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Dr. Diandra: DNFs up 55 percent in 2022

A restart crash midway through the first stage at Michigan International Speedway ends the day early for Kyle Busch, Austin Cindric, Aric Almirola, and others.

Drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series have racked up 151 DNFs (did not finish) through 23 races this season. That’s 55.6% more cars leaving the race before the final laps than during the first 23 races of 2021. The 2022 total is the highest after 23 races since 2017, but it is only short by three.

The graph below shows DNFs by year, all after 23 races. This year’s total is nowhere near the peak of 247 DNFs in 2012. However, the large number of start-and-park cars in the mid-2010s complicates comparing DNF numbers directly.

A vertical bar chart showing the numbers of DNFs after 23 race from 2001 to 2022

Start-and-park cars typically ran a small number of laps before retiring. They usually cited electrical, brake and vibration problems as the reason. I estimate that about 75 of the 247 DNFs in 2012 were start-and-park drivers, so the actual number is more like 172. That’s still above the total this year, but not by much.

Aside from the start-and-parkers, DNFs have gone down over the years because engine failures have decreased significantly. There were almost 100 engine failures in 2004, for example. In the last few years, engine failures caused about 11% of DNFs in a season.

Crashes (in which I include cars eliminated due to the damaged vehicle policy and failure to make minimum speed) remain the most significant cause of DNFs. They usually comprise 60-75% of the total number. The pie chart below shows the reasons for DNFs in 2022.

A pie chart showing the reasons for DNFs in 2022

Where DNFs happen

One reason for the jump in DNFs is Atlanta transforming into a faster superspeedway. As the graph below shows, Atlanta recorded 12 and 11 DNFs in the spring and summer races, respectively. In 2021, the two Atlanta races claimed only three cars.

A vertical bar chart showing the numbers of DNFs in 2022 through 23 races by track.

Atlanta cannot account for the entire increase, however. Some tracks saw increases, while others saw decreases in DNFs relative to 2021. I’ve summarized some of the larger changes in the table below.

A table showing the tracks with the largest changes in number of DNFs from 2021 to 2022

In 2021, only the Daytona 500 had more than 8 DNFs at this point in the year. In 2022, seven races top that number.

Who isn’t finishing?

DNF numbers wouldn’t be so important if most of the drivers involved were well out of the championship race. That’s not the case this year.

No full-time driver has entirely escaped DNFs. The only top-10 driver with no DNFs in 2021 — Denny Hamlin — has five DNFs already this year.

The graph below compares the number of DNFs by driver rank as of the 23rd race of the season for 2021 and 2022. They’re plotted on the same vertical scale, and both include only the top 25 drivers. This is one of those graphs that’s meant to provide an overall feel for how a statistic trends rather than focusing on individual pieces of data.

Two bar charts comparing the numbers of dnfs by driver rank in 2021 and 2022

Hopefully, you can see that the number of DNFs generally rises as you move to higher-ranked drivers. There are always exceptions, but there is an overall trend. The 2022 season shows much less correlation between rank and DNFs.

  • The highest-ranked driver with 3 DNFs came in at 11th in 2021. In 2022, the second-ranked driver has 3 DNFs.
  • 2021’s highest-ranked driver with 5 DNFs was 13th. This season, he’s fifth.
  • Only one top-25 driver had five or more DNFs in 2021. This year, three drivers in the top 25 have six DNFS each: Austin Dillon, Cole Custer and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

The increases in DNFs are across the board, too.

  • In 2021, the top-five drivers had five DNFs total. This year, the top-five drivers have 15 DNFs — three times more.
  • Last year, the top-10 drivers accounted for 15.9% of DNFs. This year, the drivers ranked one through 10 take credit for 24.8% of the DNFs.
  • Drivers ranked in the top 20 had 33.6% of all DNFs in 2021. In 2022, they have 49.7%.

That last stat shows that the top-20-ranked drivers went from making up a third of the DNFs in 2021 to half the DNFs in 2022.

About the only obvious 2022 trend is that just about everyone has more DNFs this year than they did at the same time last year.

You can see the changes by driver in the graph below. Red indicates a driver with more DNFs in 2022 than in 2021, while blue shows a decrease. Drivers whose DNF totals didn’t change are shown as black dots.

A scatter plot showing dnfs by driver for 2021 and 2022. Arrows indicate whether the driver has fewer or more dnfs this year relative to the same time last year

Two drivers on this graph have a single DNF: Chase Elliott, who is in the playoffs, and Michael McDowell who, so far, is not.

Only three drivers (Elliott, Aric Almirola and Justin Haley) have fewer DNFs now than at this time last year. Three more drivers (McDowell, Erik Jones and Brad Keselowski) have the same number of DNFs as last year. All the rest have more.

Playoff implications

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. — the two drivers battling for what is currently the last available playoff berth by points — have three and two DNFs, respectively.

Richmond had only two DNFs in April. Watkins Glen generally has one to three DNFs, but in 2016 seven drivers failed to finish the race. And, of course, the drivers entering Daytona without a win have nothing to lose.

But the high DNF rate also affects those drivers competing for the championship. Drivers don’t stop crashing just because the playoffs start.

A driver with four DNFs in 23 races has a 17.4% DNF rate. That suggests they should expect at least one DNF and possibly two during the playoffs.

Five DNFs in 23 races is a 21.7% DNF rate, suggesting at least two DNFs for those drivers during the playoffs.

Given that the most playoff points earned by any one competitor is 25 (Elliott), drivers have little in the way of insurance policies. One DNF at the wrong time in a round could eliminate a driver.

Even a Chase Elliott.