make it up. Now you have an opportunity to pay a penalty, so to speak, for not being good from the get-go.”
Kyle Larson was poised to enter the weekend as the points leader, but dropped to second in the NASCAR Cup standings after NASCAR docked him 35 points and suspended crew chief Chad Johnston for three races after an illegal rear brake cooling assembly was found in Larson’s second-place car from the race Saturday at Kentucky. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet has two wins, but is now 34 points behind Truex.
Truex could benefit even more from Larson’s penalty once the Chase starts. Truex has won three races. Truex has 13 stage wins to Larson’s three. As such, Truex has racked up 28 playoff points, 15 more than Larson.
“I think it’s definitely changed the strategy week to week,” Pearn said. “You can get points on the short run versus the long run. Typically with the way the stage lengths are, some lengths are on the shorter side, and some are on the longer side. So it’s definitely changed from track to track.”
Stage races have made things more complicated. But a good crew chief can have even more impact on an outcome. They are technical, even-tempered, engineering-focused problem solvers. They can handle two more wrinkles.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.