Does Winning the Regular-Season Championship Help Win the Playoffs?

Kyle Larson snatched the regular-season championship right out of Denny Hamlin’s hand. What — if anything — does that mean for his chances in the playoffs?

The obvious answer to this question is two words: Kevin Harvick.

But since we know not to make conclusions on the basis of a single data point, let’s dig a little deeper.

Regular Season Championship vs. Overall Champion

NASCAR first implemented a playoff system in 2004. Over those 17 years, only three NASCAR Cup champions were also regular-season champions.

  • The first time was in 2005 with Tony Stewart,
  • It didn’t happen again until 2017 (Martin Truex, Jr.)
  • The third time was in 2019 with Kyle Busch.

So over the course of 17 years if playoffs, only 17.6% of the time was the Cup Champion also the regular-season champion.

But, as we know, NASCAR has tweaked the playoff format more than a couple of times over the years. And the fact that two of the three cases were in the last four years ought to send alarm bells ringing in your head.

2017 was the year NASCAR introduced playoff points, which are awarded for winning stages and winning races. In addition, the regular-season winner receives 15 playoff points. NASCAR made the change in part because a regular-season champion could build up a hundred-point advantage that disappeared once the playoffs started.

The 2021 Regular-Season Championship Race

The animation below shows the race for the regular-season championship. The race number ticks off in the bottom corner.

A Few Notes About This Visualization

  • Hamlin took off starting in the fourth week of the season. By that time, he had a 39 point lead.
  • By the eighth race, Hamlin was leading Truex, Jr. (in second place) by 77 points.
  • Larson, who had been having a very up-and-down season, came roaring into the picture starting at the 10th race of the season. By the 15th race of the season, he had commandeered second place — 58 points behind Hamlin.
  • It was neck-and-neck until race #24.
  • Larson ended the regular season in first place, leading Hamlin by 28 points.

Playoff Points and the Regular-Season Championship

We can graphically show the advantage Larson takes into the playoffs on the graph below. I’ve shown the data in order of playoff rankings. That’s why Martin Truex, Jr. is in second place (with 3 wins) and Denny Hamlin is back in 7th place.

A vertical bar chart of the playoff points in 2021 entering the playoffs

Let’s compare this situation to the four relevant years. Remember that the years on the left are the two years in which the regular-season winner also won the championship.

A vertical bar chart of the playoff points in 2017 entering the playoffs
Martin Truex, Jr. won the regular-season championship and the overall championship in 2017.
A vertical bar chart of the playoff points in 2018 entering the playoffs
Joey Logano won the overall championship in 2018, but Kyle Busch won the regular-season championship by 48 points over the second-place regular-season finisher
A vertical bar chart of the playoff points in 2019 entering the playoffs
Kyle Busch won the regular-season and overall championships in 2019.
A vertical bar chart of the playoff points in 2020 entering the playoffs
Chase Elliott won the overall championship in 2020, but Kevin Harvick won the regular-season championship by 115 points over the second-place regular-season finisher
  • In 2017, Martin Truex, Jr. started with a 20 point lead over the next closest driver and in 2019, Kyle Busch started with a 15-point lead over the next closest driver.
  • BUT
    • In 2018, Kyle Busch won the regular season, which gave him just enough to tie with Kevin Harvick to lead the rankings as the playoffs kicked off. The two of them had a 36-point advantage over eventual series winner Joey Logano.
    • In 2020, Kevin Harvick won the regular season by 115 points. He still only got 15 playoff points, which gave him a 37-point lead over eventual champ Chase Elliott.

If we just look at the last four years — the years with the same playoff rules — the regular-season champion was the Cup champion 50% of the time.

Is Larson on Enough of a Roll To Win the Whole Thing?

Larson has been winning races in different cities and different types of cars seemingly a few times a week. Can he power his way through the playoffs?

The maximum number of points possible in one race during the playoffs is 47. That requires you to win the race and both stages. That 28 points gives Larson a cushion, it’s not enough to keep him from two races in a row of really bad luck. Ask Kevin Harvick.

So let’s look at Larson’s record thus far. I’ve plotted the rank after each race on the top and the finishing position for each race on the bottom. Clear bars indicate DNFs.

