Dr. Diandra: Denny Hamlin, Dale Jr. right about altering playoff format

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“It needs to have a bigger sample size.” You might expect that from a statistics nerd, but Denny Hamlin said it. He was addressing questions raised by Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download last fall about changing the playoff format.

“I think Dale Jr. covered it perfectly,” Hamlin told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long. “Should one season come down to this three-hour window?”

It shouldn’t.

Here’s why.

NASCAR is not like other sports

Under points systems up to 2003, a driver could secure the championship before the season’s final race. NASCAR’s playoff structure eliminates that possibility.

The last 10 races build excitement through multiple elimination rounds and lay the groundwork for more of those elusive “Game 7 moments.”

Just like other sports.

But NASCAR isn’t “just like” other sports.

The first difference is the field of play. Every NFL game is played on basically the same field. The difference between artificial and natural turf is minuscule compared to the difference between Talladega and Bristol.

Even if NASCAR rotates the season’s final track, some drivers have an advantage at some tracks. Weather limits the tracks that can host a November race.

Secondly, only two teams compete in other sports’ playoff games. Everyone competes in NASCAR’s playoffs. That lets mistakes or poor sportsmanship affect the outcome.

Forcing NASCAR into the mold established by other sports misses a chance to highlight racing’s differences.

Leverage NASCAR’s uniqueness to change the playoff format

When teams compete in twos, the number of teams in each playoff round is limited to powers of two: two, four, 8, 16, 32, 64. The graphic below shows NASCAR’s current playoff structure.

A graphic showing NASCAR's playoff format before any changes

Because NASCAR is different, it can have as many teams and rounds of playoffs as it wants.

Hamlin (and others) propose ending the season with a round instead of a race. The next graphic shows one possibility for changing the playoff format.

A possible NASCAR playoff format change

There are three rounds instead of four, and different numbers of races before eliminations.

There are many possibilities, but I chose a system with 14 drivers. Since 2017, when the playoffs started in their current form:

  • Only one of the six drivers entering the playoffs at 16th finished better than 11th. Kevin Harvick is the exception, finishing fifth in 2021.
  • No driver entering the playoffs in 15th finished the season better than seventh.

The number of drivers could be cut even more.

  • Of the six drivers entering the playoffs as 14th seeds, none finished better than fifth.
  • The highest-ranked driver entering the playoffs to make it into the Championship Four was Christopher Bell, who came into the 2022 playoffs ranked 10th.

Cutting the number of drivers in the playoffs is unlikely to impact the championship contenders.

I have only two races before the first cut because drivers making the playoffs with a single superspeedway, road course or dirt win rarely last very long before being eliminated. Darlington and Kansas are perfect tracks for this purpose.

I’d also require drivers to win two races before becoming eligible for an automatic playoff berth instead of the current one race.

Five superspeedway-style races, five road courses, and one dirt race made up 42.3% of the 2022 regular season schedule. Winning a single race doesn’t prove a driver is championship-contender material.

I’d fill the remainder of the slots with the drivers with the most points, regardless of wins.

Game 7 moments?

I have six drivers competing in the final four races. More drivers mean less chance of one driver running away with the championship. Make Talladega the first or second just to liven things up. Put Talladega too late in a round and the drivers will spend most of the race protecting their cars for the end rather than racing.

Only once since 1990 has one driver won the first three of the last four races. In 2007, Jimmie Johnson did one better: he won the first four of the season’s last five races.

One driver won the first two of the last three races three times since 1990.

  • Johnson (2007)
  • Tony Stewart (1999)
  • Davey Allison (1991)

Although the possibility of missing a “Game 7 moment” remains, it’s small.

Don’t underestimate the fans

One argument often made against changing the playoff format (or any other type of change) is that it would “require too much math” or “confuse the fans.”

NASCAR does an excellent job of disseminating information, especially statistics. NASCAR’s broadcast partners employ their own specialists, who not only do the math, but also explain it in the clearest possible ways.

And if my modification of the playoffs is too complex, let’s talk about the arcane Daytona 500 qualifying process or recent All-Star Race rules.

