Every year, NASCAR fans and pundits make predictions based on four or five races. This year, the talk was about how NASCAR’s playing field has leveled and the possibility of sixteen –or more — different winners. Now that we’re almost 60% through the regular season, let’s see how well the 2021 predictions have aged.
Prediction: Unexpected Playoff Contenders
Michael McDowell, racing for the underfunded Front Row Motorsports, won the Daytona 500. Christopher Bell followed that up with his first Cup-level win at the Daytona road course. William Byron and Kyle Larson won the next two races. The predictions were that these ‘unexpected winners’ would shake up the playoffs.
Everyone wishes McDowell success: He’s one of the nicest people in NASCAR. C Bell came into Cup with high expectations. Their wins get them into the playoffs, but will they be players?
McDowell as a Spoiler in the Playoffs?
‘Underdogs’ win the Daytona 500 about a once a decade. Road courses also have higher potential for someone outside the usual suspects to bring home a trophy. But drivers who get into the playoffs on the basis of only a superspeedway or road course rarely last long in the championship.
That’s not to say that McDowell couldn’t win another race this year. He finished in the top 5 at Talladega. He’s a good road racer, with top ten finishes at COTA and the Daytona Road Course. He even finished in the top 10 at Homestead.
But a smattering of good finishes isn’t enough in this competitive a field. McDowell sits at 16th place in the points standings after 15 races. Below, I compare his rank as a function of race number with his finishes at each race.
McDowell stayed in the top ten for the first four weeks, feeding predictions about a breakout year for his team. But the next five races put him all the way back to 17th position. As the number of races increases, each subsequent race has less effect on your rank. The top fives and top tens are offset by 6 finishes of 20 or worse.
But The Playoffs Include a Superspeedway AND a Road Course
Yes. But they’re both in the second elimination bracket, which means that McDowell has to make it past the first elimination for either race to matter for his season. The first three elimination races are Darlington, Richmond and Bristol. McDowell’s got a career average finish of 28.3 at Darlington, 31.9 at Richmond and 29.9 at Bristol. As much as I’d like for this to be different, the numbers say that he’s got a very small chance at having much impact on the championship.
After scoring 16 wins in 74 XFINITY starts, no one would be surprised if Christopher Bell set the Cup Series on fire. A win on the Daytona road course was the spark for predictions that Bell would offer the veterans a run for their money in the championship race this year.
But Bell hasn’t been consistent, with five finishes out of the top 20 and two of those being 30 or worse. Those offset two top-fives and five top-tens, leaving him in 15th place after 15 races.
The win took Bell from 10th place to 4th place, but he’s been drifting steadily upward since then. With no top 10s since Richmond, he’s drifted from 10th to 15th.
Moving from XFINITY to Cup is a huge jump. A lot of drivers who shone in XFINITY struggle in Cup. Winning and making the playoffs in his rookie year is already overachieving. C Bell has championship potential. But probably not this year.
Let’s compare these two drivers with Kevin Harvick, who has had a pretty difficult year so far and hasn’t won a single race. But he’s in 9th place, above McDowell and Bell. He’s got 11 top-10 finishes — enough so that a horrid finish at COTA didn’t do much damage in his rankings.
We’re used to Harvick being higher in the rankings, but remember we’re only 15 races in. But let’s say that Harvick makes it to the playoffs with one or maybe no wins. He’s got 58 wins in 733 starts. McDowell has 1 win in 372 starts.
Who would you bet on to make it past the first elimination?
Prediction: Sixteen Winners — Or More
With four winners in the first four races, everyone was abuzz with the possibility that we might have more winners than playoff spots. If that happened, a win wouldn’t be enough to get you in.
But four different winners in the first four races isn’t all that unusual. Below, I show how many distinct winners we’ve had over the years as a function of number of races.
After Three Races
In 16 out of the 22 seasons shown, we started the season with three different winners in the first three races. The other six seasons had two winners in the first three races. The most recent of those was 2018, when Kevin Harvick won races 2, 3, and 4.
The average number of winners in the first three races over all the seasons considered is 2.7.
After Six Races
The average number of distinct winners after six races is 4.9. The low was 4, which happened last year and the year before. The high was 6 — which is where we were this year. So after six races, 2021 was only one more than the average, and equal to four other years. After two years in which a small number of drivers dominated, this number seemed much bigger than it was.
After Ten Races
On average, there were 7.3 distinct winners after 10 races. We had 9 winners at that point this year, which is two above average. That matches the number in 2003 and is one less than 2000. If you were going to get excited about the possibility of having a record-high number of winners, this is the point where you should’ve started getting excited.
After Fifteen Races
After 15 races, we expect 9.3 distinct winners on average. But this is the point in the season where the numbers start to vary a lot among seasons. The low for winners after 15 races is 6, which happened in 2018 and 2019 most recently. The high is 12, but we haven’t seen that for almost two decades. With 11 winners in 2021, we’re well above average, and much higher than the same points in the last few years.
Is the Prediction of 16 Winners Possible?
The most winners we’ve had in a season was 19, in 2001. The smallest number was 12, which has happened three times, most recently in 2018. So where might we end up?
The above graph shows we’ve had anywhere from 2 to 9 additional winners in the remaining 21 races. I think we should expect at a minimum two more winners, based on the graph below.
It would be quite a surprise if neither Harvick nor Hamlin won a race this year. Each has 11 top-ten finishes. In Hamlin’s case, nine of those are top fives. If both win this year, that would bring us to 13 winners.
There are two superspeedways and five road courses left in the season. Although these races are most often won by drivers who win other races, if we had two more ‘surprise’ winners, we would end up at 15, tying 2017.
Prediction: The Playing Field Is Finally Level
People have claimed that the unexpected winners prove that NASCAR’s ban on research and development of the Gen-6 car has leveled the playing field. Many include William Byron and Kyle Larson’s first win as ‘unexpected’, which I argue isn’t really fair given that they both drive for the most successful owner in NASCAR.
So let’s look at owners for a moment. The graph below is the same as the one above, but for owners instead of drivers.
We had three different owners win the first three races. But in the remaining nine races, only one new owner has won races. In 2021 after 15 races, the winning owners are:
- Hendrick Motorsports: 6
- Joe Gibbs Racing: 5
- Penske: 3
- Front Row: 1
I’m not sure how you can argue that the playing field has been leveled when 14/15 wins are from the usual suspects and the remaining win was at a superspeedway.
We only had four owners who had won races this time last year, too. But one name is not on the list.
What is Happening to Stewart Haas?
Hendrick is having a resurgence and Gibbs is its usual strong self. But where is Stewart Haas?
The next graph is really busy, but it’s useful enough to justify including it. I broke down wins for the first fifteen races of each year by owner.
Although Stewart Haas hasn’t won any of the first 15 races in 2021, they didn’t in 2019, either. That year, Kevin Harvick won his first race of the season in Loudon (race #20), then won three more times before the season was over. So although SHR’s performance is a little concerning, it’s far from time to rule them out.
The graph above gives you a pictorial image of ownership consolidation over the last two decades. In 2000, nine different owners won within the first 15 races. This year, it’s just four owners. You can also see the rise (and fall) of Roush. I’m going to run this analysis for full seasons. We’ve got a boatload of new teams coming into the sport. It’ll be interesting to see how that changes the dynamics of winning.