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Dr. Diandra: Can the Cup Series reach 20 different winners?

Kyle Petty credits Ross Chastain for learning a lot during the early portion of the season and believes he's a better driver in the playoffs as a result, and Jeff Burton sees him continuing to maximize his opportunities.

It’s nail-biting time for people who predicted the NASCAR Cup Series would reach 20 different winners this year.

The 2022 season tied the record for most distinct winners after Chris Buescher became the 19th winner at Bristol. But how likely is it that a new driver gets his first win of the season in the last two races?

How many drivers win their first race in the season’s last 10 races?

Let’s consider seasons from 2001 to the present. I picked 2001 because that’s when 36 races per season became the norm.

In the plot below, I represent the number of distinct winners after the first 26 races of each year — what we now call the regular season — in green. New winners in the last 10 races of each year are shown in gray. The red numbers at the top are the totals for each season. Even before 2001, the series never reached 20 different winners.

A stacked vertical bar chart comparing the number of distinct winners after 26 races to the number after 36 races

The most recent season with 19 different winners was 2001. Although there were no playoffs then, 15 different drivers won during the first 26 races. Drivers notching their first wins of the season took four of the last 10 races.

That tells us that it’s possible to have four new winners in the last 10 races of a season. It happened in 2013 as well. Seasons like 2014 and 2016, however, had zero new winners in the playoffs.

The average number of new winners in the final 10 races is 1.9 over the last 21 years. We’re already over the average with three this year.

But the 2022 season has bucked more trends than it has followed.

Records already broken

The 2022 playoffs are already unlike any other playoffs since the format began in 2014. The next graph details who typically wins the last 10 playoff races.

A stacked bar chart showing the status of drivers who won playoff races, 2014-2022

Let’s start with the simplest year: 2016. The solid green tells you that all 10 playoff races were won by a driver still eligible for the championship at the time of the win.

The bars for 2018 and 2019 are also all green, but with two hatched races. Eight races in each of those years were won by drivers still in the hunt for the championship. Two drivers who had qualified for the playoffs on points won their first races of the season in each of those years.

In total, seven drivers pointed into the playoffs and then won their first race of the season during the playoffs. That hasn’t happened this year, but only one driver made the playoffs on points.

Yellow bars represent drivers who made the playoffs, but had been eliminated when they won. That happened to Alex Bowman last year, along with two drivers each in 2014, 2015 and this year.

Hatches on yellow are for drivers who won their first race of the season after they’d been eliminated from the playoffs. That was Kyle Busch in 2020 and Matt Kenseth in 2017.

I reserved red for drivers who didn’t make the playoffs but won a playoff race. No red appears until 2021 when Bubba Wallace won Talladega. That was both his first win of the season and his first career win.

Drivers not in the playoffs at the time of their win have won more playoff races in 2022 than any other year. Three drivers got their first race wins of the season in the playoffs this year.

Even if playoff drivers win the last two races, they will have won only 50% of the playoff races, the lowest percentage in playoff history. If non-playoff drivers win the next two races, playoff drivers will have claimed only 30%.

Running out of time

Only two races remain in the 2022 season. So how many of these new winners in the last 10 races won the last or second-to-last race?

Here’s the same type of graph, with blue bars representing the number of winners in the first 34 races of each season. The seven gray bars show years in which a new winner won the last or second-to-last race of the season. About one-third of the seasons featured a new winner in the last two races.

A stacked vertical bar chart comparing the number of distinct winners after 34 races to the number after 36 races

In 2001 and 2013, winless drivers took the checkered flag at the final race of the year. Robby Gordon accomplished that feat in 2001 and Denny Hamlin in 2013. But both years were before the current playoff system started.

That leaves five drivers who got their first win of the season in the second-to-last race of the year. Those five seasons are 2003, ’10, ’11, ’12 and — importantly — ’17. Importantly because 2017 is the only season in this sample using the current playoff system. Matt Kenseth won the second-to-last race that year.

Getting to 20 different winners

Here’s the catch: Who’s left to win? Ryan Blaney is the only driver who made it into the playoffs on points. He has the fourth best average finish (14.3) and the fourth best qualifying average (10.5). He did win the All-Star Race this year. To secure the record and his place in the championship four, Blaney must minimize mistakes, avoid fading at race end, and focus on getting good restarts.

It looked like Martin Truex Jr. might get his first win of the year at Homestead last week. Then a combination of sun in his eyes and Kyle Larson on his tail sent him for a spin on pit road. And that’s hardly the only bit of bad luck he’s had this year.

Truex’s season stats don’t engender much optimism. Although he has the second-highest number of fastest laps, he is seventh in average running position, sixth in laps led and eighth in average finish. His average qualifying is only 15.0 (tied for 15th), which doesn’t bode well for a track like Martinsville.

Between a new team and a new car, Brad Keselowski has an average finish of 18.3. Keselowski has improved over the season, but so have his competitors.

Aric Almirola has a better average finish than teammate and playoff driver Chase Briscoe by 0.1 positions. But his average finish at Martinsville is only 20.3.

Overall, Blaney seems the best bet for the Cup Series to reach 20 different winners in 2022.