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Dr. Diandra: The seven habits of successful championship contenders

The field is set for the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, and Marty Snider, Kyle Petty, and Nate Ryan preview the first Round of 16 race, as Darlington is sure to make things difficult.

The field is finalized for the 2022 Cup playoffs with a record-tying 16 winners in the first 26 races. Let’s see how this year’s drivers compare to previous championship contenders.

The comparison group is playoff drivers from the 2017-21 seasons, which all used the same playoff format as this year. In that group, I found seven metrics that separated the eventual champions from the also-rans.

1. Successful championship competitors won their way into the playoffs

The graph below shows the number of wins after 26 races versus each driver’s season-ending rank. I made the symbols different sizes to distinguish drivers with the same rank and numbers of wins. The different colors denote different years and each year has its own symbol.

A scatter plot of number of wins coming into the playoffs versus season-ending rank for 2017=2022

This year, 6.25% of drivers (i.e., Ryan Blaney) reached the playoffs without a win. Of the 80 drivers participating in the last five playoffs, 23 (28.7%) got in without winning a race.

Only one (4.3%) of those 23 drivers reached the championship four. That was Denny Hamlin in 2021.

While this might seem a positive for Blaney, Hamlin ended the regular season only 18 points behind eventual champion Kyle Larson. Blaney ended the 2022 season 138 points behind regular season winner Chase Elliott.

Except for Hamlin, no driver who pointed his way into the playoffs ended the season higher than fifth place. The three initially winless drivers who fought their way to fifth place are Elliott (2017), Aric Almirola (2018), and Kevin Harvick (2021).

A total of eight out of the 23 winless drivers reached the round of eight.

2. The most successful drivers won more than one race to get into the playoffs

Seven (43.8%) of this year’s 16 competitors enter the playoffs with a single win. That’s almost a third more than the average of 33.8% over the last five years.

However, seven drivers also entered the playoffs last year with a single win. Only three drivers were single winners in 2018 and 2019, which pulls down the average.

The bad news for single-win drivers is that of the 27 drivers who entered the playoffs with a single win from 2017-2022, 70.3% failed to make it to the round of eight.

And 40.7% didn’t even make it past the first cut. Of the 11 drivers eliminated in the first round, five (45.4%) won their playoff-qualifying race at a superspeedway and three (27.3%) at tracks between one mile and one-and-a-half miles.

3. Championship contenders know that past wins don’t guarantee playoff success

Two of our 80 drivers failed to make the first cut even though they had more than one win. Alex Bowman came into the playoffs with three wins in 2021 and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had two in 2017. Mistakes and bad luck can quickly negate a stellar regular season.

Elliott will be happy to hear that no driver with four wins has failed to make the round of eight. He’ll be less happy that the driver with the most wins coming into the playoffs doesn’t always win the championship — or even make the championship four.

4. Future champions offset bad finishes with good finishes

Every driver had bad finishes this year. Getting good enough finishes to keep your average finishing position low separates the championship contenders from the rest. There is a decent correlation between finishing position and how far a driver goes in the playoffs.

As with all these statistics, though, it’s a guide and not a guarantee.

  • No driver with an average finishing position above 17 has made it into the round of 8. If that number holds, Austin Dillon, William Byron, Chase Briscoe, Tyler Reddick and Hamlin are in trouble.
  • Championship-four drivers all had an average finishing position of 14.1 or lower. That could pose a challenge for Bowman, Christopher Bell, Austin Cindric, Joey Logano and Daniel Suárez.
  • On the flip side: Drivers with average finishing positions as low as 11.8 have been eliminated in the first round. This year, that’s everyone except Elliott.
  • In 2020, Harvick had the best average finishing position (6.6) of any driver in the five years of this playoff format, yet finished the season in fifth place.

5. Top contenders lead a lot of races

Drivers who reach the championship four lead laps at a lot of different tracks during the regular season.

  • The lowest number of tracks where laps were led and the driver made the championship four was 10 in 2018.
  • But a driver who had led at 10 different races in 2020 was eliminated in the first cutoff.

6. Successful contenders enter with a lot of top-10 finishes

The downside to the win-and-you’re-in model is that it can admit drivers with one win and an otherwise unremarkable season. The next graph shows a strong correlation between top-10 finishes and where the driver finishes the season.

A scatter plot of the number of top-10 finishes after 26 races versus the season-ending ranking

No driver has reached the championship four without at least 13 top-10 finishes coming into the playoffs. This year, Elliott, Logano, Chastain, Larson, Harvick, Bell and Kyle Busch satisfy that criterion.

But again, drivers with 13 top-10 finishes have also been eliminated in the first round. That’s a byproduct of the elimination structure. Bad luck in one round can sink even the best drivers.

Harvick earned the most top-10 finishes in 2018 with 22, yet finished third that year. But in general, the fewer the top-10 finishes, the earlier the driver is eliminated.

7. Championship contenders bank playoff points

Despite not winning a race, Blaney is ahead of two-time winners Reddick and Harvick in the playoffs. Blaney won five stages during the season, while Reddick won one and Harvick none. The only other driver with no stage wins is Dillon.

In 2021, Larson entered the playoffs with the most playoff points in all five years: 58. That includes the 15-point bonus for winning the regular season.

This year, Elliott enters with 40 playoff points: four wins at five points apiece, five stage wins and the 15-point bonus.

But in 2018, Logano entered the playoffs with 10 points compared to 54 earned by Harvick. Logano won the championship.

What’s probably more relevant is that no driver with fewer than 10 playoff points made it to the championship four under the current playoff structure. Briscoe, Suárez, Cindric, Bowman and Dillon all have playoff points in the single digits.

No driver entering the playoffs with fewer than five stage wins has made it to the final four. But in 2022, the most stage wins any playoff driver has is five. Four drivers -- Elliott, Logano, Blaney and Chastain -- have accomplished that.

Drivers with no stage wins are usually eliminated before the round of eight; however, a driver with no stage wins has made it as high as fifth. You can probably guess that was Harvick, who seems to defy most trends.

This year, everything — race wins, stage wins, points, top 10s — is spread out among a greater number of drivers than in the past. It remains to be seen whether the seven habits of championship contenders will hold up in the Next Gen era.