RFK Racing reaps the rewards of hard work with Bristol win and Texas pole

0

The first round of playoff performances defied expectations in both a good and a bad way.

This is my excuse as to why my very first attempt at predictions was a miserable failure. I projected that Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would be the first four drivers out of the playoffs. Only Dillon failed to qualify for the round of 16.

Of course, my algorithm didn’t take into account that Kyle Busch had two engine failures in three races. Especially after not having had a single engine failure in the previous 92 races.

The algorithm also didn’t predict that Kevin Harvick’s Darlington run would end in a fire.

Or that none of the 16 playoff drivers would win even one of the first three races of the playoffs.

On the plus side, playoff drivers won 11 of a possible 15 top 5 (73%) and 21 of a possible 30 top 10 (70%). This corresponds to a season with 19 different winners.

Chase Elliott is the only driver to have won more than two races this season. Drivers made the playoffs by finishing well rather than winning many races.

Playoff performance by the numbers

In the table to the right, I list the drivers in order of points after Bristol – but before reseing. Red numbers indicate DNFs.

The DNFs played a major role in the first round. Each of the four eliminated drivers had at least one DNF. Harvick and Busch had two each. Busch’s DNFs and one from Harvick were due to equipment failure.

Only three drivers finished in the top 10 in all three heats: Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Byron. Two of my planned kills overperformed. And the one driver I expected to top the playoffs didn’t.

Compared to the regular season

Excluding equipment failures and accidents, most riders are expected to perform, on average, at about the same level they raced during the regular season. This generally did not happen.

In the first two elimination rounds, the top 10 is enough to stay in the game. So that’s the metric I’m going to focus on here.

The chart below compares the percentage of drivers finishing in the top 10 in the first three playoff races to the same regular season metric.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races for

Each arrow starts at the driver’s regular season average and moves up to his playoff average. Blue indicates a better playoff performance than the regular season and red indicates the opposite.

Six drivers performed better than their regular-season averages suggest.

Byron entered the playoffs seeded 10th with just five regular-season top-10 finishes. With three top-10 finishes in the first round of the playoffs, he earned the second-most points of any driver in the Round of 16.

Hamlin recorded the second biggest improvement with two second places and a ninth. This continues his trend of the season trying to overcome a slow start.

Bell’s 53.8% top-10 regular season percentage doesn’t leave him much room to improve. But he did. He is also the only driver to finish in the top five in the playoffs.

Bowman, whose crew chief Greg Ives will retire at the end of this season, has gone from 38.5% to 66.6% in the top 10.

“I think we’re super motivated,” Bowman said, “because Greg’s last 10 races with me and we want to finish on a high note. We know the summer doesn’t matter anymore, our issues , and it’s a good reset for us heading into the playoffs.

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Elliott. He has the most top 10 finishes of any driver with 18. But only one has come from the first round of the playoffs.

Momentum

Driver finishes go up and down throughout a season. The ups and downs are even bigger this year because of the new Next Gen car. For this reason, it’s worth comparing playoff performances not only to the full regular season average, but also to the last five regular season runs.

The arrows on the following graph start at the top 10 for each driver’s last five regular season races and move up to their playoff rate.

A graph comparing the regular season top 10 rate to the top 10 rate from the first three playoff races to the last five regular season races

Seven drivers have improved from their last five regular season races – the previous six, plus Daniel Suárez. Suárez went from 20% to 33.3%. That’s typical of a season that’s been fairly consistent, but not at a level that will take him to the last four.

Byron’s turnaround is even more impressive considering his zero top 10 finishes in the last five races of the regular season.

“I think we had a lot of really good leads early in the year,” Byron said. “While we started looking for speed and looking for certain things, we drifted a little bit throughout the summer.

He thinks the team is back where it needs to be.

“We know what works; we know what’s not working,” Byron said. “We definitely know what’s not working after last month, so that’s a good thing.”

Joey Logano has the strongest downtrend over the past five races, dropping from a top 10 rate of 80.0% to 33.3%.

This chart shows that Elliott’s decline in the playoffs is a trend that has continued since the end of the regular season. This could be good news for other drivers who are struggling to catch up.

Scoring and reseeding

The table below summarizes the points and playoff points earned in the three playoff races and each driver’s final score before the reseeding. The lineup is quite different from what it was before this three-race round.

A chart showing how many points each playoff driver earned in the first round But that’s before reseeding.

I hadn’t enjoyed playoff points until I did the math. Each driver who advances to the Round of 16 gets 3,000 points, plus their total playoff points.

As none of these drivers have won a race, only five of the 21 playoff points available from the last three races have an impact on the new standings. Bell won two stages; Byron, Bowman and Busch one each.

So we’re mostly back to where we left Daytona.

A table showing the reseeded standings entering the second round of the playoff racesRyan Blaney lost a place. Byron’s dramatic turnaround didn’t impact his playoff position. Most of Bowman’s rise in the standings was due to the elimination of drivers initially ranked seventh, ninth and 11th.

The current standings reflect NASCAR’s eternal struggle between victory and consistency. On the one hand, I understand the desire to emulate the playoffs of other sports and not let the results of the last round impact the next. But the carryover of regular-season playoff points means Elliott returns to P1 despite earning fewer points in all three playoff races than seven of the 16 drivers.

That’s why Bell, who scored almost twice as many points as Elliott and won two stages, is tied for sixth place with Hamlin and Blaney. Elliott goes from 40 points behind Bell to 27 points ahead of him.

If Bell or any of the other remaining drivers want to challenge Elliott, even the top five won’t be enough.

In these playoffs, performance is not enough. You must win.

Share.

Comments are closed.