Stage Wins and Starting Positions

Is it impossible to get stage wins if you start at the back of the field? A few drivers think so. Are they right?s. Are they right?

Stages

NASCAR instituted stages in 2017, and awarded points at depending on where you were running when the stage ended. Stage lengths are mostly 25%,25%, 50%, although they’ve changed over the years to factor in fuel-run lengths.

I’m writing this after the 28th race of 2021. There have been 349 stage wins in NASCAR: 344 from stages one and two and five from the Coca Cola 600, which is the only race with three stages.

Who Wins Stages?

Let’s look first at which drivers have been most successful at winning stages. I’ve included the number of races each driver ran over the time period at the top of their bar

Stage wins shown in a vertical stacked bar graph, separated according to stage 1, stage 2 or stage 3.
  • Martin Truex, Jr. leads all drivers in stage wins with 48
    • (That’s 25 Stage 1 wins, 22 Stage 2 wins and 1 Stage 3 win.)
    • MTJ accounts for 13.8% of all stage wins.
  • Kyle Busch is second with 40 stage wins (22/17/1)
  • Together, these two drivers account for over a quarter of all stage wins
  • The top five drivers account for more than 50% of all stage wins.
  • There’s a steep falloff from Ryan Blaney to Kurt Busch.
    • The top 10 drivers (MTJ through Blaney) have won 83% of all stages
    • Among the top 10, only Hamlin and Larson are not Cup champions; the other 8 drivers are
    • Four of those drivers are the four most recent Cup champions (i.e. the ones winning with stages rules)

One other thing to point out here: Kyle Larson has run 32 fewer races than everyone else in the top 10 and he’s still 5th highest in number of stage wins.

Multiple Stage Wins

Out of 172 races…

  • One driver has won both Stage 1 AND Stage 2 52 times (about 30%)
  • Two drivers have won all three stages of the Coca Cola 600 (2/5=40%)
    • Kyle Larson
    • Kyle Busch

Where Do Stage Winners Start?

Sticking with just winners for the moment, let’s look at where winning drivers started the race.

Stage point wins in a vertical stacked bar chart from 2017-2021

I know you’re looking at that 44th position bar because there isn’t such a things as a P44 starting spot. Hold that thought a moment: I’ll explain. But first…

Stage 1 Winners

Out of 172 stage 1 wins:

  • 31 started P1 (18%)
  • 20 started P2 (17.4%)
  • 25 started P3 (14.5%)

In other words, the top three starting positions account for 50% of stage 1 wins.

But you’d expect that, right? The fastest cars start up front. And once you’re racing, good handling or clever pit strategy can make up for a few hundredths of a second per lap in raw speed.

The likelihood of winning stage 1 goes down the further back you get.


NOTE: You’ve probably already noticed that fewer drivers win from P5 than either P4 or P6. Don’t read anything into that! By the time we’re down to P4, P5 and beyond, we’re talking about much smaller numbers of data points (8 for P5 relative to 31 in P1). The difference between 31 and 8 is significant. In a data set this size, the difference between 8 and 11 is NOT.

There is nothing magic about P5. You can’t make those kinds of conclusions without a lot more data. Similarly, nothing magic about P18 or P21 either. We’re just down in the noise at this point.


Stage Wins in Stage 2 vs Stage 1

Interestingly, the pole sitter isn’t as likely to win Stage 2 as the driver who starts in P2 or P3.

  • Only 8.1% of Stage 2 wins were by the polesitter
  • Drivers starting in P2 and P3 each had about 12.5% of all Stage 2 wins.
  • Those first three positions account for 33% of all Stage 2 wins

So starting position has a much bigger impact on Stage 1 wins than on Stage 2 wins. But the better cars — the ones that generally start up front — are much more likely to win stages in general.

But what about when a strong car gets sent to the back?

To The Back

That’s what P44 represents: drivers who incurred penalties that resulted in being sent to the back. The bar represents nine drivers who qualified well, started in the back, but managed to win a stage anyway.

