Dr. Diandra: Five winless drivers’ best chances to make the playoffs
Editor’s Note: Part 1 of 2. The second part will run Sunday
During this rare off-week, winless drivers are mentally reviewing the remaining 10 regular-season races to identify which tracks offer them the best chances to make the playoffs. I’ve crunched the numbers.
No one wants to rely on the wild-card races -- two superspeedways and the Chicago street course. Two other courses, Nashville Superspeedway and the Indianapolis road course, have only been on the Cup Series schedule for two years.
Given those limits, I examined the careers of drivers and more recent numbers to identify the tracks at which each winless driver has the best chance to clinch a playoff berth.
In each table below, numbers without decimal points represent single races rather than averages.
Kevin Harvick has options.
The first is Nashville, where he has an average finish of 7.5 thanks to fifth- and 10th-place finishes. Harvick’s career average finish of 11.9 at tracks between 1 and 1.49 miles boosts his chances at Nashville.
Harvick broke his winless streak at Michigan last year where he has an 11.0 career average finish and six wins.
After winning Michigan, Harvick won the next week at Richmond, A repeat win there is also a possibility. He has a 9.54 career average finishing position at Richmond, with 30 top-10 finishes in 44 starts. Harvick’s average finish in the Next Gen car at Richmond is 2.7 and he finished fifth in the spring race.
Harvick’s chances of winning in the next 10 races are boosted by his 9.0 average finishing position in the last five races — the best among winless drivers.
|Harvick||Average Finish Position|
Last year’s second-place finisher Ross Chastain isn’t running badly: He’s only 29 points off current leader Martin Truex Jr. But Chastain and crew chief Phil Surgen just haven’t been able to cement a win. Chastain had two by this time last year. His best finish this year is second place at Dover.
Because Chastain ran in marginal equipment for much of his early career, I base my long-term numbers on data from 2021 (when he joined Chip Ganassi Racing) to the present.
Chastain’s best tracks over that time are those between 1 and 1.49 miles, where he has a 12.2 average finish. So even with only two races worth of data at Nashville, Chastain’s second- and fifth-place finishes bode well for success at the 1.33-mile oval. New Hampshire, where Chastain has an 8.0 average finish, also falls under that category.
|Chastain||Average Finish Position|
Superspeedways are a gamble, but drivers who have only 10 races left must gamble. Chastain has run well at Atlanta’s new configuration, with an average finish of 5.7 over three races. And one of Chastain’s 2022 wins came at another superspeedway: Talladega.
One potential negative is that Chastain finished 22nd or worse in three of his last four points races. He came back with a 10th-place finish last week at Sonoma.
Daniel Suárez started the season with three top-10 finishes, including a fourth at Fontana. Since then, his best finish is a seventh at Gateway. His season has been plagued by mistakes and accidents, including last week’s missed shift at Sonoma, the site of his first career victory last year.
I exclude his 2020 season from his ‘career’ numbers because those results are out of line with the rest of his statistics. Another caveat: Suárez’s finishes often don’t reflect his performance. He sometimes races well but crashes while running near the front of the field.
Pocono looks like one of Suárez’s top bets in the next 10 races. He finished consistently in the top 15 during his time at Trackhouse Racing, with a third-place finish last year.
|Suárez||Average Finish Position|
|Career (excluding 2020)||2022-2023|
Suárez’s finishes at Watkins Glen have been inconsistent; however, he finished fifth last year and has a total of five top-five finishes. He shouldn’t place too much hope on the Indy road course: His average finish in two races is 32.2.
Suárez’s best chances for making the playoffs this year is a combination of execution and luck at one of the wild-card races. He has a top-five at Atlanta in the superspeedway configuration.
As Brad Keselowski starts to return to form after a disappointing first year with RFK Racing, it’s fair to consider his entire career when trying to predict 2023. Because he changed teams last year, I don’t weigh Keselowski’s 2022 numbers heavily.
Of the tracks remaining in the regular schedule, Keselowski’s best average finish is at New Hampshire. He has two wins and 15 top-10 finishes in 22 races. He finished seventh last year.
Ford has won only twice this year, and those wins came at larger tracks: Atlanta and Charlotte. So Keselowski’s best shot might be Pocono. He has a career 12.3 average finish at tracks bigger than 1.5 miles that aren’t superspeedways or road courses. Keselowski has one Pocono win and 11 top-five finishes in 25 starts.
|Keselowski||Average Finish Position|
Richmond and Michigan are also possibilities. Keselowski has two wins at Richmond. He hasn’t won at Michigan, but he has 13 top-10 finishes.
As a six-time Talladega winner, you might expect Daytona to be on Keselowski’s list of possibilities. Keselowski’s skill at Talladega doesn’t seem to translate to Daytona. He has more finishes of 30th or worse than he does top-15 finishes at the Florida track. But Keselowski posted his season-best finish, a second place, at Atlanta, and his average finish there in the Next Gen car is 10.7.
Chris Buescher gave RFK Racing its only win last year, albeit at Bristol and too late to qualify for the playoffs. With five top-10 finishes in the last seven races, he ranks 11th in the standings, one spot ahead of teammate/boss Keselowski.
I use Buescher’s statistics starting in 2020, when he joined the team now known as RFK Racing. Over those years, Buescher has proven himself a competent road course racer, with an overall finishing average of 10.7.
In two runs at the Indy Grand Prix, Buescher has an average finish of 11.0 — but no top-fives. Buescher finished both races at a track that has produced a lot of DNFs. That gives him a higher-than-average probability of being there at the end to take advantage of end-of-race chaos.
|Buescher||Average Finish Position|
|Indy Road Course||11.0||10|
Buescher’s next best track is Watkins Glen. Again, he has a reasonable overall average finish but no finishes in the top five. In the one Next Gen race at Watkins Glen, Buescher finished ninth.
Buescher is another of the drivers who might want to pack their car with rabbit’s feet, horseshoes and four-leaf clovers at the two superspeedways. Although his finishes don’t always show it, Buescher is a good superspeedway driver — and a Ford won Atlanta in March.
If your favorite winless driver wasn’t included here, don’t worry. My next post will continue this theme and examine other winless drivers, including the two at Hendrick Motorsports.