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Dr. Diandra: For the most competitive playoffs, hope for a repeat winner at Daytona

Playoff implications set up exciting Daytona race
The Motormouths crew can hardly contain their excitement about the finish of the regular season at Daytona and the likelihood of someone outside the top 16 drivers can get a win and an automatic spot.

A Daytona winner from outside the 15 playoff-confirmed drivers is highly unlikely to impact the playoffs — but a repeat winner could make the championship race even more exciting.

The numbers make me confident saying this even before knowing who the 16th seed is.

Everyone loves a good Cinderella story: A team no one expected to win ekes its way into the playoffs, rises through the rounds and contends for a championship. That happens a lot in fairy tales, but less often in real life.

And underdogs very rarely make much difference in who wins the season championship.

The fates of the last four seeds in the Cup Series playoffs

From 2014 to 2022, there were 144 playoff spots available in the 16-driver fields.

Thirty-six of those 144 spots survived to the final round and competed for the championship.

There were nine champions.

Ignore the nine champions for a moment. Focus instead on the 36 drivers who entered the playoffs ranked 13th through 16th. Of those 36 drivers:

  • The first round of the playoffs claimed 16 drivers (44.4%).
  • Fifteen drivers (41.7%) were eliminated in the second round of playoffs.
  • Three drivers (8.3%) left the playoffs in round three.
  • Two drivers (5.5%) made it to the final race.

Thus, an overwhelming majority of drivers seeded from 13th to 16th — 86.1% — failed to make the Round of 8, much less the Championship 4.

The driver who gets into the playoffs at Daytona may be this week’s hero but will more than likely fade from the conversation over the next six races.

“But,” you argue, “that means 13.8% of those drivers did make it to at least round three of the playoffs.”

You’re right. I counter with the case studies of those drivers.

From zero to almost-hero: Racing for the championship

In 2014, Ryan Newman came from 16th seed to racing for the championship without winning a single race. After 35 races, he outranked Jeff Gordon (4 wins) and Brad Keselowski (6 wins).

Newman finished the season in second place with five top-five finishes and 16 top-10 finishes. That’s the least top-10 finishes of any of the top-eight drivers and the least top-five finishes among the season’s top-12 finishers.

Gordon pointed his way into the playoffs in 2015, starting in 13th. He won Martinsville on his way to the final round. Gordon took third place for the season with one win, five top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes.

It’s been seven years since a driver ranked in the lowest quarter of the playoff field was still contending in the race for the championship. The playoff rules back then didn’t weight wins as heavily as they do now. Drivers like Newman could advance by dogged consistency.

Today’s rules put much more weight on winning. No driver today is likely to duplicate Gordon’s or Newman’s runs.

Reaching round three

Three drivers have advanced from the back of the playoffs to the Round of 8: Matt Kenseth in 2014, Aric Almirola in 2018 and Kurt Busch in 2020.

Kenseth entered 2014 as the 14th seed. Like Newman, he entered the playoffs with no wins. Unlike Newman, Kenseth had 10 top-five finishes (tied for second-most among all full-time drivers) and 16 top-10 finishes (also tied for second-most) at the end of the regular season. He finished the year seventh — still without a win.

Almirola also entered as a winless 14th seed in 2018. A win at Talladega, his only checkered flag that year, advanced him out of the Round of 12. He finished fifth, his career-highest season rank to date.

In 2020, Kurt Busch entered the playoffs as the 15th seed, with no wins, four top-five finishes and 14 top-10 finishes. Busch won the Las Vegas race in the second round to keep his playoff hopes alive. But racing for a championship was not to be. Busch finished the season in 10th place.

Lessons for 2023

With one race left in the regular season, the last four drivers on the playoff list (once playoff points are added and the standings reset) would be Michael McDowell, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kevin Harvick and a driver to be decided this weekend.

McDowell and Stenhouse each have only two top-five finishes in 25 races. Compare those numbers to Kyle Larson, who leads the series with 10. Combined, McDowell and Stenhouse have fewer top-10 finishes than points leader Martin Truex Jr.

Of drivers not already confirmed in the playoffs, none has more than four top-five finishes except Chase Elliott. Elliott might strengthen the playoffs if he can get in. After all, he has the same record as playoff driver Ross Chastain — six top-five and nine top-10 finishes — and Elliott accomplished it in seven fewer races. But he hasn’t won, and the No. 9 team can’t seem to get out of its own way lately.

The only 2023 driver poised to be a spoiler from the back is Harvick and that’s more a consequence of the ranking system. Although Harvick is 10th in points, he’s only four points away from being in sixth place.

Without a win, Harvick will start the playoffs seeded 15th, or 16th if Daytona produces a new winner. If he can return to his early-season form — and that’s a pretty big ‘if’ — he could be a playoff disruptor.

What to watch at Daytona

I’ll keep an eye on the cutline battle during Saturday’s race (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) but I’ll be watching the jockeying among drivers at the top of the championship standings even more closely.

I’m more interested in the battle for the regular-season championship between teammates Truex and Denny Hamlin. They’re separated by 39 points.

And while no driver can match William Byron’s five wins in the regular season, Truex could make the playoffs much closer with a regular-season championship and a win at Daytona.

But even though the numbers tell me that it’s against my long-term interests to root for the underdogs, I’ll still do it.

Even I love a good underdog story.