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Stage breaks returning 'remove strategy' for some NASCAR drivers

Stage breaks returned at NASCAR's road courses for the 2024 season. This ensured multiple restarts and passing opportunities early in each run, but it also removed some options.

"I think the stage breaks really take out all of the strategy in these races," Michael McDowell told media members Saturday at Sonoma.

"There are two options -- you flip the stage and you pit early and try to win the race, or you run the stage out and you score stage points. Those are the only two options that you have here."

McDowell, the winner of last season's road course race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, took advantage of the lack of cautions and restarts. He led 54 laps at Indy as the race ran caution-free for the final 77 laps.

McDowell and his team did not have to worry about stopping for fuel and tires before pit road closed at the end of each segment. They could just collect their points, keep racing, and then decide when to head to their pit stall.

McDowell won the first stage at Indy, finished second in the second, and won the race. This was pivotal as he secured a spot in the playoffs. McDowell also scored a race-high 19 stage points and locked up six playoff points.

With stage breaks returning for this season's road course races, McDowell knows what he must do -- he must make moves on the track that will set himself up to contend for the win during the final run to the checkered flag, even if he loses points.

McDowell is 24th in the Cup standings and is in a must-win situation to make the playoffs.

"That's what's unfortunate about the stage breaks being in is it really limits your options," McDowell said. "So, for us, we're trying to win the race, so with two to go we'll pit every stage and we'll put on four tires and try to put ourselves in position to win the race at the end.

"I'm sure there will be some guys that are running 10th or 15th and don't have a shot at winning the race and they'll try to score as many stage points as they can and salvage the day, but that's what's unfortunate about it. The best cars don't get the reward of those stage points with stage breaks."

McDowell will be in a difficult position early in Sunday's Cup race at Sonoma (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox). He will line up 12th, next to AJ Allmendinger. Both drivers will be solely focused on winning, albeit for different reasons.

McDowell needs a win to reach the playoffs. Allmendinger is full-time in Xfinity and is only hunting trophies with his Cup starts. Stage points do not matter to him.

These two road course winners will assuredly pit early to gain track position on the restarts and potentially chase the race win. The drivers ahead of them will likely have split decisions.

Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez, Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, and William Byron all have wins. They can focus on stage points.

Alex Bowman, Joey Logano, Ty Gibbs, Ross Chastain, and Ryan Blaney all are winless this season. Logano, in particular, is below the cutline. These drivers could try to pit early with McDowell and Allmendinger, especially if there is an opportunity to get back into the top 10 before the break.

"If it's like a typical road course, you flip the stages," Larson said before qualifying at Sonoma. "If you qualify well and are running up front, you can flip the stages and still get pretty good stage points. Maybe not the stage win, but you can still get good points throughout the day."