Hamlin was a little reticent to speak out on the issue of changing the playoffs because changes would likely benefit him.

But I don’t have a dog in this race, and I think he’s right.

NASCAR Hall of Fame welcomes three new members

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As NASCAR celebrates its 75th anniversary season, its Hall of Fame inducted three men whose careers collectively spanned from the sport’s beginnings to recent times. 

Matt Kenseth, Hershel McGriff and Kirk Shelmerdine were inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night, becoming the Hall’s 13th class.

Kenseth opened his speech by thanking the members of the Hall of Fame voting committee, then corrected himself, displaying his dry wit by saying: “I only want to thank the ones that voted for me.”

Kenseth used his speech to thank those for his career, highlighting, among others, car owners Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs and former teammate Mark Martin. 

“I am not sure that I would have ever got on Jack’s radar without him,” Kenseth said of Martin. “Mark was a big fan of mine and a big proponent and he certainly helped (crew chief Robbie Reiser) and I get in the door at Roush Racing.”

Kenseth said that was “very intimidated” by Roush when he went to his team but noted Roush did everything he could to help his drivers win.

“Jack, you always treated me with a tremendous amount of respect, which I probably didn’t always deserve,” Kenseth said. “It was a great honor to drive for you.”

Kenseth also noted how he went from one Hall of Fame car owner to another when he moved from Roush’s team to Gibbs’ team.

“Joe Gibbs Racing felt like a family, and I was blessed to be a part of it for five years,” Kenseth said. “I’ll always cherish all the great times we had together. Thanks Coach.”

Shelmerdine strayed from his prepared marks after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame by Dale Earnhardt Jr., saying: “This is cool.”

Shelmerdine highlighted a few individuals key in his career, including car owner Richard Childress and Earnhardt.

Shelmerdine noted that his time in the sport came after the pioneers but when some of the sport’s heroes reigned. 

“I’m humbled that my name and picture are on pages beside those of the greats I respect so much, to have the privilege of knowing them and working beside them, traverse that slice of time with them and to have gotten the chance to beat them,” Shelmerdine said.

“And then I was lucky enough to gain the immeasurable honor of being considered one of them. It’s precious to me that all this happened when it did.”

McGriff accepted his honor even though his racing career might not be over. He said that Childress and Bill McAnally both have pledged to provide him a car to race when he turns 100. McGriff quipped: “I hope they both stay healthy.”

McGriff sprinkled humor with history in his speech.

“My speech shouldn’t be too long because most of the people I have thank are dead,” he said. 

McGriff noted that his racing career began at age 7 driving a cart “pulled by a goat that I bought from my uncle for $4.”

McGriff twice raced on the Daytona Beach course and noted he was racing against Lee Petty when Richard Petty was “playing in a sandbox.”

Also Friday, NASCAR Senior Advisor Mike Helton was honored with the Landmark Award for outstanding contributions to NASCAR. Helton became the first person outside of the France family to be president of NASCAR in 2000. 

The late photographer T. Taylor Warren, whose photo of the finish of the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959 determined who won that race, was honored with the Squier—Hall Award for NASCAR media excellence. He is the first photojournalist to be honored.

Dr. Diandra: Kevin Harvick chooses the ‘just right’ time to leave

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For athletes, retirement is a Goldilocks question: Too early? Too late? Or just right?

Personal and health crises aside, no competitor wants to leave a sport while he believes he can still win. But neither does he want to be the past-their-prime athlete who overstays his welcome.

Racecar drivers are athletes. But the calculus of when to hang up the firesuit is much different than, for example, a sprinter who must push their body to the highest level of human performance.

I think Kevin Harvick got it just right.

It’s not because of age

Harvick, who turned 47 at the end of last year, was the oldest regular-season driver in 2022. Jeff Burton retired at age 47. Jeff Gordon retired at 45. Ryan Newman ran his last race just short of 44.

It’s not that older drivers don’t win. They just don’t win as often.

Drivers age 47 and older have won 29 Cup Series races1. The last time it happened was in 2009, when Mark Martin did it.

