After constant overhauls with the rules in recent years, NASCAR isn’t the same NASCAR as it was a few seasons ago. If you want to tune into the Daytona 500 on Sunday and start following the rest of the 2018 season, you may need a refresher course first. Welcome to class.
This year, there are fewer changes than in years past. We’ll get to those later. But we all kind of need the break to get used to how different the sport is now, so fewer changes are a good thing.
How Modern NASCAR Works
After a few years of trial and error, NASCAR seems to have finally decided how to run races: with stages, playoff points, a knockout championship format and overtime. Here’s what you should know.
How Individual Races Are Now Run
Each race across NASCAR’s top three series, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series, is now divided up into segments, or stages, as NASCAR likes to call them. NASCAR introduced them last season, along with a complicated new points system.
There are three stages in most races, with each of the first two being about a quarter of its length and the last stage being the last half. NASCAR changed that on the fly for its longest race last year, amking it into four quarters. That broke up a typically dull 600 miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of NASCAR’s cookie-cutter tracks.
The official stage lengths for NASCAR’s top-three national series are listed on its website, but here’s an example of how they’ll work in a few Cup Series races this year. This marks which lap a stage ends on, not how long it is:
The only events that don’t have stage lengths set yet are the Cup Series and Xfinity Series races at Charlotte this fall, since they’ll be run on its road course. Those race lengths haven’t been announced.
The end of each stage is basically a pre-planned caution, which brings the field back together for the next stage. Laps count during the caution, which can make a person feel robbed of racing since nothing happened to bring the yellow out.
But stage breaks aren’t just for bogus cautions. They’re for points.
The Points And Playoffs System In Modern NASCAR
NASCAR points have gotten several overhauls recently, as have the playoffs. (That’s a new name for NASCAR’s post-season run to decide champions, which was called the Chase.)
Now that the Cup Series, Xfinity Series and Truck Series all have regular seasons and postseasons, they work like this:
- Season breakdown: The Truck Series has 16 races in the regular season and seven in the playoffs. The Xfinity Series 26 races in the regular season and seven in the playoffs. The Cup Series has 26 races in the regular season and 10 in the playoffs.
- Postseason playoffs: Consists of three rounds of races in the Truck Series and Xfinity Series, and four rounds in the Cup Series. Drivers who win a race and aren’t “encumbered” in each round move on automatically. Eight Truck Series drivers qualify for the playoffs, 12 in the Xfinity Series and 16 in the Cup Series.
- First playoff round: Consists of three races for each series. At the end of the first round, the Truck Series playoff field goes from eight drivers to six, the Xfinity Series field goes from 12 to eight, and the Cup Series field goes from 16 to 12. Points get reset for remaining playoff drivers.
- Second playoff round: Consists of three races for each series. At the end of the first round, the Truck Series playoff field goes from six drivers to four, the Xfinity Series field goes from eight to four, and the Cup Series field goes from 12 to eight. Points get reset for remaining playoff drivers.
- Third playoff round: Consists of one race for the Xfinity and Truck Series at Homestead-Miami Speedway’s championship weekend, and three races for the Cup Series. In the Xfinity and Truck Series, the four drivers left have their points reset without any extra, and they race for the title in the season finale. The highest playoff finisher in the race wins. The Cup Series field goes from eight drivers to four at the end of its three races.
- Fourth playoff round: Only happens in the Cup Series. The four remaining drivers in the playoffs have their points reset without any extra, and they all race for the title at Homestead-Miami. The highest finisher wins.
Except for the season finale, the playoffs and rounds begin and end on different race weekends for each series. They end up at Homestead-Miami at the same time, but take different amounts of races and playoff rounds to get there.
Points in individual races go like this: At the end of each stage that doesn’t end the race, typically the first and second, drivers get points for where they finish. Only first through 10th positions get points before the end of the race, with the top stage finisher getting 10 points and a playoff point. Second gets nine regular points and no playoff points, third gets eight, down to 10th place.
When the race ends, the winner gets 40 regular and five playoff points. Second gets 35 regular points, third gets 34, and points count down with the finishing order. The 36th through 40th finishers get a regular point each.
A win that doesn’t get “disqualified” (NASCAR disqualifies without taking a trophy or finish away) puts a driver automatically into the playoffs. The other spots are decided by points. When the regular season ends and playoff drivers’ points are reset, regular-season wins and playoff points add to the total.
The only time points don’t matter is the final race, since highest finisher wins. A guide to what happens to regular and playoff points as drivers advance through and get eliminated from the playoffs can be found here.
