Dr. Diandra: The seven habits of successful championship contenders


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
Key: 2017-circles, 2018-squares, 2019-diamonds, 2020-stars, 2021-triangles

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.

NASCAR weekend schedule for Talladega Superspeedway


The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll into Talladega Superspeedway, a center of uncertainty, for the second race in the Round of 12 this weekend.

Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET, NBC) could place the first driver in the Round of 8. Any playoff driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round.

Through the playoffs to date, playoff drivers are batting zero in the race-win category. Non-playoff drivers — Tyler Reddick, Chris Buescher, Bubba Wallace and Erik Jones — have scored wins in the first four playoff races.

Joey Logano leads the playoff points entering the race. Ross Chastain, who won at Talladega earlier this year, is second.

The four drivers below the cutline are Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman. Byron was above the line earlier this week but was penalized 25 points for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. That move lifted Chase Briscoe above the cutline.

Playoff races also are scheduled for the Xfinity Series (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, USA Network) and the Camping World Truck Series (Saturday, 12:30 p.m., FS1) at Talladega.

Here’s a look at the Talladega weekend schedule:

Talladega Superspeedway (Cup, Xfinity and Truck)

Weekend weather

Friday: Sunny. High of 78.

Saturday: Partly cloudy. High of 74.

Sunday: Intervals of clouds and sun. High of 75.

Friday, Sept. 30

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Truck Series
  • 10:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. — Xfinity Series
  • 2 – 7 p.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Garage open

  • 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. — Cup Series
  • 9:30 a.m. — Truck Series
  • 1 p.m. — Xfinity Series

Track activity

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson


Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.






Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway


The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:


Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.


Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.




NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races


The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.