NASCAR hoped to create a race within the race when they established Stage points in 2017. It worked.
While winning the race is still paramount, points have become increasingly important – especially the bonus points that go to stage winners. That could be even more critical this year as unique winners continue to amass and cut down on the available positions in the Round of 16 to winless drivers.
It is important enough that each week, oddsmakers set a special line for who they believe will win each stage and for whether any driver will be capable of winning both stages and the race.
So far, no driver has been perfect in 2021. Three drivers this year have won both stages, but none of them have gone on to win that race. Before 2021, a driver won both stages of a Cup race and gone on to win the race 17 times. The feat was done twice in 2017 – the first time NASCAR implemented this strategy. Notably, Martin Truex Jr. had both of those sweeps.
In 2019 four drivers earned the sweep once each: Busch got his second career sweep at Auto Club, Truex earned his fifth sweep at Martinsville 2, while Brad Keselowski (Martinsville 1) and Chase Elliott (Watkins Glen) added their name to the list.
Last year, Hamlin and Harvick both swept twice to pad their totals.
Only six drivers have swept a race since 2017. Harvick has the most with six, Truex is a close second at five, Busch and Hamlin have two apiece, with Keselowski and Elliott scored one.
It is a feat that every driver in the field wants to accomplish.
Hamlin was able to sweep the two stages at Daytona and was in a good position to win the 500 until the last lap carnage. He was running fifth when the final caution waved to stop the race.
Far more frustrating were two of the last three races. Kyle Larson dominated Atlanta Motor Speedway in the QuikTrip 500, but Ryan Blaney managed his tires better and motored past in the closing laps. Blaney got a taste of his own medicine last week at Martinsville when he set himself up as the driver to beat – only to see the team beat themselves with a pit road penalty.
Drivers who won in 2021 after winning a stage: William Byron (Dixie Vodka 400); Larson (Pennzoil 400)
Why does this matter? Largely because winning stages is a sign of strength and needs to be factored into handicapping formulas.
Even though Larson did not sweep Las Vegas this year, his victory in the Pennzoil 400 was preceded by a Stage 2 win. William Byron won Stage 2 at Homestead in route to Victory Lane in the Dixie Vodka 400.
And for the most part, stage winners go on to finish extraordinarily well.
Hamlin’s stage sweep in Daytona preceded a fifth-place finish. The next week, he finished third after winning Stage 2 on the road course.
Keselowski won Stage 1 at Vegas and was second in Stage 2. He finished second in the race. Teammate Joey Logano finished second in Stage 1 and won Stage 2 at Phoenix before finishing in the runner-up position.
But perhaps the most notable pattern in regard to stage performance this week is that it mirrors the complexion of the race. In 2021 so far, nine drivers have won at least one stage out of a possible 18. That compares to seven unique winners in the first eight races.
Two of the drivers currently battling for the top spot in the Power Rankings have three stage wins apiece. Unsurprisingly Hamlin’s and Larson’s names have already been mentioned as stage dominators. Blaney is the other driver to win three stages.
Until drivers begin to amass multiple wins, this is one of the more important stats to consider when determining raw strength.