Dr. Diandra: The path to 16 regular season winners

NASCAR Cup Series Coca-Cola 600 Qualifying
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With six races left in the regular season, 14 drivers have earned wins and, most likely, playoff berths. Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, Jr. are third and fourth in points, but their lack of wins makes them 15th and 16th seeds. Two new winners in the six remaining races — bringing us to 16 regular season winners — would shut both drivers out of the playoffs.

Unless, of course, they’re the drivers who win.

It’s happened before, but rarely

There has never been more than 16 winners by race 26.

Only twice in NASCAR Cup Series history have 16 different drivers won during the first 26 races of the year: in 1961 (when five new winners took the checkered flag in races 22 through 26) and again in 2003.

Fifteen different drivers winning in the first 26 races is pretty rare, too: It happened in 2001, 2002 and 2011.

Turning to today, 2022 is only the fifth time in Cup Series history that 14 different drivers won races by the 20th race of the season. The last three seasons with 14 winners in 20 races were 2011, 2003, and 2002. The first occurrence was in 1950, when there were only 19 races in the entire season.

Having so many different winners is a recent phenomenon. The 1970s never saw more than 10 winners by race number 20. In 1974, four drivers won 29 of the 30 races. Those days are long gone.

I’ll therefore focus my analysis on recent seasons. The graph below shows the number of winners after 20 races in green and the number of winners after 26 races in grey. The posted values are the number of winners as of race 20.

A vertical bar chart showing the number of distinct winners after 20 and 25 races

The likelihood of having 16 different drivers win a regular season race in 2022 depends on having two (or more) new winners in the next six races. Since 2000, new winners in races 21-26 ranged from zero to three.

  • There were no new winners in three of the 22 seasons considered (13.6%).
  • Eight previous seasons had one new winner (36.4%).
  • Seven seasons had two new winners (31.8%).
  • There were three new winners four times (18.1%).

These numbers suggest a high likelihood of at least 15 winners by the time the haulers leave Daytona. Of the previous 22 seasons, 86.4% had at least one new winner in races 21-26. The last six seasons have each had at least one new winner in the last six regular season races.

Of the three seasons on the graph with 14 winners at race 20 — as there are in 2022 — two had one new winner and one had two new winners.

However, the only seasons boasting three new winners are those with 11 or fewer winners by race 20. Thus, the likelihood of having 17 different season winners is pretty small.

There are only so many competitive drivers.

Who is left to win?

Coming into Pocono, 13 full-time drivers with Cup Series wins have not won in 2022. Career wins are noted in parentheses.

An additional five full-time drivers have yet to earn their first wins: Harrison Burton, Ty Dillon, Todd Gilliland, Corey LaJoie, and Cody Ware.

I tallied the same statistics going back to 2014, the first year of the “win and you’re in” playoff format. I was generous counting full-time drivers without wins, including any driver who attempted to run most of a season, even if he or she didn’t qualify for all the races.

In the graph below, I show drivers with at least one Cup Series win, but no season win as of race 20 in yellow. Drivers with no Cup Series wins are represented by blue.

A vertical bar chart showing the numbers of drivers yet to win each year from 2014-2022

The number of winning drivers yet to win a race in 2022 is about average, which means the pool of possible winners is comparable to previous years.

But because five drivers already earned their first Cup Series wins this year, 2022 offers the lowest number of opportunities for additional first-time-ever winners. I wouldn’t count out Ty Dillon or Corey LaJoie as contenders at the regular-season-ending Daytona race — especially if drivers get aggressive early and the DNF total climbs.

An underdog winner may move the regular-season-winner count higher, but remember that drivers outside the top 30 in points are not eligible for the playoffs.

Who is likely to win?

I haven’t yet mentioned a small, but by no means insignificant, group of possible winners: Part-time drivers who target races they have a realistic chance of winning. By small, I mean primarily A.J. Allmendinger.

The table below shows the 13 tracks that have hosted races number 21-26 in the last eight seasons.

  • A yellow square means the track hosted a race that year.
  • A red X means that the track produced a first-time winner that year.
  • I highlighted the names of tracks hosting this year’s final regular-season races in red.

In 2020, both Michigan and Dover hosted back-to-back races, which is why only four tracks are highlighted that year.

A table showing the tracks and new winners for the last six races of the regular season from 2014-2021

The last two columns show the number of new winners in the last six regular-season races, and the number of those winners who notched first-time ever wins.

In the last eight years, 13 drivers earned their first season win in races 21-26. Two of those wins were Allmendinger’s: At Watkins Glen in 2014 (when he ran full time) and last year, as the inaugural winner of the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

An Allmendinger win would move the total closer to the 16 winners threshold, but would not affect the playoffs. Allmendinger cannot earn points in the Cup Series this year.

The new winners from the last eight seasons came from 10 different tracks. Five of those tracks are included in the next six races of 2022. Pocono and Watkins Glen produced new winners about a third of the time. Daytona did so once out of two races, and Michigan once out of nine races. The Indianapolis road course is one for one.

The sixth track on this year’s schedule, Richmond, has not hosted a first-time winner at its fall race during this time frame, despite being the last regular season race five times.

The pessimist in me notes that six of the 13 new winners in the table were also first-time winners in the Cup Series. The ranks of the never-won drivers is way down this year, which means new winners must come from the veteran winners pool.

The optimist counters that this year is the first time we’ve have two road courses and a superspeedway in the last six regular season races under this playoff format. With half the remaining races at tracks conducive to new winners, the probability of seeing a new winner rises.

And, of course, there’s the Next Gen car, which has presented technical challenges, but also put some unexpected names at the front of recent fields. Both optimist and pessimist agree, however, that the numbers suggest that sixteen regular-season winners is well within reach.