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Stat Darlings: Celebrating the best drivers of 2021

Relive all the best feuds, fights and breathtaking finishes of the 2021 NASCAR season, from Kyle Larson's dominant title win to the Chase Elliott-Kevin Harvick feud.

For the last few years and across different media outlets, I’ve recognized “Stat Darlings” for each NASCAR Cup Series season. These awards are doled out subjectively with objective, statistics-based reasoning.

Let’s hand out some hardware!

Best Rookie: Chase Briscoe

NASCAR’s award for Rookie of the Year isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

Consider Cole Custer’s 2020 award, given to him automatically after the first 26 races solely because of his team’s playoff qualification. He was, by definition, the award’s recipient. But a cogent argument could be made that fellow rookies Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and John Hunter Nemechek had better statistical production across 36 races.

This year, the award and the designation coalesce with Briscoe smack in the middle of the Venn diagram.

Granted, 2021 saw a thin rookie class - Anthony Alfredo was the only other eligible newcomer. Briscoe displayed some slow-burn development that, to the surprise of some, shone brightest on 550-horsepower tracks.

A former dirt racer who scored nine Xfinity Series victories in 2020, the 27-year-old’s best days previously came at tracks of all types where the horsepower is high. This year, he proved most efficient as a passer on the larger oval tracks utilizing the 550 package, ranked 13th among series regulars in surplus passing value.

He was also, across all tracks, an above-average restarter on preferred groove attempt, with a 71.43% position retention rate - a mark besting all of last year’s rookies and Stewart-Haas Racing stable mate Aric Almirola, whose improved numbers regressed mightily during the season’s home stretch. Among drivers averaging running positions 20th-25th, Briscoe ranked first in position retention rate and second in weighted positions gained on restarts.

How Briscoe improves from this point is a considerable question, given the age at which he entered the Cup Series. He’s older than all of the drivers in the rookie class that preceded him. He’s also older than William Byron, Erik Jones and 2020 champion Chase Elliott.

The ceiling on his potential is unclear, but it’s inarguable that the competition he’ll likely see for the remainder of his career received a head start on obtaining valuable experience at stock car racing’s top level.

Most Improved: William Byron

Based on previous career benchmarks, no other driver enjoyed an improvement anywhere near Byron’s magnitude in 2021.

The 24-year-old driver saw a 0.625-point increase over his 2020 Production in Equal Equipment Rating; a nine-spot improvement to his speed ranking (measured by his average median lap rank); his position retention rate on restarts jump by over six percentage points; and his surplus passing on non-drafting ovals move from +0.16%, ranked 12th among series regulars, to +1.67%, ranked fifth.

Combined, these improvements manifested in three times as many top-five finishes (12) than what he secured last year (four).

Incredibly, it seems his improvement isn’t finished. Byron was one of five drivers competing in the Cup Series at age 23 or younger, and the only one of the five who qualified for the playoffs in three of his four seasons. On average, the age-24 season, which will come in 2022 for Byron, sees a monumental improvement in the overall production of Cup drivers.

It’s entirely possible we’ll be back here in a year’s time detailing more improvement from a driver that’s more regularly turning good statistical efforts on paper into tangible race finishes.

Best Restarter: Kyle Larson

Larson was good at everything in 2021 — more on that later — but if we were to pinpoint his best peripheral category, it’d be restarts. His 76.77% position retention rate ranked first among series regulars, over six percentage points greater than the second-best rate (Elliott at 70.56%). He also ranked first in retention (with a 77.22% rate) specifically on restarts utilizing the choose rule.

Now, it’s easier to maintain positioning when, as the leader, you have all the clean-air advantages of the front row. And Larson frequently led, restarting from the P1 spot on nearly 32% of his attempts. He also selected his positioning well; over 62% of his restarts from inside the first 14 spots originated from a preferred groove slot, putting the odds of retention in his favor.

But his attempts at mitigating loss from non-preferred groove restarts, typically a source of positional drops, was a cut above anyone else in the series. His was the only retention rate hitting the 60% mark, while his average loss of 0.41 spots served as the most team-friendly clip - enough water treaded for the runs that’d soon follow.

Best Passer: Chase Elliott

Elliott and Larson were relatively neck and neck when it came to passes on short runs and long runs. But whereas the latter saw 8% of his adjusted pass differential come from positions earned within the two-lap window for restarts, the former made traditional passes across long green-flag runs his primary wellspring for track position.

Elliott’s +2.59% surplus passing value ranked first among series regulars, as did his +446 adjusted pass differential. Despite his good positional defense on restarts, ranked second in retention rate to Larson, his seasonal net gain within the window was -1, indicating the totality of his forward movement was the result of the work being done on long runs.

This was a strength exploited by his team, who took more risks than most during the pre-race buildup. Elliott started from the tail end of fields six times in 2021 as a result of inspection penalties or unapproved adjustments, and scored at least one point during the first stages of all six races.

Best All-Around Driver: Kyle Larson

Larson won 10 times in 36 starts, a testament to both a good driver and a good team. But individually, the 29-year-old impressed thanks to rankings in key statistical categories:

  • 1st in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER)
  • 1st in PEER on 550-horsepower tracks
  • 1st in PEER on 750-horsepower tracks
  • 1st in PEER in races with zero late restarts
  • 1st in PEER in races with at least one late restart
  • 1st in position retention rate on all restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on choose-rule restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on preferred groove restarts
  • 1st in position retention rate on non-preferred groove restarts
  • 1st in adjusted pass efficiency on non-drafting tracks
  • 2nd in surplus passing value on non-drafting tracks
  • 2nd in surplus passing value on 750-horsepower ovals
  • 4th in crash avoidance

The 2021 title went to its most worthy potential recipient - never a guarantee in the playoff era.

Larson crashed just 0.19 times per race, a rate trailing only Joey Logano (0.14), Chris Buescher (0.17) and Erik Jones (0.17) among those regularly running inside the top 30. His clean driving combined with elite production, restarting and passing is a tough riddle for all others to solve and comprises a statistical profile unquestionably deserving of this designation.

Across the whole of 2021, Larson was the ultimate stat darling and the most important cog of a team with one of the greatest seasons in modern NASCAR history.