NASCAR’s new three-stage race format made its short-track debut on Sunday.
How NASCAR’s new three-stage format would impact racing has been seen on a super speedway, three intermediate ovals, and a short oval this season. But it wasn’t until Sunday at Martinsville Speedway that the structure was implemented on a short track, and what unfolded was exactly what officials, drivers, and everyone behind the concept envisioned.
There was hard racing, frayed nerves, angry tempers — all elements one would normally see on the half-mile track — but these elements were also amplified because of the intensity brought about by the awarding of points when the first two stages concluded on Lap 130 and 260 of the 500-lap race.
As Martin Truex Jr. sped across the start/finish to claim the top position (and earn himself 10 bonus points), behind him Clint Bowyer bulled his way underneath Ty Dillon, then bounced off Dillon’s car to grab the final bonus point awarded for finishing 10th.
That drivers would resort to such physicality all in the name of points that can be applied to their playoff total was precisely what NASCAR sought when it announced the restructured format during the offseason.
Instead of drivers racing cautiously and with little concern for their position during the early and middle portions of an event — especially those who already had a win and were effectively locked into the playoffs — officials wanted to see drivers give maximum effort for the entirety of a race and reward that performance accordingly.
The extremes drivers would go to at the close of a segment were on full display as the second stage neared its conclusion on Sunday. Not wanting to fall a lap behind, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. doggedly raced leader Kyle Busch, who aggressively tried to maneuver around Stenhouse’s No. 17 car and keep his lead over second-place Chase Elliott.
Stenhouse’s ferocity was such that even after Busch had passed him, he drove hard into Turn 3 on the last lap and popped Busch’s rear bumper, which pushed the race leader up the track. This allowed Stenhouse and Elliott to pass Busch, putting Stenhouse back on the lead lap and giving an Elliott an additional bonus point.
What ensued during the caution period between the second and third stages was Busch going on an explicit rant directed at Stenhouse: “F****** 17. What a f****** f*****,” Busch radioed to his Joe Gibbs Racing team.
Following the STP 500, a calmer Busch would state he had no issue with Stenhouse’s aggressiveness — provided Stenhouse accepted the fact he may be subject to similar hard driving somewhere down the road.
“When you’ve got the leader to your outside and you just keep banging him off the corner, that’s pretty disrespectful,” Busch said. “But do whatever you want. You know, it’s going to come back and bite you one of these days. You’ve just got to always remember race car drivers are like elephants; they remember everything.”
Busch would go on to finish behind race winner Brad Keselowski, while Stenhouse rallied to finish 10th.
“I actually was rolling into Turn 3 and was kind of going higher out of my way in order to let (Stenhouse) back by and give him the lap,” Busch said. “That was my intent, and then he just drove through me.
“I was trying to be a nice guy, but nice guys don’t finish first.”