Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: If Past Numbers Mean Anything, NASCAR’s Playoffs Are Wide Open

NASCAR’s 2023 playoffs kicked off on Sunday (Sept. 3) at Darlington Raceway, and Kyle Larson fired the first shot, beating Tyler Reddick by .447 seconds.

The win advances Larson to the next round, no matter what happens to him at Kansas Speedway or Bristol Motor Speedway. Larson is probably going to sleep better than a lot of the playoff field for the next couple of weeks.

But if you’re already penciling him in as the favorite, hold up a minute.

Nine champions have been crowned under the elimination playoff format, and if you can take anything from their numbers in the early rounds … it’s that you can’t take anything from their numbers in the early rounds. Only three of nine champions under this system have won in the first round. Two champs never won in the first three rounds at all. Only once has a driver won in every round.

A closer look at the playoff champions’ performances in the final 10 races doesn’t draw a road map to a title in terms of individual race performance. Some have been consistent but not really brilliant in the first three rounds. Some have multiple wins throughout.  

Here are the numbers for each playoff-era champion: finishes by round, playoff points, season (36 races) average finish and playoff average finish:

2014: Kevin Harvick
Round of 16: 5, 3, 13 
Round of 12: 
12, 1, 9 
Round of eight: 
33, 2, 1 
Championship race: 
1
Playoff points: N/A
Season average finish (36 races): 
12.9
Playoff average finish: 
8.0 (+4.9)

2015: Kyle Busch
Round of 16: 9, 37, 2
Round of 12: 
20, 5, 11
Round of eight: 
5, 4, 4
Championship race: 
1
Playoff points: N/A
Season average finish: 
10.8
Playoff average finish: 
9.8 (+1)

2016: Jimmie Johnson
Round of 16: 12, 8, 7
Round of 12: 
1, 4, 23
Round of eight: 
1, 11, 38
Championship race: 
1
Playoff points: N/A
Season average finish:
 14.0
Playoff average finish:
 10.6 (+3.4)

2017: Martin Truex Jr.
Round of 16: 1, 5, 4
Round of 12:
 1, 23, 1
Round of eight: 
2, 2, 3
Championship race: 
1
Playoff points: 54 (1st among all drivers)
Season average finish: 
9.4
Playoff average finish: 
4.2 (+5.2)

2018: Joey Logano
Round of 16: 1, 14, 10
Round of 12:
 3, 5, 8
Round of eight:
 8,1,3
Championship race: 
1
Playoff points: 15 (6th)
Season average finish: 
10.7
Playoff average finish:
 5.4 (+5.3)

2019: Kyle Busch
Round of 16: 19, 2, 37
Round of 12:
 6, 19, 3
Round of eight:
 14, 7, 2
Championship race:
 1
Playoff points: 37 (2nd)
Season average finish:
 8.9
Playoff average finish:
 11.0 (-2.1)

2020: Chase Elliott
Round of 16: 20, 5, 7
Round of 12:
 22, 5, 1
Round of eight:
 6, 20, 1
Championship race: 
1
Playoff points: 35 (3rd)
Season average finish: 
11.7
Playoff average finish:
 9.4 (+2.3)

2021: Kyle Larson
Round of 16: 2, 6, 1
Round of 12:
 10, 37, 1
Round of eight: 
1, 1, 14
Championship race:
 1
Playoff points: 68 (1st)
Season average finish:
 9.1
Playoff average finish:
 7.4 (+1.7)

2022: Joey Logano
Round of 16: 4, 17, 27
Round of 12: 
2, 27, 18
Round of eight: 
1, 18, 6
Championship race:
 1
Playoff points: 27 (1st)
Season average finish: 
13.5
Playoff average finish:
 12.1 (+1.4)

What can we take away from these numbers?

Obviously, first and foremost, the champion almost has to win the final race. Since 2014, the playoff drivers have dominated the season finale to the point where some have questioned whether they’re getting more horsepower in the finale. No champion to date has not won the title race.

The other stat that holds true in eight of nine titles is that the winner has improved his average finish in the final 10 races. With the lone exception of Busch in 2019, the eventual champion has had an average finish at least one full position better than his full-season average, and half of those were more than three spots better than their 36-race average.

The system is designed so that a bad race, or even two, won’t necessarily ruin a driver’s hopes (and a look at many of these drivers’ playoff numbers reveals where Talladega Superspeedway fell on the schedule). Only one title winner, Logano in 2018, had zero playoff finishes of 20th or worse, while Elliott had three such finishes en route to the 2020 championship.

Playoff points can help a driver survive a bad finish — but they aren’t necessarily a ticket to the head table at the banquet. In the six years that playoff points have been in play, three drivers had the most of any driver to help them get to the title race, but three others didn’t. Logano only amassed 15 playoff points in 2018, but was so dominant in the playoffs that it didn’t matter.

To date, only two drivers (Truex in 2017 and Logano in ’18) have won the first race of the playoffs and the championship.

So, don’t count on Larson’s win carrying him to the end. It’s hard to call him the favorite just yet. The same goes for William Byron, whose 28 playoff points lead the pack. Or Truex and his series-best 11.6 average finish. Don’t count out Denny Hamlin and his 25th-place finish at Darlington either. 

NASCAR got what it wanted with an unpredictable playoff formula that demands perfection in the final race. Very little matters in terms of previous performances —only getting to that final race really matters, and the champions that have done that have not taken the same path to get there. 

It’s way too early to call anyone the favorite.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Ronald Thornton

Y’all bet your money where u want to. I will keep mine in my pocket. Dangerous bet anywhere you go. Will be pulling for the best driver out there, but I would bet on Truex. Just feels like he has the speed. Luck means everything and he may leave in first round, but if I had to bet, I think he’s got the team and talent. Luck and Goodyear goes a long way

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