NASCAR’s stage racing shuffles point standings

Updated March 7, 2017 - 9:10 pm

He is called “Happy,” mostly because when something untoward on the racetrack happens to 2014 NASCAR Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, he usually is anything but happy.

Harvick was penalized for speeding on pit road with 11 laps to go in Sunday’s race at Atlanta, costing him a sure victory. But he barely bristled during a postrace interview.

Could NASCAR’s new point system have something do with Happy Harvick’s calm demeanor?

Despite finishing ninth at Atlanta and 22nd at the season-opening Daytona 500, Harvick is leading in championship points heading into Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

To paraphrase Darrell Waltrip in the TV booth: “Boogity, boogity, boogity! Let’s go stage racing, boys!”

With attendance and TV ratings flagging and sponsors pulling out, NASCAR made myriad changes during the short offseason, hoping to spark renewed interest in the Cup Series. The addition of new title sponsor Monster Energy notwithstanding, the biggest of these was another overhaul to the system for deciding championships in NASCAR’s three touring divisions.

It’s called stage racing, and this is how NASCAR describes it:

Under the new format, races will consist of three stages, with championship implications in each stage. The top-10 finishers in each stage will be awarded additional championship points. The winner of the first two stages of each race will receive one playoff point, and the race winner will receive five playoff points. Each playoff point will be added to a driver’s reset total following the 26th race, if that competitor makes the playoffs …”

Got all that?

With championship points on the line early in races instead of just at the end, the hope was that drivers would race more aggressively to claim them, and that this would make long races more exciting and might even lead to NASCAR cultivating a new, younger fan base.

After two races, it’s premature to assess the system, other than to say the standings look much different from before. But what was a fascinating — if somewhat befuddling — variance in the season-opening Daytona 500 seemed more of an afterthought at Atlanta.

Brad Keselowski, who inherited the victory when Harvick was penalized, was asked 16 questions before somebody mentioned the new format during his postrace news conference.

This is what Kasey Kahne said after the Xfinity Series race at Daytona: “I saw a lot of guys pitting maybe 10 laps or six laps before that first stage to try to gain for maybe the next stage. It was interesting, a little bit of strategy.

“As far as the racing, I didn’t feel like it was a whole lot different.”

There were more crashes than usual at Daytona, but most were not attributable to the new system. Kyle Busch, the 2015 Cup Series champion from Las Vegas, posted a cartoon on his Twitter account showing two sailors shoveling cash into a flaming furnace.

“We need to improve something,” Busch said when the changes were announced. “But … we’ve made so many changes over the years. It’s not made a difference, so why keep going?”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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