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Analysis: Four drivers deliver improved marks during playoff stretch

Take a behind the scenes look of Kyle Larson's historic NASCAR Cup Series Championship celebration.

Just because a driver didn’t qualify for the playoffs — or was eliminated early — doesn’t mean that the slate of remaining races are all lost causes. On the contrary, four drivers and teams in particular submitted improved statistical performances after losing championship eligibility.

They very well could be cases of good performances across a small sample size. Nevertheless, William Byron, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Austin Dillon entered the offseason on a high, delivering improved marks in key statistical categories.

William Byron

In his first year paired with crew chief Rudy Fugle at the Cup Series level, Byron ranked second in average median lap time ranking, an increase over his 12th-place speed ranking in 2020 with Chad Knaus in charge. In this sense, 2021 as a whole represented a significant leap for a driver who’s still among the three youngest in the series.

Byron’s exit from the playoffs — following a heartbreaking loss in the Charlotte Roval race, during which he turned the fastest median lap — didn’t slow his progress. He was already one of the playoffs’ best long-run passers and this was a trend that continued in the four remaining races.

He registered positive surplus passing values in each event spanning from Texas to Phoenix, which included a day of perfect restart position retention across nine attempts at Texas. Byron ended the 2021 season with an adjusted pass differential 94 positions better than his statistical expectation — with 81 of those spots earned during the nine playoff races on non-drafting tracks. Only Chase Elliott (+100) earned more among playoff drivers during the aforementioned postseason span.

But in many cases, those additional spots went for naught. Among playoff drivers, only Ryan Blaney’s team (50 positions) lost more spots on caution-flag pit stops than Byron’s (43), meaning all the efficient work the 23-year-old was able to do in traffic was for places in the running order he’d already procured or was soon to lose again. If Hendrick Motorsports ever intends to take advantage of what appears to be a strength that’s elite within the Cup Series, this is a weak area of the No. 24 team that’ll need to be addressed.

Bubba & Bootie

Bubba Wallace didn’t necessarily get faster as a result of his team’s crew chief change, which occurred after the first two playoff races. His average median lap ranking with Bootie Barker (19.83) was slightly slower than with Mike Wheeler (19.72). But that doesn’t mean improvement didn’t occur.

Tactically, 23XI Racing’s flagship team was better at defending positions across long runs. Barker’s 85.7% retention rate across green-flag pit cycles was a marked improvement over Wheeler’s 52.4% rate. Interestingly, Wallace, competing against better competition because of the less frequent drops in the running order, submitted better passing numbers, ending the playoffs with a positive surplus value (+0.32%) compared to the negative surplus earned during the regular season (-0.04%).

His ceiling for finishes also increased. In 28 races with Wheeler, Wallace finished 16th or better 11 times, or a 37.9% rate. With Barker, the rate for top-16 finishes improved to 62.5%. The uptick was such a positive that 23XI announced this week that Barker will remain the crew chief for Wallace in 2022 amid a bevy of additions within the organization’s competition department.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Stenhouse turned in a carbon copy of Byron’s postseason run, albeit 10 positions down the running order.

JTG Daugherty Racing’s driver was an efficient mover during the regular season, earning an adjusted pass differential 48 positions better than his statistical expectation. But his efficiency hit overdrive during the playoff stretch, for which his car ranked as just the 21st-fastest. The playoff opener at Darlington served as the only race among the nine on non-drafting tracks that Stenhouse didn’t earn a positive surplus value. Ultimately, his playoff pass differential was 83 positions better than his statistical expectation.

Furthermore, Stenhouse saw improved restarting numbers. Within the two-lap windows following each restart, he retained position within the first seven rows 85.71% of the time in playoff races on choose-rule tracks, the single highest rate among all drivers. This represents an increase of over 23 percentage points from his regular season rate, which ranked 14th in the series.

But despite these good peripheral statistics, Stenhouse earned only five playoff race finishes better than his speed ranking. He crashed out of two races — Texas and Phoenix — and his pit crew played a role in his inability to overachieve. Their 63 positions lost during yellow-flag pit stops was the most of any team, an area of focus for JTG Daugherty as the organization consolidates from two teams to Stenhouse’s one in 2022.

Austin Dillon

From a sheer results standpoint, there wasn’t a weak performance by Dillon across the final 10 races. In fact, he was the only driver during that span to secure finishes inside the top half of the field in each race. And while none of those finishes were better than 10th, none were worse than 15th, a run of consistency and some slight overachieving given his team’s 15th-place average median lap rank in playoff races.

That diligence came in spite of four crashes in playoff races, though three of them took place at Martinsville. His Production in Equal Equipment Rating improved from its regular season mark (1.259) to 2.078, a rating ranked seventh among all drivers across the stretch and tops among non-playoff drivers.

Dillon’s playoff-race surplus passing value (-1.45%) was a drop from his regular-season mark (+0.53%), but his short-run game at some tracks made up for his overall long-run shortcoming. He completed two races — Darlington and Talladega — with perfect retention rates on restarts and gained 12 positions across three attempts out of the preferred groove at Kansas.