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Dr. Diandra: Do first-round playoff results tell us anything about this season’s final standings?

Highlights: NASCAR Cup playoffs at Darlington
Watch extended highlights from the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

If your driver had a less-than-ideal finish at Darlington, don’t panic. Even series champions have struggled with the first three playoff races.

Cup Series playoff drivers entered Darlington separated by 36 points and left separated by 63 points. Kyle Larson’s win secured his spot in the next playoff round. Michael McDowell’s frustrating run sent him to the bottom of the playoff rankings.

While Larson’s win augers well for a strong playoff run, history tells us not to count out drivers with bad finishes in the first playoff race.

NASCAR instituted a playoff system in 2004, but the specifics have changed through the years. Numbers of drivers and criteria for making the post-regular-season race for the championship have all varied.

The current format, with 16 drivers, three three-race rounds and eliminations, started in 2014. Stage racing, which started in 2017 also modified playoff dynamics.

The future fates of first-round winners

Let’s consider first the eventual fates of drivers who win one of the first three playoff races. Of the 27 races run in nine years of the Round of 16, non-playoff drivers won only three races. All three non-playoff-winners were in 2022, when Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher took checkered flags at Darlington, Kansas and Bristol.

The table below shows the season-ending rank of each winner of one of the three races in the first playoff round from 2014-2021.

Final Rank of First-Round Playoff Race Winners
Year Race 1 Race 2 Race 3
2014 5 4 6
2015 9 15 2
2016 11 8 11
2017 1 2 2
2018 8 4 10
2019 2 2 10
2020 5 2 5
2021 3 2 1

For example: The driver who won the first race of the 2014 playoffs (Brad Keselowski) finished fifth in the season-ending rankings. I omitted drivers’ names to make the table clearer.

A quick scan of this data might suggest that winning one of the first three races doesn’t really mean much. After all the winner of the second race in 2015 (Matt Kenseth) finished 15th in the final standings.

But look a little closer and you’ll detect a significant difference between pre-stage-racing and post-stage-racing results.

Before stage racing started in 2017, the average finishing position of first-round winners was 7.9. From 2017-21, the average finishing position of those winners is 3.9.

From 2017-21:

  • No driver who won one of the first three playoff races finished worse than 10th.
  • Thirteen out of 15 first-round winners (86.7%) continued to the Round of 8.
  • Ten out of those 15 (66.7%) made it all the way to the Championship Round.

I interpret these results as being due to NASCAR improving the way they select the championship contenders and seed them. The tracks involved, however, also make a difference.

First-Round Playoff Race Tracks
Year Race 1 Race 2 Race 3
2014 Chicago Loudon Dover
2015 Chicago Loudon Dover
2016 Chicago Loudon Dover
2017 Chicago Loudon Dover
2018 Las Vegas Richmond CLT Roval
2019 Las Vegas Richmond CLT Roval
2020 Darlington Richmond Bristol
2021 Darlington Richmond Bristol
2022 Darlington Kansas Bristol

For example, both 10th-place finishes happened in 2018 and 2019. That turns out to be a result of schedule changes. The table above shows the tracks that hosted the first three races of the playoffs.

The two years where first-round winners finished 10th in the season standings were the two years where those winners won the Charlotte Roval. This suggests that winning the Roval in the first round doesn’t necessarily predict a good season finish. That’s a good motivation for having it in the second round rather than the first.

The second race in the Round of 16 — for 2023, the upcoming contest at Kansas — seems to be the best predictor for a driver making it to the championship race. In years where a playoff driver won this race, each finished the season no worse than fourth.

First-round finishes of champions

On the other end of the spectrum, let’s examine how champions performed in their first three races. The table below shows the finishing positions of series champions from 2014-2022.

First-Round Playoff Finishes of Eventual Champions
Year Champion Race 1 Race 2 Race 3
2014 Kevin Harvick 5 3 13
2015 Kyle Busch 9 37 2
2016 Jimmie Johnson 12 8 7
2017 Martin Truex, Jr. 1 5 4
2018 Joey Logano 4 14 10
2019 Kyle Busch 19 2 37
2020 Chase Elliott 20 5 7
2021 Kyle Larson 2 6 1
2022 Joey Logano 4 17 27

Champions’ average finishing position in the Round of 16 ranges from Larson’s 3.0 average in 2021 to Kyle Busch’s 19.3 average in his 2019 championship year. There’s a caveat on how badly a driver can finish in the first round, of course. The cutoff line is determined by how all drivers in the playoffs finish. In some years, Busch’s 19.3 average wouldn’t have gotten him out of the first round.

A few other observations from this table:

  • In these nine years, the eventual champion won a first-round race only twice (22.2%.) Both times were under the stage racing format.
  • During the stage-racing era, every future champion had at least one top-five finish in the first three races of the playoff.
  • Martin Truex Jr. is the only champion to have finished in the top 5 in all three first-round playoff races.
  • In two years, a champion finished two of the first three playoff races out of the top 15: Busch in 2019 and last year, when Joey Logano finished fourth at Darlington, 17th at Kansas and dropped out of Bristol with a suspension issue. His average finish for the first playoff round was 16.0.
  • The only driver to win the championship without a top-five finish in the round of 16 was Jimmie Johnson in 2016.

Watch the Kansas race Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network. Countdown to Green airs at 2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network.