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.

A look at Cup driver uniforms for 2023

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It won’t be long before cars are on track for the Feb. 5 Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Before the action takes place there, check out the driver uniforms for the 2023 Cup season.

Listed below are the drivers, based on their car numbers. Driver uniform pictures are not yet available for AJ Allmendinger, Noah Gragson, Erik Jones, Ty Gibbs and Ty Dillon. The rest of the drivers with chartered teams are displayed here.

 

1 – Ross Chastain

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

2 – Austin Cindric

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

3 – Austin Dillon

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

4 – Kevin Harvick

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

5 – Kyle Larson

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

6 – Brad Keselowski

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

7 – Corey LaJoie

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

8 – Kyle Busch

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

9 – Chase Elliott

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

10 – Aric Almirola

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

11 – Denny Hamlin

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

12 – Ryan Blaney

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

14 – Chase Briscoe

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

17 – Chris Buescher

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

19 – Martin Truex Jr.

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

20 – Christopher Bell

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

21 – Harrison Burton

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

22 – Joey Logano

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

23 – Bubba Wallace

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

24 – William Byron

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

31 – Justin Haley

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

34 – Michael McDowell

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

38 – Todd Gilliland

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

41 – Ryan Preece

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

45 – Tyler Reddick

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

47 – Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

 

48 – Alex Bowman

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

51 – Cody Ware

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

78 – BJ McLeod

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

99 – Daniel Suarez

2023 NASCAR Production Days
(Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

 

Dr. Diandra: Three reasons Kyle Busch will thrive in 2023

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Kyle Busch ended his 15-year relationship with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2022. The 2023 season brings a new owner in Richard Childress, along with a new crew chief and a new manufacturer.

Busch expects to be successful with RCR out of the gate. Three pieces of data support the expectation that Busch will thrive in 2023.

But there’s also one caveat.

Reason one: The Next Gen car didn’t cause Busch’s bad 2022 season

There is no debating that Kyle Busch had a disappointing 2022 season.

  • He posted his highest average finish (16.7) since 2014.
  • He had the most DNFs in a season  (7) since 2005.
  • He finished 13th for the season, tying his lowest finish since 2012.
  • He had more top-five finishes in 2015 when he ran only 25 of the 36 races than he did in 2022.

But Busch’s decline started in 2020.

  • Busch won five races in 2019, more than the next three years combined.
  • His average finish of 13.8 in 2020 was his worst since 2014.
  • Busch didn’t finish a season between 2015-19 ranked lower than fourth, including two championships. He hasn’t ranked higher than eighth in the last three years.

Excluding DNFs — more on why in a moment — Busch’s finishing averages are not that different from 2021. The table below breaks out average finishes by track type.

A table showing Kyle Busch's finishes in 2022 by track type compared to those of 2021Busch was similar or better in all categories except road courses and the three “other” tracks.

“Other” tracks — large tracks that are neither superspeedways nor road courses — are Busch’s second-best track type, with a career win rate of 10.1%. In 2022, he crashed at Michigan and was disqualified at Pocono.

Reason two: Many of Busch’s 2022 problems were not his fault

I excluded DNFs in the above analysis because they reflect on both driver and team. You might blame a driver for causing a crash, but it’s not the driver’s fault if the car gives out.

Busch had two engine failures. Both were in the first round of the playoffs while running at or near the front. He was leading at Darlington and in the top five at Bristol. He also started from the back twice due to engine changes.

A piece of tape wiped out a second-place Pocono finish when NASCAR disqualified Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin. Busch’s car overheated at Fontana.

Toyota teams took longer to come up to speed with the Next Gen car. For example, Christopher Bell had the best average finishing position at road courses (11.5, including one win) among JGR teams. But second-best Martin Truex Jr. had an average finish of only 17.8 and a high finish of seventh.

Busch does have to take responsibility for leading the series in spins; however, the number of spins in 2022 was three times the total in 2021, so he wasn’t alone there.

Reason three: Busch is a good match with RCR

Although Richard Childress Racing has an amazing legacy, none of its drivers has finished a season in the top 10 since Ryan Newman in 2014. Before 2022, they posted just four wins in eight years.

But RCR earned four wins in 2022, anchored by Tyler Reddick’s three checkered flags. Although Busch won only one race, he outperformed Reddick in all but road course and the “other” category of track.

A table comparing Kyle Busch and Tyler Reddick's average finishing positions (excluding DNFs) in 2022 by track typeReddick, who will race for 23XI in 2023, won two road courses and finished top eight in five of the six road courses in 2022. RCR knows how to build and set up road course cars.

Busch has a career win rate of 8.5% at road courses, third highest among track types for him. Look for Busch to return to form in road courses in 2023.

Busch’s perennial weakness is superspeedways. His career average finishing position is 20.0 with a 2.74% win rate. Superspeedway performance is even more important going forward given six superspeedway-type races per season.

