Stages jumble up strategy throughout Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — NASCAR’s new stage format was evident very early in Sunday’s Daytona 500 when the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing hit pit road on Lap 18.

NASCAR is dividing all of its races into three segments in 2017. The segments for the Daytona 500 were 60, 60 and 80 laps respectively. The idea with the segments – which award points – is to incentivize drivers to race harder in the early parts of races and give Fox and NBC time to show commercials without missing any action.

[Related: Kurt Busch wins Daytona 500]

With teams able to go more than 40 laps on a tank of fuel at the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, there was no reason to pit so early barring a problem in the 2016 Daytona 500. But this year, it was advantageous. At least for Kyle Busch.

Because of the known caution on Lap 60, the Toyota teams wanted to be the first cars on pit road. Pitting on Lap 18 allowed them to make it to the end of the first segment on fuel and, potentially, stay on the lead lap at one of the biggest tracks in NASCAR.

While Toyota’s idea might have been sound, most of the execution wasn’t. Erik Jones and Matt Kenseth had slow pit stops, while Daniel Suarez sped on pit road and also had a tire problem.

“I flat spotted the tire coming onto pit road the first time, just didn’t compensate enough for some of the adjustments we made and I got under it a little too hot,” Kenseth said. “Then it was just a weird day because of the segments and how everybody would pit off cycle, but we had ourself in a good position to maybe have a shot at that second segment and finally get back on the lead lap.”

The strategy worked out for Busch, however. He won the first stage, which ended with a green-and-white checkered flag waved from the flagstand. After a break for commercials and a chance for teams to make pit stops under caution, the race resumed on Lap 68.

“Weird” is a good way to describe it if you’re a traditionalist. With teams trying multiple strategies to be in the top 10 at the end of a segment to score points, multiple packs formed across Daytona. And, at times, the leader of the race wasn’t even at the head of his own group. Instead of playing for Lap 200, teams were racing to Lap 60 and 120 while also keeping their eyes on the Harley J. Earl trophy.

“I thought the stages were good actually and added a nice little element to the race,” Brad Keselowski said. “I didn’t notice guys being any more aggressive than usual.”

And while the stages might have made for some confusing racing at Daytona, don’t look for the stage format to jumble up the field nearly as much at Atlanta and Las Vegas, the next two tracks on the schedule. Or during 75 percent of the season for that matter.

Laps around each of those two tracks take approximately 30 seconds; not enough time for a driver to hit pit road for a pit stop and not lose a lap. While teams at the back of the field may try some varying strategies, you’re not going to see cars at the front of the field voluntarily lose a lap to try to gain segment points.

But at Daytona, Indianapolis, Pocono and Talladega, along with the two road courses at Sonoma and Watkins Glen, what you saw on Sunday may be the new normal. If you were entertained, then NASCAR is quite happy. If you weren’t, well the sanctioning body sure hopes you warm up to it.

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of From The Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!