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(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Up to Speed: From the Big 3 to the 4 Horsemen

One year ago, rising stars and young guns were the talk of the NASCAR world.  However, a small group of veteran racers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series quickly took those newcomers to school.  Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to win 11 of the season’s first 14 races.  Observers regularly referred to the trio as the Big Three by June, and it seemed most likely that one of them would win the championship.

Despite their strong start to the season, the Big Three came up empty-handed in the 2018 championship race.  Joey Logano bested all three of them in the final round of the playoffs, winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway and collecting his first championship.  While he did not pile up early season wins, Logano used several great playoff performances to pave the road to winning the title.  In fact, Logano’s season-long consistency suggested that he would be the Big Three’s greatest challenger as early as last summer.

It is fitting that Logano, Truex, Harvick and Busch wound up as the Championship 4 in 2018, and not just because they had good seasons.  Ever since NASCAR instituted elimination-style playoffs in 2014, those four drivers have established themselves as the most successful racers under this format.  They have earned one championship each, combining to win 80 percent of the championships awarded under playoff systems with formal eliminations.  Perhaps we should call last year’s Big Three, plus Logano the Four Horsemen.  After all, their arrival in the playoffs usually signals the end of everyone else’s championship hopes.

In addition to winning championships, no one has consistently appeared as a title contender in the championship race more often than Busch, Logano, Harvick and Truex.  They are the only four drivers to avoid elimination and reach Homestead more than once.

Over the years, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski have all participated in the season-ending race as championship hopefuls.  However, none of them have made it back a second time.  Johnson managed to score a championship in his one appearance in 2016, his seventh Cup Series title overall.  Yet Johnson has only advanced beyond the Round of 12 twice, despite reaching the playoffs in all of the last five seasons.

In contrast, the Four Horsemen are good at getting to the final round and winning championships.  Harvick and Busch, for instance, have both qualified for the playoffs for all of the last five years.  In those five years, they have each made it to the championship race four times.  Busch is currently in a four-year streak of seasons ending with his participation in the title race at Homestead.  Harvick has reached at least the round of eight every single year the elimination style playoffs have existed.  Only in 2016 was he out of the game when NASCAR rolled into Miami.

Truex and Logano each have one season where they missed the elimination-style playoffs entirely.  Upon joining Furniture Row Racing in 2014, Truex struggled mightily.  It took Truex’s pairing with crew chief Cole Pearn for the No. 78 team to reach the status of regular winner and title contender.  Logano missed out on the 2017 playoffs after NASCAR penalized the No. 22 team following a win at Richmond Raceway.  Without enough points to push out other drivers, Logano was on the outside looking in once the playoff field was set.

But in the four years when Logano and Truex have been in the playoffs, they have reached the final round three times each.  Logano raced at Homestead for a title in 2014, 2016 and 2018.  Truex made his first appearance in the championship race in 2015, and he has returned the last two seasons.

It is also not surprising that the Four Horseman are the most frequent playoff race winners.  The table below reflects the playoff performances of every driver who has participated in the Cup Series postseason since 2014.  Races refers to the number of events each driver competed in prior to his elimination.  Likewise, wins reflect only the victories a driver earned in playoff races while still championship eligible.  Win Percentage is each driver’s wins in their given number of races.

RacesWinsWin PercentageChampionship RacesChampionships
Harvick49816.3341
Kyle Busch46613.0441
Logano39923.0831
Truex Jr.36616.6731
Johnson3139.6811
Keselowski4041010
Hamlin3712.710
Edwards2813.5710
Gordon19210.5310
Newman190010
Kurt Busch330000
Kenseth3013.3300
Elliott2428.3300
Blaney1516.6700
Larson150000
Almirola1218.3300
McMurray120000
Earnhardt Jr.120000
Bowyer120000
Dillon120000
Kahne90000
Stenhouse Jr.60000
Bowman60000
Jones30000
Stewart30000
Buescher30000
Menard30000
Biffle30000
Allmendinger30000

Compared to the rest of the field, the number of playoff wins that the Four Horsemen have earned is striking.  Logano leads the way with the highest number of wins and winning percentage.  Harvick leads all drivers in playoff races run, yet his winning percentage is almost identical to Truex’s, with Busch not far behind.  Altogether, the Four Horsemen have won 29 of the 45 races surveyed.  Each has at least six wins, and no other driver has more than four.  Busch, Truex, Logano, and Harvick have clearly been the class of the field during the playoffs.

Will their dominance continue in 2019?  Last year’s title contenders are certainly well prepared to get to Homestead again.  However, this season comes with the added twist of a new aero package NASCAR will use primarily at the intermediate tracks.  Last week’s test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway suggested this package may have the intended effect of keeping the field bunched closer together and improving the power of drafting.  Yet it is only one test at one track with less than half a full field.  Upcoming races at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, and Auto Club Speedway will give us a much better idea of how the package works in race conditions.

Facing the uncertainties of a new aero package, the 2019 season might feature some surprises early on.  However, it is most likely that the best drivers and teams will find ways to gain advantages with this aero package before long.  If the Four Horsemen pick up where they left off in 2018, their greatest competition this season will, once again, be each other.

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About Bryan Gable

Bryan Gable
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past two years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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One comment

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    It should be interesting this year since one NASCAR official finally figured out that Harvick was winning so much because his team manufactured a trick wing that was giving him a huge advantage over the other teams. And with Truex now at JGR whatever gimmick
    Cole was using will be figured out by the rest of Gibbs teams and probably trickle down to nascars ears.