Dr. Diandra: Diagnosing Chase Elliott’s playoff struggles
At first glance, it’s hard to see Chase Elliott’s playoff struggles.
At this point in the season, Elliott has the highest driver rating. He ranks first in average running position, laps led and quality passes. He also has the most wins and top-10 finishes, and ties with Ross Chastain for most top-five finishes.
The playoff struggles become clearer only when you separate regular-season and playoff numbers.
The graph below shows race and stage points earned in the seven playoff races. I’ve arranged the drivers from left to right in order of decreasing race points.
Elliott ranks eighth out of eight drivers in race points awarded during the playoffs. He’s earned 140 race points compared to leader Denny Hamlin’s 213.
Elliott also earned the fewest stage points (37) of any of the eight drivers shown with the exception of Chase Briscoe.
But Briscoe tallied 37 more race points than Elliott.
Let’s start with Chase Elliott’s 2022 finishing positions. I’ve included numbers and percentages in the table below. That allows us to compare the 26-race regular season with the seven playoff races completed.
In the top four rows, larger numbers are better. Elliott’s win percentage remains fairly stable. His playoff numbers, however, fall far short of his regular-season numbers in the other three metrics.
The last two rows show statistics for which lower numbers are better. Again, Elliott’s playoff numbers are significantly worse than his regular-season numbers.
The quantities translate to an average finishing position of 10.5 in the regular season and 17.6 in the playoffs.
As the graph below shows, Elliott has the worst finishing average of all eight contenders.
Only Elliott and Ryan Blaney are significantly underperforming compared to their regular-season level. Blaney is down only 2.3 positions, whereas Elliott is down 7.1 positions.
In addition to average finishing position stats:
- Elliott led an average of 27.6 laps per regular-season race, but only 12.0 laps per race during the playoffs.
- The average number of fastest laps Elliott posted decreased from 13.8 in the regular season to 5.7 in the playoffs
But these are symptoms. What we really want to know is what’s causing them. Three areas stand out in the data analysis: qualifying, speed and track type.
Elliott’s average qualifying position in the playoffs is 7.2 positions worse compared to the regular season.
He’s started 20th or worse in four of the seven playoff races. During the regular season, he only started that far back in three out of 26 races.
Qualifying in the back makes it more challenging to earn stage points, especially in the first stage. It also increases time running in traffic, which enhances collision probability and requires more energy from the driver as well.
Qualifying well is an important part of Elliott’s victories. His average qualifying position for the five races he’s won this season is 5.6. Removing his 16th-place qualifying at Talladega (in the playoffs), leaves Elliott with an average qualifying position of 3.0 for the four regular-season race wins.
The correlation between qualifying near the front and winning bodes well for Elliott at Homestead where he qualified third.
Elliott ranked an average of 9.4 among all drivers in green-flag speed during the regular season. Compare that to an average ranking of 11.1 in the playoffs.
A driver’s rank in green-flag speed compared to other drivers provides a good way to compare races. By using rank instead of raw speed, uncontrollable factors like temperature and track surface don’t figure in. Everyone experiences the same conditions.
You would expect Elliott to race better at tracks already visited. Elliott’s average green-flag-speed ranking was about the same for the two Kansas races. However, his ranking dropped from 12th to 20th at Darlington. Elliott also fell from 10th in green-flag speed at the spring Las Vegas race to 24th in the fall race.
Elliott’s teammates didn’t have the same changes. For example, Kyle Larson improved in green-flag speed at Las Vegas from eighth to third. William Byron fell from sixth to 12th. This suggests speed isn’t a company-wide issue. But we can’t tell whether Elliott is slower or if other drivers have gotten faster.
Elliott’s average finish for 1.5-mile, non-superspeedway tracks this year is 22.5. His best finish was ninth place at the spring Las Vegas race.
Only three such tracks were part of the regular-season schedule: Las Vegas, Kansas and Charlotte. They comprise only 11.5% of all races in the regular season.
In contrast, three of the seven playoff races have been at intermediate tracks. That’s 42.9% of the playoff races thus far. The playoffs emphasize Elliott’s weakness on this type of track.
Again, this seems specific to the No. 9 team and not Hendrick Motorsports as a company. Byron has a 13.1 average at intermediate tracks and Larson an average of 10.3.
At least one of these three factors won’t be an issue at Homestead (2:30 p.m. ET; NBC). Elliot qualified third, just behind Byron and Christopher Bell.