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Dr. Diandra: Road courses aren’t shortcuts to playoffs for underdog drivers

Eleven winners in the first 15 races have raised hopes that 2022 could be the season in which the NASCAR Cup Series has 16 (or more) winners. Two superspeedway races -- the most likely track type for underdog wins -- remain on the regular-season schedule.

Four road course races also stand between drivers and the playoffs. Could drivers who may not be able to point themselves into the playoffs earn a bracket slot via a road course win?

Solely Sonoma

NASCAR has run one race at Sonoma every year since 1989. The lone exception is 2020, when COVID forced NASCAR to skip the northern California track. That gives us 32 races in the dataset.

In looking for a simple way to graphically compare driver wins, I discovered treemaps. I think they’re clearer than bar charts for this purpose.

In the treemap below, the area of each rectangle is proportional to the driver’s number of wins. No number next to the name means that the driver won only one race.

A tree map showing all winners at Sonoma from 1989-2021

The biggest boxes correspond to familiar names. Jeff Gordon leads Sonoma wins with five. He’s followed by Tony Stewart and Martin Truex, Jr. with three each.

One way to define Sonoma underdogs is drivers ranked outside the top 15 coming into the race. Only four drivers in our dataset satisfy that criterion.

  • Robby Gordon ranked 16th in 2003
  • Juan Pablo Montoya ranked 23rd in 2007
  • Stewart was ranked 35th when he won Sonoma; however, that was in 2016, after he’d missed the first eight races of the season due to a back injury.
  • Kyle Busch sat in 39th place when he won Sonoma in 2015. He had injured his right leg and left foot in the season-opening Daytona Xfinity race, causing him to miss the first 11 races of the season.

The last two cases are pretty exceptional. Busch went on to win the championship in 2015, and Stewart finished 15th in 2016. If we eliminate those two races, we’re left with drivers outside the top 15 winning only 6.7% of Sonoma races.

The two remaining drivers -- Gordon and Montoya -- were road course specialists. Of Gordon’s three career NASCAR Cup Series wins, two came at road courses. Montoya’s two career wins both came at road courses.

Looking at the remaining 28 wins earned by drivers ranked P15 or better:

  • Drivers ranked within the top five won 10 races (35.7%).
  • Drivers ranked among the top 10 won 23 victories (82.1%).
  • That leaves 17.9% of the wins achieved by drivers ranking from P11-P15.

First season wins at Sonoma

Given that drivers outside the top 15 are much less likely to win, what are the the chances for winless drivers within the top 15 making Sonoma their first trip to Victory Lane in 2022? That group includes Truex, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell, Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick, Kevin Harvick, and Erik Jones.

Of the 28 wins by drivers ranked in the top 15 entering Sonoma:

  • Drivers without a win coming into Sonoma won 16 races (57.1%). Winless drivers in the field Sunday who previously made Sonoma their first win of the season include Truex (2013) and Kevin Harvick (2017).
  • Seven races (25%) were won by drivers with one win. The most recent of those winners was Carl Edwards in 2014.
  • Drivers with two wins won four Sonoma races (14.3%)
  • Taking the last two stats together, drivers with one or two prior wins won 39.3% of the Sonoma races. That group includes three drivers in the same situation coming into this weekend:

    • Kyle Busch has two career wins at Sonoma.
    • Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch each has one career win.

Chase Elliott raced Sonoma five times without a win. But his trend is upward, with a best finish of second in 2021.

All road courses

I asserted that road courses as a class were not the magic ticket to the playoffs that superspeedways can be. While the number of underdog winners at superspeedways isn’t high, it is higher than road courses.

I limit the road course analysis to races between 1989 and 2021. I chose 1989 as the starting point because that’s when Sonoma and Watkins Glen became the mainstay road course races on the Cup Series schedule. This range of dates also includes only road tracks that has run in the last few years.

Here’s the slightly more complex treemap covering the 95 road course races comprising this dataset:

A treemap showing road course winners from 1989-2021

Remember that this only covers the period 1989-2021 so, for example, only three of Ricky Rudd’s six wins show up.

The trends from the Sonoma analysis are echoed in this data. The winningest drivers are familiar names, and most winning drivers were ranked in the top 15 entering the race they won.

During this period of time, only 11 drivers won a road course race while ranked outside the top 15. I discard Busch and Stewart for the reasons mentioned above. That leaves us with 9 out of 93 drivers (9.7%). Those drivers are:

  • Robby Gordon
  • Steve Park
  • Marcos Ambrose (twice)
  • Geoffrey Bodine
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (twice)
  • A.J. Allmendinger (twice)

Of these six, only Bodine has a significant number of non-road-course wins: Fifteen out of 18 career wins came at other types of tracks.

Twenty-nine out of 93 road course winners (31.2%) posted their first season win at a road course. That’s lower than the Sonoma percentage of 57.1%.

What about Allmendinger?

The probabilities are slim for non-ranked drivers to win at Sonoma, but it would be foolish to dismiss perennial road course favorite Allmendinger.

Although currently leading the Xfinity series standings, Allmendinger’s best finish in the six Cup Series races he’s run this year is a 10th-place finish last week at Gateway. His remaining five finishes are 20th or worse.

Both of Allmendinger’s career Cup Series wins have come at road courses: Watkins Glen in 2014 and Indianapolis last year. But his best finish at Sonoma is seventh and that was all the way back in 2009.

The caveat is that he hasn’t raced Sonoma since 2018. Allmendinger is a driver whose self-confidence level greatly affects his racing., After an Xfinity win at Portland last week, his self-confidence has to be pretty high.

If anyone is going to defy the statistics at Sonoma, Allmendinger would seem to be the one to do it. He’s done it twice at other road courses already.