While some teams are fulfilling their potential — doing everything their equipment and skill allow — I’ve identified eight drivers with significant untapped potential.
By “untapped potential,” I mean a difference between average running position and average finishing position. In other words, drivers who run better than they finish. Not by just a little, but by two or more positions.
With half the regular season complete, Cup Series drivers have only 13 more races to cement playoff spots. Seven of the top-16 drivers remain winless, including points leader Ross Chastain.
Who are the Big Eight?
Eight drivers have average running positions from two up to almost five positions better than their average finishes. I show the eight drivers and the size of their untapped potentials in the graph below.
Each driver’s bar extends from his average running position (the upper edge of the bar) to his average finishing position (where the arrow ends). The number underneath indicates how big the difference is. I arranged drivers from left to right in order of highest untapped potential.
The table below, which summarizes some additional stats, shows that each driver faces his own challenges. The drivers rank between first and 32nd and include the driver with most wins and top 10s, as well as drivers with no wins and no top-10 finishes.
DNFs are the most-obvious culprit for low finishing averages, but they don’t explain why drivers aren’t getting the finishes they’ve shown they are capable of.
Failing to finish races isn’t the only issue affecting these drivers. Chastain has only one DNF and Denny Hamlin none. In fact, Hamlin is the only driver to finish every race this year on the lead lap. Yet Hamlin is still an example of untapped potential.
As you might guess, penalties and “incidents” (which include accidents, spins, tire issues and wheel issues) are the primary drivers of gaps between running and finishing positions.
Some of these weaknesses are addressable by the driver and some by the crew. Some are harder to address than others. But addressing them means better finishes and a better season.
Penalties are an obvious area for improvement because teams can (mostly) avoid penalties. I plotted each of the eight drivers’ penalties by type below.
I do not include what I deem to be intentional infractions here. An intentional infraction is one incurred because the penalty is less damaging than the consequences of not committing the infraction. That includes things like pitting before pit road is open or speeding when pitting after an accident. My penalty counts may thus differ from others.
The diagonally striped, yellow areas indicate an off-track excursion at a road course. While not a pit road penalty, they do hinder a driver’s track position.
As with the other statistics, this group of drivers exhibits a broad range of penalty numbers. Aric Almirola’s only penalty this year is a wheel coming off the car on track at Phoenix. Chastain and Kyle Larson each have only one speeding penalty. Preece and Gragson, on the other hand, each incurred seven penalties.
Penalty impacts stretch beyond the race at which the penalty is incurred. For example, Preece sped on pit road at Martinsville after leading every lap up to that point. The penalty sent him to the back of the field. Although Preece finished 15th, a win (or top-five finish) would have boosted driver self-confidence and team morale.
Penalties also hit harder when they happen in latter stages of races because there isn’t as much time to recover. For example, three of Daniel Suárez’s four speeding penalties happened in the third stage of races.
Speeding on pit road is the most common penalty and — in theory — entirely preventable. I remain surprised by the sheer number of reports of incorrectly set dash lights causing speeding penalties. The calculations for pit road speed are not complicated.
The rest, however, is up to the driver.
The graph below tallies the number of caution-causing incidents each driver has been involved in. This number doesn’t include minor contact that may impact track position but doesn’t cause a caution.
Larson is an incident magnet this year. It doesn’t seem to matter what track or where in the field he runs. Apart from the Bristol dirt race (where he spun) and Almirola losing a wheel at Atlanta, the remaining eight of Larson’s 10 incidents are accidents.
Larson was collateral damage in the first four accidents. His run-ins with Chastain in the last month all occurred while he was running in the top 10. A frustrated Rick Hendrick addressed the situation after Darlington, suggesting there would be payback.
Chastain leads the points but hasn’t won a race, in large part because of his own actions. His team owner put Chastain on notice, even while reassuring the pilot that the team is fully behind him. The problem is that — if Chastain changes — it may be too late. He’s already antagonized a significant fraction of the field. Like Larson, Chastain should have more wins by now.
Speaking of winning, William Byron’s presence on this list may seem a surprise. While making news for other reasons, he quietly became the statistically best driver this year. And he should be finishing almost four positions better than he is already. If Byron can tap into that untapped potential, this might be his year to make it all the way.