And the most interesting thing about that bar is that only one of those drivers managed to win a Stage 1. I know it’s a small number of data points, but an 8:1 ratio tells us that even the best cars struggle to get back to the front by the end of stage 1.

That means that the ‘to-the-back’ penalty has a real impact — it definitely can affect a driver’s playoff success.

The drivers who made it from last to stage-2 winner are:

  • Larson (2018-12/Kansas)
  • Truex, Jr. (2019-11/Dover)
  • Elliott (2019-12/Kansas)
  • Johnson (2019-21/Pocono)
  • Kyle Busch (2019-23/Michigan and 2020-29/Bristol)
  • Hamlin (2020-1/Daytona)
  • Bubba Wallace (2021-10/Talladega)
  • 50% of these cases happened in 2019.
  • 12.5% in 2018 and 2021
  • 25% in 2020.

And the one driver who managed to get a Stage-1 win starting at the rear? I expected it to be Kyle Larson, but it wasn’t. It was Martin Truex, Jr. in 2019-23/Michigan.

Who Got Sent to the Back the Most?

The graph below shows which drivers had the most to-the-back penalties. To be fair, let’s remember that to-the-back penalties are often not the driver’s fault. Most to-the-back penalties are failing inspection or unapproved adjustments. The only time you can really blame the driver is if they miss the driver’s meeting, or they crash in practice or qualifying.

But anyway…

A vertical bar chart showing which drivers were sent to the back most frequently from 2017-2021

One would expect less-funded teams to incur more of these penalties. They don’t have the person-power or the equipment the larger teams have, plus they are much more likely to switch drivers. But the names at the top are a mix of drivers for big teams and smaller teams.

Denny Hamlin is number two, Kyle Larson is number five and MTJ is number six. So before we praise these drivers for going from last to winning a stage, let’s also note that they had more opportunities to do so. The fact that they succeeded so rarely makes you wonder how many points they’ve given up because of penalties.

Is Winning Stages Easier From the Back at Some Tracks?

We’ve got some clues from our worst-to-first drivers, but only nine data points. So let’s look at those drivers who win stages starting from outside the top 10.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing the tracks at which drivers who started P11 or worse managed to win stages
NOTE: This graph does NOT include drivers who qualified well, but were sent to the back. It only includes drivers who qualified P11 or worse.

Unsurprisingly, Daytona and Talladega are at the top. To put these numbers in perspective, there have been 18 stages at Daytona and 17 at Talladega thus far.

  • Almost two-thirds of stage wins at Daytona were by drivers who started out of the top 10.
  • Almost half (47%) of the stage wins at Talladega came from drivers starting P11 and beyond.

This is one more piece of evidence for why qualifying at these tracks is mostly pointless. If NASCAR is going to cut qualifying anywhere, these two tracks are the places to do it. Heat races make much more sense given the role of drafting in racing at superspeedways.

It’s probably also not too surprising that longer tracks are more likely places for drivers to move up in the field: there is simply more time in which to do it. But fear not, because it’s possible to do at Bristol, as well!

What About Stage Points?

Stage wins are always the goal, but what about stage points? The data is a little messy, but overall, it indicates a pretty strong correlation between starting position and first-stage points, and a weaker correlation between starting position and second-stage points.

Below, I show a plot of Stage 1 points vs. Starting Position. The size of the circle indicate the number of drivers who started at that starting position and earned that many stage 1 points. You can see from this chart (2021 data only) that the top 10 starters have a much higher chance of earning stage 1 points than those out of the top 10. The further out you go in starting position, the less likely you are to get a lot of Stage 1 points.

These graphs look pretty much the same for all years considered.

Conclusion

There’s a clear correlation between starting position and getting stage points; however, nothing is guaranteed. A fair number of drivers who start on the pole earn zero Stage 1 points, but this year, most have earned at least 6 points.

It’s not impossible to be sent from the back, but still win some stage points. But it’s a much larger challenge to earn Stage 1 points versus Stage 2 points. And it’s much easier to win stages from the back on longer tracks, where you have lots of time to weave your way through the traffic.

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