The NASCAR Playoffs and Preordination

Preordination (n): The action of determining an outcome or course of action in advance; The fact of being determined in advance.

The Oxford Living Dictionary

You’d think with my interest in data that I’d be the type of person who loved brackets, right? While scientists usually have some idea of how an experiment might turn out, it’s also trained into us that we should never be hoping for, let alone rooting for, any particular outcome. There’s a certain degree of impartiality necessary to ensure you aren’t unconsciously affecting the results.

Not that anything I do will change the results of the upcoming playoffs. but I’m happy to let others battle while I sit back and watch.

The History of Playoffs

We’re on our fifth format for the ‘post-season’ since the idea of splitting the seasons into a 26-race ‘regular season’ and a 10-race ‘Chase’ (which then became a ‘playoff’ was introduced in 2004. 

  • 2004-2006: All top-ten drivers and anyone else within 400 points of the leader get into The Chase
  • 2007-2010: Top 12 drivers get in
  • 2011-2013: Top 10 drivers + 2 Wild Cards determined by most wins in the drivers ranked 11th-20th
  • 2014-2016: Top 16 drivers get in, based on wins and then on points. Elimination format introduced. Re-named ‘NASCAR Playoffs’
  • 2017: With the introduction of stage, also introduced playoff points

NASCAR’s changes have all been aimed at making the end of the season more exciting for fans. The problem for me is that the constant changes also make comparing data from different years more challenging. This blog will cover 2011-2017 and 2018 through the first 26 races.

Even with all those changes: eliminations, stages, playoff points… some fans are complaining this year that the playoffs are going to be boring because there are really only three contenders for the title.

Is 2018 Really “The Year of the Big Three”?

I argued before that perhaps it’s really only the ‘Big Two’ — and that was before Furniture Row announced it was shutting it’s doors at the end of this season.

Although Kyle Busch, Harvick and Truex, Jr. have won 17 out of 26 races (65%), Harvick and Busch have won 13/26 or 50% of all races run thus far. They also have 35 (Harvick) and 40 (Busch) playoff points.

The 2013 season was one of the least eventful Many fans seem to be expecting something like 2013 and what was then called ‘The Chase’. The top four top drivers won  21/36 races (58%) and the top two won 13/36 (a little more than 1/3) of the races.

So should we go ahead and write off everyone besides, maybe, the top 5? Let’s look at history.

Let’s start by looking at where winners come from over the last six years. The table below shows the position that the eventual 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th-place drivers were seeded in at the start of the last ten races. 

The first column shows that the furthest back a driver has started and then won the championship was when Tony Stewart came from 11th in 2011. The furthest anyone’s come to finish in the top four was in 2014 when Ryan Newman came from 16th to finish 2nd.

Final Position 1 2 3 4
2011 11 5 2 4
2012 2 5 3 9
2013 3 1 4 2
2014 6 16 10 5
2015 2 7 13 11
2016 8 11 2 6
2017 1 3 6 4

But tables aren’t always the most useful way of trying to see races. Let’s start with 2013 and look at how the top-four ranked drivers going into the last ten races of the season fared.

How the top four going into 2013 playoffs fared

Not so interesting, huh? They basically just traded positions: 1=>2; 2=>4; 3=>1 and 4=>3. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any excitement, because other drivers’ fortune rose and fell. Here’s another way of looking at it, showing all of the top 16 drivers that year (since we have 16 drivers now.)

The movement was small at the high end and the low end (although only the top 13 were eligible for the championship that year). But a couple people made some big moves: Edwards dropped from 5th to 13th while Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went from 12th to 5th.

The Impact of Playoff Format Changes

I think this is what a lot of people are expecting this year, but let’s remember that 2013 was before the elimination format began. Yes, I know Ky Busch and Harvick have a lot of playoff points; however, there are plenty of examples of people having two bad races in one round of the playoffs. And this year, the first round ends on the Charlotte Roval. All it takes is a broken part or blow motor and getting caught up in someone else’s accident and you can find yourself on the outside looking in.

To see that, you need look no further than last year. Sure, Martin Truex, Jr. dominated, but Kyle Larson was second coming into the playoffs. This graph shows the fortune of the top four drivers going into to playoffs.

The other three out of the top four stayed in the top four, but Mr. Larson found himself out of the running after 32 races and ended the season in 8th place.

Being in the top 4 going in doesn’t mean you end the season on a high note. In 2016, only one of the top four seeds (Ky Busch) finished in the top four. 

The other three finished 12th, 3rd, 6th and 8th, with the regular-season winner (Keselowksi) losing 11 spots.

So where did the winners come from? 

The season champion (Jimmie Johnson) was seeded 8th at the start of the championship run; second place (Logano) start out in 11th place.

In 2014, all the eventual final four started outside the top four. Ryan Newman just eeked his way into the playoffs in 16th place and finished the season in 2nd place. That was also the year in which Joey Logano went into Homestead in first place, but a sixteeth-place finish left him coming out fourth. 

None of the top four seeds coming into the playoffs finished in the top four.

There were a lot of changing positions that year.

A number of the pundits have chosen to only go with two out of the big three. Some argue that the closing of Furniture Row is going to loom large over the team and they won’t make it to Homestead, while others argue that the closing just gives them extra impetus to finish out winners.

Winning Isn’t Everything

NASCAR has bent (the rules) backward to emphasize winning, but recent history is still full of people who won a lot of races not finishing well. Here’s a plot of 2016 and the total season wins vs. finishing position. The series champion (Kyle Busch, who missed part of the season after a bad crash at Daytona) won 5 races. Four other drivers each won four.

