Will Unexpected Winners Change the NASCAR Playoffs?

The 2021 season started out with two first-time winners and two winners that didn’t come from the usual suspects list. How will these unexpected winners change the NASCAR Playoffs?

Unexpected Winners

Nine times out of ten, the Daytona 500 is won by one of the top drivers. This was the rare exception.

But this is the first year we’ve followed up a superspeedway with a road coarse — which are also places where we can have unexpected winners. Given that the winner was Christopher Bell. Even with middle-tier equipment, he finished 20th last year. Given Gibbs equipment, is his winning really that unexpected?

William Byron got his third win and Kyle Larson his seventh win. Most people would’ve predicted both of those drivers would win a race this year. They happened to do it off the bat, which got people’s notice.

So with the exception of McDowell, I’d argue that our winners this year so far aren’t really THAT unexpected. But let’s just say for the sake of argument they are. And I will give you that none of the top thirteen drivers from last year have won four races into the season.

Four Races In

Every year I have to point out that you cannot extrapolate an entire season based on four data points. Let’s consider 2015. After the fourth race, the top 4 were Harvick, Logano, Johnson, Truex, Jr. AJ Allmendinger was ranked 6th. Kyle Busch wasn’t even running races, yet he came back and won the championship that year. And A.J. Allmendinger finished in 22nd place.

A scatter plot of AJ Allmendinger's rank vs. race number in 2015, showing how much numbers can change in the first weeks of the season

Want something more recent? Let’s look at Brad Keselowski’s rank vs. race number for 2020 and what we know so far in 2021.

A scatter plot of Brad Keselowski's rank vs. race number in 2020 and what little we've had of 2021, showing how much numbers can change in the first weeks of the season

Variations in anything NASCAR are huge over the first five to seven races. Anyone trying to draw conclusions already is guessing. The same thing with your fantasy leagues, baseball… So stop already.

Shaking Up the Championship Race

Let’s start with this: there are 21 more races to go. In order to get into the championships, you only have to win one. Elliott, Logano, Harvick, Keselowski and Hamlin may be frustrated, but they are not shaking in their boots.

In fact, I’d argue it can turn out better for some drivers to have a lot of winners. That means the other drivers don’t have huge cushions of playoff points.

But let’s look at who does well in the Playoffs and see if any of the four can be considered a threat. Let’s see if we can tell what usually happens to ‘unexpected winners’.

Who Gets In The Playoffs

I looked at playoffs from 2017-2020, which is all the data we have from the stage racing era. The plot below shows the number of win the 60 drivers who made the playoffs in those four years had.

A pie chart showing how many wins drivers have coming into the playoffs
  • 62.4% of drivers in the playoffs got there with one or no win.
    • It’s equally split between one and zero.
    • This accounts for 40 out of the 64 drivers.
  • 15.6% of the drivers had two wins
  • The other 21.8% had three or more wins

What happened to these drivers? To find out, I plotted the number of wins coming into the playoffs vs. the best round made.

A scatter plot where the area of dot reflects the number of drivers. This shows how drivers coming in with different numbers of wins did in the playoffs
  • No driver who pointed his way into the playoffs has ever made it to the final four.
    • 25% are eliminated in the first round
    • 50% are eliminated in the second round
    • The last 25% get to the group of eight
    • Those drivers that survived usually had to win
  • Only two drivers who made the playoffs with one win made it to the final four
    • Kevin Harvick in 2017
    • Joey Logano in 2018
  • Of the rest of drivers who make the playoffs with one win:
    • 55% of drivers with one win are eliminated in the first cutoff
    • 10% are taken by the second cutoff
    • 25% are cut after the group of eight
  • If you make the playoffs with two or more wins, you will (barring something extraordinary) make it to at least the round of 12.
  • But even having a lot of wins doesn’t guarantee that you will make the final four. (See: Kevin Harvick in 2020.)

Note that I’m only going to the final four because that last race makes everything a toss-up between the drivers involved.

Does It Matter Where You Win?

Ten of our 60 drivers (16.7%) entered the playoffs having won only at superspeedways and/or road courses. Most of these drivers won only one race; two drivers won two races. Here’s how they fared in the playoffs.

A pie chart showing that 50% of the drivers who get into the playoffs having only won road courses and/or superspeedway races don't make it out of the top 16.
  • Only 2 (Logano and Harvick, who we’ve mentioned before) made it to the Round of 4.
  • 2 drivers (actually, Chase Elliott in two different years) made it to the Round of 8. In 2019, Chase Elliott came in with two wins.
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. with two superspeedway wins in 2017, made it to the Round of 12. He finished the year in 13th, his best career finish. He hasn’t finished better than 18th with the exception of 2017
  • Fifty percent of them didn’t last past the first cutoff.

What differentiates the lower 50% from the upper?

Correlation with Rankings

I will tell you first that rankings are a pain because NASCAR treats the top 16 differently and the numbers are different for playoff ranking vs. pure ranking. In order to avoid some of those pitfalls, I’m using the ranking going into the final race because it seems most reliable.

A scatter plot correlation rankings coming into to the playoffs with the best round achieved.
  • A good ranking going into the playoffs doesn’t protect you from the first cut. (This is where we need a 3D graph!)
    • You can see that drivers coming in ranked as highly as 6th have not made it into the Round of 12
  • The same thing goes for the round of 12.
    • A driver coming in ranked 3rd didn’t make it to the next group
    • No driver ranked greater than 18th has made it into the round of 12
  • The round of 8 has claimed first-seeds.
    • No one ranked 13th or higher has made it into the round of 8
  • No one ranked 8th or higher has made it into the round of 4

What Does That Mean for the Unexpected Winners?

  • As much as it pains me to say it, Michael McDowell has two strikes against him.
    • He’s never finished a season ranked better than 23rd (which was last year)
    • He’s got one win and it’s a superspeedway race
  • Christopher Bell is more of an unknown because he’s with a new team and it’s only his second year in Cup. Was the road course race one of those ‘happy exceptions’? I wouldn’t make any predictions about him until maybe week 8-10, when we’ll not only know more about his average finish, but we’ll also know who else has won.
  • Again, I wouldn’t even call Byron or Larson unexpected winners.

Suffice it to say that no one is worrying about these four winners after four races. They are, however, worrying about why they haven’t won yet.


A lot of people have suggested that the freeze on R&D for the last year of the CurrentGen car is leveling the playing field. That finally, the less-funded teams have just as much opportunity to win as the best-funded teams.

Again, you can’t make that statement based on four races. Especially when only the first — a superspeedway race — was won by an underfunded team. The other three were won by Gibbs, Hendrick and Hendrick. Those are hardly underdogs.

There are some unexpected drivers in the top fifteen, but I’m not getting excited about any of them until week 10 — if they’re still there.

Please help me publish my next book!

The Physics of NASCAR is 15 years old. One component in getting a book deal is a healthy subscriber list. I promise not to send more than two emails per month and will never sell your information to anyone.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.