Five times.

MORE: Action sports star Travis Pastrana to attempt Daytona 500

Drivers 46 and older have won only 50 Cup Series races — but Harvick is responsible for two of those wins. If any driver is going to go against the trend, it’s Harvick.

There’s no reason to believe Harvick can’t win in 2023.

Quantifying ‘too early’ and ‘too late’

Retirement discussions focus on age because it’s a quick and simple statistic. But a better measure of “too early” and “too late” is how many races a driver runs between his last win and his last race.

Only drivers who have won races qualify for inclusion in the calculation. I restricted the dataset even further by requiring each driver have at least 10 career wins. Harvick is an elite driver and, as such, should be compared to other elite drivers.

I counted races between last win and retirement rather than years because some drivers ran three or four races a year for a couple of years after their last full seasons.

Elite drivers before 1976 ran fewer than 60 races after their last win.

Buck Baker was the first exception. He tallied 138 winless races before retiring in 1976.

Benny Parsons ran an even 100 races between his last win and his last race in 1988.

MORE: NASCAR to award medals to top three finishers in Clash

Buddy Baker drove the same number of winless races as his father did before retiring: 138.

The numbers go up from there. Richard Petty didn’t win any of his last 246 races. Darrell Waltrip went 265 winless races before retiring.

Bobby Labonte ran the most winless races between his last win and his last race: 363. But Labonte is the outlier.

Since the mid-2000s, elite drivers have run mostly fewer than 200 winless races before retiring. The table below summarizes the numbers for elite drivers who retired in the last seven years.

A table showing the number of races drivers ran between their last win and their last race.

In the worst case — if Harvick doesn’t win a race in 2023 — he will have run 48 winless races before retiring. In my view, leaving fans wanting more is always preferable to a once-champion driver posting an average finishing position in the high teens.

The non-quantifiable reasons for ‘just right’

The current crop of drivers is open about the challenges of juggling responsibilities as husbands and fathers while racing full time. One need only see the gleam in Harvick’s eye when he talks about son Keelan and daughter Piper.

Making the choice to step away earlier rather than later is easier today because drivers have many more options post-driving career. Early drivers didn’t make the kind of money that would allow them to retire. They opened car dealerships or pursued other business opportunities.

Today’s drivers plan for a second act — and they start early. Harvick is a prime example.

He’s run (and closed) a racing business. He owns a personal management company that represents drivers, UFC fighters, country music stars and golfers, among others. He is part of a group that just acquired the CARS tour.

He’s demonstrated his ability to bring his racing knowledge to fans in a fun and accessible way. With more drivers interested in (and capable of) becoming broadcasters than there are openings, drivers have to take opportunities when they come available.

Harvick has reached his “just-right” moment.

1 From 1960 to 1971 (excluding 1968), NASCAR lumped in the Daytona Duels with the regular-season races. To more accurately compare earlier and later seasons, I exclude those races from the regular-season count.

Report: 2023 to be Kevin Harvick’s final full-time Cup season

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Kevin Harvick, whose Cup debut came a week after Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, is expected to announce Thursday that this will be his final Cup season racing, The Athletic reported Wednesday night.

The 47-year-old Harvick is entering his 23rd Cup campaign. His contract with Stewart-Haas Racing expires after this season. Harvick said in December that he planned to decide on his future before this year’s Daytona 500.

“We’re at a point where everybody needs to know what’s going on,” Harvick said Dec. 1 before the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. “There’s too many tentacles to everything that happens. Whether it’s the race team, driver management company, every element needs to know. It’s not fair to anybody to have to start the season not knowing.”

Harvick, the 2014 Cup champion, is tied with Kyle Busch for ninth on the all-time Cup wins list with 60 victories. Harvick ranks 10th on the all-time Cup starts list at 790. He also is a two-time Xfinity Series champion. Those are among the accomplishments that will lead him to the NASCAR Hall of Fame when he is eligible.