The guy who won six races finished out of the top four and someone who’d won no races came in second, ahead of the guy who won five races — the same number as the year’s champion, Kevin Harvick. You see the same thing in every other year that we’ve had the elimination format with the exception of last year.

In 2017, the driver with the most wins took the championship and the driver with the second-most number of wins was second. But there are still anomalies, like Chase Elliott coming in fifth with no wins.

Past Performance Doesn’t Predict…

Just as in the financial world, things can change quickly in NASCAR. I mentioned this in reference to the number of discrete winners. Incidentally, we’re up to ten winners, which is low, but we’ve seen it before. And the winds of change switch direction without much notice.

  • Four out of the last five races were won by non-Big Three drivers, including three of the last three, none of which were the exceptions of road courses or plate tracks. 
  • I made the argument before that the Big Three were so dominant because of an absence of solid competition — and this happens every time we have one manufacturer experience issues that transcend a single driver. Not to say that the Big Three aren’t among the best drivers, but if Chevy hadn’t had problems this year, I think we’d be talking about them as three of five or six drivers we were talking about as contenders. 
  • As I mentioned earlier, the tracks have been switched around, including the introduction of a track (the Charlotte Roval) that no one’s ever raced before.
  • Chevy seems to be making much slower progress than I’d expected, but I’d still be very surprised if Kyle Larson doesn’t win at least one of the next ten races. A couple of the ESPN pundits have even picked Larson as the champion.
  • I’d also be surprised (slightly less surprised) if Jimmie Johnson doesn’t win a race. He’s got 16 seasons with at least 2 wins — and that’s out of the last 16 seasons.
  • Denny Hamlin hasn’t had a single season in 12 years in which he hasn’t won at least one race.
  • And finally, I’d take a battle between three drivers than one dominant driver who stayed in first place for the entire playoffs. (Hello, 2017!).

Here’s the one thing that does seem to be fairly consistent. A driver who gets into the playoffs with one win at either a restrictor-plate track or a road-course hasn’t made it past the second round in previous years.  That doesn’t bode well for the Austin Dillon, Joey Logano, Erik Jones or Chase Elliott.

Luck

There’s a noticeable change in 2014, the year of the first elimination playoffs. In years before, there were at least weak correlations between things like top fives and top tens and where you finished in the end.

With the exception of 2017, the top 10 and top 5 plots vs. finishing position are much more random. The introduction of elimination brackets means that drivers without playoff point cushions can end their season with one bad race. Even with a good cushion, two bad races in the same bracket can mean the end of your hopes for this year.

Indianapolis showed us exactly how much of an impact weather can have on a race. Sure, the drivers can run without practice, but the car needs at least a few laps to make sure nothing’s wrong — like a brake problem. If something’s majorly wrong with the car, it’s probably going to break in the first twenty laps — which means that, had there been practice, it would have broken there and not during the race.

And let’s not forget that abbreviated races often have unexpected winners — often the guys who are willing to take chances, who are smart enough to put themselves in the right position and lucky enough to be there when the rain ends the race. 

The Human Variable

And, of course, there is always the biggest variable in racing: people. That starts with us. Martin Truex, Jr. dominated last year’s playoffs, but a lot of people were pulling for him. He’s one of those drivers who gets the ‘if-my-guy-can’t-win, I-wouldn’t-mind-if-he-did’ vote. Imagine what we’d be saying if that had been Kyle Busch.

In fact, you have to believe that some of the grumbling about domination this year is because one of the dominators is Kyle Busch and people just like to gripe about him.

But, although fans may determine the conversation around the race, they don’t determine the race. That’s the job of the humans on the track and the pit box. 

We’ve mentioned before how important the crew chief-driver relationship is. That relationship is getting strained in some teams that are used to winning and haven’t won this year. You can hear it on the radio and in how they talk about each other.

Martin Truex, Jr.’s chances could be better or worse given the impending shut down of the team. If the team members (especially the pit crew) are worrying about feeding their families (remember that they are all located in Denver), they may not be on their top game. On the other hand, the desire to go out on a positive, to win one that Barney Visser can be there to celebrate, may motivate everyone just a little more.

And then there’s the things that no one could have predicted.

If, in the middle of the 2015 season, I’d asked you which driver you’d put money on to purposely wreck someone to keep them out of the championship competition, I bet Matt Kenseth would’ve been pretty far down on that list. 

I hope we’re past the point where any driver would think about purposely spinning or giving up a position to aid a teammate, but it’s not out of the question.

So What Can We Predict?

I decided to plot top fives and top 10’s a different way because I was curious if there was anything to be learned by how many of the top 10s were actually top 5s.

Historically, the lowest number of top 5s anyone’s had and still made the final four is five. The lowest number of top 5s the winner has had in the previous six years is nine. That’s for the entire year and we’ve only run 26 races, but right now, the leaders have 15-19 top fives.

Dillon, Johnson and Bowman all have only two top fives and Almirola one. Kurt Busch has four. So history isn’t betting on those guys to make the final four, much less win the championship.

Truex, Jr. has either top 5s or mostly well out of the top ten. Five out of the eleven non top-5s were 25th or worse. He’s only had one top five in the last six races. That’s a worry given the current elimination format.

Beyond that, I think it’s a function of too many variables to make a prediction: the driver and his team, Mother Nature and Lady Luck all have a role to play. The only prediction I’ll make is that I bet we’re all surprised at least once during the next 10 races. 

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