NASCAR Overtime And Rules For Damaged Race Cars
In place of its old green-white-checkered finish, NASCAR changed the phrasing and how it carries out races that go past their scheduled distance in an effort to more closely associate itself with ball sports: overtime.
NASCAR tries, in general, to keep races from ending under caution. That’s what overtime is for.
Basically, if a caution comes out before the white flag flies for the first time in a race to signal the last lap, NASCAR will add laps to the race distance in an effort to clean up the caution and end it under green. That’s when overtime starts.
Overtime means once a race goes past its scheduled distance, drivers restart. Once the leader reaches the overtime line, any caution ends the race. NASCAR changed overtime for the better in 2017, moving the overtime line from the backstretch to the start-finish line.
NASCAR also introduced a time clock limiting how long teams have to repair cars on pit road in 2017, which will get a couple of tweaks this year. Teams had five minutes to repair a car to the point that it could make a track’s minimum speed in 2017, and if they didn’t, they were done. NASCAR’s increased the limit to six minutes this year after taking away an over-the-wall crew member.
Those rules also say if a car goes to the garage for wreckage, it can’t come out.
The Playoffs And The Hangups They Create
The playoffs were straightforward a few years ago: Top points drivers advanced into the Chase, there was a points reset, then the Chase driver who got the most points in those 10 races won.
That’s not the case anymore, and NASCAR went under such an overhaul that it created potential for problems under this current set of rules.
If, for example, a wreck collects all of the championship contenders left in the Homestead race, the title winner has to be decided based on a wreck.
If that happens before the final lap, NASCAR told Jalopnik last year, the champion would be decided by the order the cars crossed the finish line on the last completed lap. On the last lap, the leader at the time of the caution would win.
There’s also the case of title contenders being ruled “encumbered” in post-race inspection: An encumbered finish in a race means points benefits don’t count, but one in the final race would mean the championship title wouldn’t count.
(NASCAR got rid of “encumbered” this year, probably because it sounds like “cucumber,” but didn’t replace it. It’s hard to refer to an encumbered finish without “encumbered,” though.)
NASCAR told Jalopnik it would take a title away from an encumbered driver at Homestead, but that it talks with contending teams beforehand so they know the consequences of cheating. NASCAR also has extra inspections before Homestead to avoid encumbering. There’s more information on this here.
New Changes For This Year
In addition to its first-ever road course to the playoffs and some other minor schedule changes, there are a few new rules for 2018. They’re more obscure and far less drastic than in recent years.
New Limits To Engine Use
NASCAR Cup Series teams won’t just get to use all of the engines they want—or can afford—this season. The sanctioning body made a rule late last year that most of the engines a car uses will have to be used again.
The new rule is that teams have to use 13 engines for at least two races this year. NASCAR’s high-horsepower V8s aren’t supposed to last 200,000 miles like a commuter Toyota, and 1,000 miles of race wear is a lot.
The rule is good for the lower funded teams, which would probably run engines again anyway, but bad for teams that can afford to swap after every race. If a team has to change an engine during a race weekend, the car will start at the back of the field.
Using 13 engines at least twice adds up to 26 of the 36 races, meaning teams get 10 races at most with single-use engines. Conveniently, the playoffs are 10 races long. That’s big from a strategy perspective for top teams—having an engine blow in the playoffs isn’t ideal.
There’s also the impact it could have on celebratory burnouts at the end of a race. Filling an entire frontstretch of a race track with smoke from the engine isn’t exactly a light task on that engine, especially if it has to be reused.
Fewer Crew Members Over The Wall And A Standardized Pit Gun
NASCAR took away one over-the-wall crew member for this season, cutting the team that hops over the wall from six to five. NASCAR said it was a move to cut costs and increase safety by having fewer people on pit road.
That’ll slow crews down, as will standardized pit equipment. With some teams getting major advantages from special guns to change tires, NASCAR decided to cut that out and provide equipment with a “monitoring system to detect and deter any tampering.”
NASCAR teams are great at tampering with stuff for an advantage.
The equipment will include standardized air wrenches, air hoses, regulators and control boxes, and NASCAR will pass it out and re-collect it each weekend. This same kind of procedure is used for restrictor plates, which NASCAR gives teams at the start of a weekend and takes back at the end.
You probably need to do some re-collecting right about now, too—re-collecting of your brain after trying to absorb all of these strange new racing rules.
Go ahead, it’s totally normal.