Once his driving career ends, Harvick will continue to be busy. His 10-year-old son Keelan races and has competed in karting overseas. His management company, Kevin Harvick Inc., represents athletes in racing, golf and UFC. He also is a part of the new ownership group of the CARS Tour with Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Burton and Justin Marks.

Harvick made his Xfinity debut in 1999, running one race for Richard Childress Racing. He ran the entire season in 2000. He was scheduled to run the entire Xfinity season in 2001 and select Cup races that year before Earnhardt died after crashing on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Childress tapped Harvick to drive for Earnhardt’s team the rest of the season, piloting a white No. 29 car instead of the black No. 3 Earnhardt made famous. Harvick scored an emotional win at Atlanta in his third career Cup start. He drove for RCR through 2013. He has been at SHR since 2014.

Harvick has won at least one Cup race in 18 seasons. Twenty-nine of his 60 career victories have come since turning 40 years old.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Best drivers without a Cup championship

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For most of its 75-year history, and particularly since the early 1970s, the focal point of the NASCAR Cup Series has been the season championship.

Winning the title was noteworthy prior to the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. joining NASCAR as its primary sponsor, but the stacks of money provided by the Winston cigarette brand increased the importance of the championship exponentially. To be known as a “Winston Cup champion” became a much-coveted honor.

Over the years, many talented drivers have chased the championship, won dozens of races, come close to winning the title trophy and built Hall of Fame careers, all while failing to reach that ultimate goal.

Here are 10 of the best “non-champions.”

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin — Hamlin had the look of a championship driver from his first full-time season (2006), when he finished third in the standings. Along the way, he has won the Daytona 500 three times, won 48 Cup races and built a Hall of Fame resume. In the race for the championship, however, he has finished second, third three times, fourth twice and fifth twice.

2. Mark Martin — Martin was Denny Hamlin before Denny Hamlin. He chased the championship across 23 full-time seasons in the sport, falling short on several agonizing occasions. He was second five times and was in the top five in eight other years. Forty Cup victories and a reputation as a racer’s racer gave him clear entry into the Hall of Fame.

3. Junior Johnson — Johnson was the opposite of a “points” racer. He drove cars like there was no tomorrow. The result was typically a win, a wreck or an exploding engine. Although he won 50 races as a driver and later six championships as a team owner, there would be no driving title for Johnson.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. to run Xfinity race at Bristol

4. Davey Allison — Truly his father’s son (Bobby won the championship in 1983), Davey checked every box that might be listed under “champion” in the early years of his career. He barely lost the title in 1992 but seemed on track to compete for numerous championships down the road. He died in a helicopter crash in 1993.

5. Fred Lorenzen — “Fearless” Freddy, smart, fast and handsome, was a runaway star in Cup racing in the 1960s. He won 26 times between 1961 and 1967 and never ran a full schedule (although he finished third in points in 1963).

6. Fireball Roberts — The sport’s first superstar never raced a full Cup season. He won 33 races, including at least one every year between 1956 and 1964, when he died from injuries suffered in a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He finished in the points top 10 six times.

MORE: Five intriguing races for 2023

7. Ricky Rudd — Rudd drove for numerous teams, including his own, and won 23 times. A fierce competitor (ask Kevin Harvick about this), Rudd won at least one time every season for 16 consecutive years. He scored his best points finish — second — in 1991.

8. Carl Edwards — Edwards was solidly consistent throughout a career that produced 28 victories and earned him a shot at the title in 2011, when he tied Tony Stewart but lost the championship on a tiebreaker. He likely would have been in more championship races in future years but decided to retire early.

9. Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Junior, who won 26 times in Cup, repeated much of his father’s successes on the sport’s biggest tracks but fell short of joining him in scoring championships.

MORE: Stewart-Haas sets crew chief lineup

10. Tim Richmond — Richmond had a short but brilliant career, winning 13 times across seven seasons. In 1986, he won seven races and finished third in points. Fast, fearless and controversial, he died of AIDS in 1989, two years after his final race.

Honorable mentions: Jeff Burton, Jim Paschal, Curtis Turner, Geoffrey Bodine, Buddy Baker, Greg Biffle, Neil Bonnett, Harry Gant.