Kyle Larson's rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.
Rank for the last race is strictly by points. It does not include the re-normalization that adds 2000 points and playoff points.

Larson made his climb to the top during the stretch from Darlington to Nashville, where he was first or second in six consecutive races. But since then, he’s had P15+ finishes at Road American and Atlanta. With the exception of Las Vegas, all of Larson’s wins come at tracks that aren’t in the playoffs.

In analyzing success in the playoffs, I’m not really looking at where a driver is strongest. I’m worried about their weaknesses. Which one of the three rounds poses the most danger?

Larson DNF-ed at two of the three superspeedways, and his worst finish (outside of DNFs) was at the Daytona road course. (Daytona is more similar to Charlotte’s road course than it is to Sonoma.) The round of 12 features a superspeedway and a road course. The good news: the first race in that round is Las Vegas. The winner of that race will go into Talladega and Charlotte knowing that they’re going forward regardless of bad luck.

If Larson doesn’t win Vegas, his points cushion won’t protect him.

Who’s the Competition?

The easiest thing to do is to identify who is most likely to be eliminated early.

  • From 2017 to 2020, 40 of the 64 drivers (62.5%) in the playoffs got in on the basis of one or no wins.
    • In 2021, 10 of the 16 drivers (62.5%) made it in with one or no wins.
    • Of those, 3 drivers had no wins and 7 had one win.
  • In the same four years,
    • No driver with zero wins ever made it to the round of 4.
    • Only two drivers with one win have made it into the round of 4.
      • Kevin Harvick (2017)
      • Joey Logano (2018), who went on to win the championship.

Might Any of 2021’s Drivers Be Exceptions?

I showed elsewhere that where a driver ranks going into the playoffs (in points, not after stage points and adding 2000 points) makes the big difference for the drivers who progress to the final four. That would seem to bode well for Denny Hamlin, right?

Denny Hamlin's rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.
Rank on the last race is from points, not ranking for the playoffs

But Denny Hamlin hasn’t had a top 3 finish since Richmond. Hamlin is one of those drivers whose attitude and mindset make a big difference in how he races. He got off to an amazing start, but something’s gone wrong.

If Hamlin had won the regular-season championship, he would have 20 playoff points and Larson would have only 37. Larson winning the regular-season championship wasn’t just a loss for Hamlin: It was a loss for the entire field.

Harvick and Logano Have Done It Before

If you expected anyone to make a miracle comeback, it might be Kevin Harvick. But all of SHR has been behind the eight-ball all season. I’d love for him to prove me wrong, but with no wins and only 6 top fives, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

Kevin Harvick's rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.
Joey Logano's rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.

Logano hasn’t had the systemic problems Harvick has been fighting, and he has a win. But with one exception, he’s had some horrible finishes coming into the playoffs. I know some people claim that Penske was coasting once their drivers were in and focusing on the playoffs, but so is everyone else.

Who To Watch

The next four-ranked drivers are the ones I would keep an eye on.

Kyle Busch’s ranking may be artificially low thanks to the issues at Louden with the wet track. Of all four drivers, he’s the one who has been getting better and better as the season goes on. But he’s also DNF-ed at two of the three superspeedways this year.

Truex has been very good at three tracks we’re revisiting, but his record coming into the playoffs isn’t as good as teammate Busch.

Ryan Blaney might be at the start of a roll, although it’s hard to tell whether his recent finishes are due to the particular tracks, or figuring out his set up.

Finally, defending champion Chase Elliott has been hamstrung by two significant penalties. That cost him points and starting positions. If his team can avoid unforced errors, he’ll perform much better than his record shows.

Martin Truex Jr.'s rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.
Ryan Blaney's rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.
Kyle Busch's rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.
Chase Elliott's rank and finishing position for all 26 races in the regular season, shown by week.

Conclusion

While Kyle Larson is definitely a contender, the points benefit of winning the regular season championship is offset by so many other factors: having a road course and a superspeedway in one segment, mistakes that cause you to start from the back of the field, penalties that cost points, and just plain dumb luck.

We’ll have to watch and see whether Kyle Larson goes the way of Truex, Jr. and Kyle Busch, or of Harvick.

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