RCR’s strength is superspeedways. Busch’s new teammate Austin Dillon has a 5.0% career win rate at superspeedways.

But …

Personality and culture collisions can torpedo driver-crew relationships, especially when the team isn’t winning.

Busch typically is not patient when things aren’t going the way he wants them. Crew chief Randall Burnett’s challenge will be managing the driver as much as the car. Burnett seems to understand this, but beginnings are often filled with friction.

If Busch and his new team can overcome the pitfalls of a new partnership, look for him to have a much better 2023 season.

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.

Fast starts? Can another team duplicate what Hendrick Motorsports did last year?

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Hendrick Motorsports had a surprisingly strong start to the 2022 NASCAR Cup season, especially considering so much was unknown about the new Next Gen car.

Hendrick drivers won three of the first five point races of the year, an accomplishment that no team had achieved since car owner Carl Kiekhaefer’s Chrysler 300s won three of the first five in the 1956 season.

Kyle Larson won at Auto Club Speedway in the second race of the year. Alex Bowman scored at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and William Byron won at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

MORE: Things to watch for in 2023

Hendrick Motorsports drove on to lead all teams with 11 wins last year, although Team Penske grabbed the championship with Joey Logano. Still, Hendrick’s hot start was noteworthy for scoring a bit of history and demonstrating once again that the Chevrolet team remains one of the sport’s giants.

Can anyone duplicate Hendrick’s fast start in 2023?

The first five points race of the year are at the same locations as last season — Daytona International Speedway (Feb. 19), Auto Club Speedway (Feb. 26), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (March 5), Phoenix Raceway (March 12) and Atlanta Motor Speedway (March 19).

In the second year of the radically different Next Gen vehicle, with a long season of trials and troubles behind them, teams are likely to have a much better grip on the car’s wants and needs as 2023 opens. In theory, that should make this year more competitive than last, but it won’t be surprising if Hendrick or another power team has several winning runs in the first weeks of the season.

Hendrick’s strong driver lineup — Chase Elliott, Larson, Byron and Bowman — returns. All four won races last year, and Elliott, Byron and Larson finished in the top 10 in points. The depth of mechanical knowledge and experience on the Hendrick Motorsports campus near Charlotte Motor Speedway is among the most impressive in international auto racing. Hendrick typically has the fastest cars in Daytona leading to the 500, and few would be surprised to see a Hendrick car win in the 500 and more success over the first weeks of the schedule.

Can the new version of Richard Childress Racing be tough early? Many will look for Kyle Busch to inject new life — and a real chance at a championship — into one of the sport’s oldest teams. He could shine early, if only to prove the doubters wrong. And Austin Dillon is a former Daytona 500 winner.

Team Penske is a threat every week. Logano finished last season racing with style and ultimately sitting in the throne room. Ryan Blaney will look to end a punishing winless streak in points races, and, by the way, Austin Cindric won the Daytona 500 last year.

Joe Gibbs Racing was the second biggest winner — with six — last season but didn’t click until Denny Hamlin won at Richmond in the seventh race. Martin Truex Jr., typically fast at Daytona, went winless last year, and Ty Gibbs is new to the Cup operation. Christopher Bell and Hamlin will give JGR its best shots at early-season success.

Trackhouse Racing, to the surprise of many, notched three wins last year, but none came in the first five weeks of the year. Ross Chastain remains on board, however, so all bets are off at Daytona.

Tyler Reddick, one of the sport’s best young drivers, should add new fire to 23XI Racing and could give the team one or more wins early. Bubba Wallace has threatened in the past at Daytona but hasn’t scored.

Perhaps the most intriguing entry in the early part of the season is returning seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who is scheduled to make his debut with Petty GMS at Daytona. Johnson, who has said he will run a partial schedule this year, knows the ins and outs of 500 week and could be a threat there. Erik Jones scored a win last year and figures to be improved, and newcomer Noah Gragson will give the team a quirky and talented component.

Stewart-Haas Racing put only one driver — ninth-place Chase Briscoe — in the top 10 in points last year but has veteran input from Kevin Harvick and a new, eager face in Ryan Preece.

Although its landscape is distinctively a one-off, the Feb. 5 Clash at the Coliseum should provide a few hints as to which teams might have made gains during the short off-season.

Last year’s Clash, won by Logano, saw only three teams lead laps. Logano led 35 for Team Penske, Kyle Busch was in front 64 laps to start his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing, and Tyler Reddick foreshadowed what would be a surprisingly strong season for Richard Childress Racing with 51 laps out front.

Although Hendrick won three races early last year, after 10 races the competition thread had lengthened. Hendrick won four, Joe Gibbs Racing and Trackhouse Racing two each and Team Penske and Stewart-Haas Racing one each.

Eventually, five drivers scored their first Cup victories during the season, emphasizing the fact that the new car opened the door for surprises. More could come early this year.