NASCAR reinstates stage cautions at road courses ahead of Charlotte playoff race

NASCAR's move to ditch stage breaks at road courses lasted less than a season

NASCAR’s move to get rid of pre-planned stage cautions at road courses didn’t make it the entirety of the 2023 season.

The sanctioning body announced Tuesday morning that the Oct. 8 Cup Series playoff race at the Charlotte roval would feature cautions at the conclusion of the first two stages. The move comes as some road course races in the Cup Series have featured very few caution flags compared to other races this season.

The decision to get rid of stage breaks at road courses was made to foster varying pit strategies. With two pre-planned cautions in each race, teams were generally on the same fuel and tire strategies. The lack of stage breaks allowed for variation in strategies as teams can pit under green at road courses without losing a lap.

But that strategy variation came with a significant caution reduction at Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Indianapolis. While the first road course race of the season at Circuit of the Americas had eight cautions and the rain-plagued race at Chicago had nine as drivers navigated a new track amid tricky conditions, the other three road course races featured a combined four cautions. The Sonoma race had two and the races at Watkins Glen and the Indianapolis road course had one each.

The lack of cautions can’t totally be attributable to the absence of stage breaks, however. The current Cup Series car was introduced in 2022 and is much easier to drive on road courses than its predecessor. It also produces racing that is far, far worse. Drivers are unable to follow each other closely on road courses because of the aerodynamic effects on the cars and passing is much more difficult than it had been because of the car’s better handling. In 2016, the last Cup Series season before stages were implemented in 2017, races at Sonoma (four) and Watkins Glen (eight) featured a combined 12 cautions.

CONCORD, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 09: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on October 09, 2022 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Christopher Bell won the 2022 race at the Charlotte roval. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

NASCAR is putting a finger on the scale (again)

NASCAR’s decision to change its rules during the season isn’t anything new. The sanctioning body is no stranger to midseason rule changes.

But changing this rule with less than a season’s worth of data and with one road course race to go in 2023 is extremely short-sighted and looks incredibly manipulative. It’s impossible to view the announcement by NASCAR as anything other than the sanctioning body’s desire to have more caution flags and the restarts that follow them at Charlotte.

It also reeks that NASCAR is making this change for its only road course race of the playoffs. The race at the Charlotte roval is the final race of the second round of the playoffs. Four drivers will be eliminated from the postseason as eight will move on to the third round. By reinstating stage cautions, NASCAR sure looks like it’s wanting more crashes for playoff drama.

Will those crashes happen? That’s not a guarantee, thanks to the new car. After the first four roval races had 36 cautions combined, the 2022 race had just four. Two were for stage breaks and two others were for debris as drivers found it difficult to pass. And given what we’ve seen so far this season at road courses, it’s not going to be any easier to pass in October than it was a season ago.