Did You Notice? … The first three drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series point standings haven’t won a race yet? William Byron (fourth) is the first driver with a victory in a competitive year where no single driver has stood out seven races in.
That’s a little surprising for a postseason format that puts a primary focus on winning. Of seven different winners in seven races, just four of them are inside the top 10 in points. One (Denny Hamlin) sits 20th and didn’t have a single top-10 result before Sunday’s (April 3) victory at Richmond Raceway.
Now? He’s gone from months-long slump to instant title contender. That’s because every regular season winner who’s a Cup full-timer has made the playoffs since its expansion from 12 to 16 drivers. Through eight seasons, there’s a 100% success rate for anyone who wins just once during the first 26 races.
Technically, a victory doesn’t automatically guarantee you a playoff spot. You have to remain inside the top 30 in points and, if there’s 17 winners, the lowest person among them in the standings could be bumped out (16 if the point leader is winless; it’s the only driver who automatically qualifies). But getting to even 15 different winners in the first 26 races has never happened in this history of the format.
Will 2022 change the game? Perhaps. But last season, we started with seven winners in the first seven races only to peter out and have Kyle Larson run roughshod over the field by midsummer. The same trend could easily happen again if one organization develops an edge on the new Next Gen chassis.
Let’s assume we’re under 16 winners again. It means Hamlin’s start, a career worst, means nothing after his performance in a single race. It’s like starting the upcoming MLB season 10-20 in April only to have a postseason bid clinched by the end of May. Say what? It doesn’t make sense.
It’s never made sense. Even with the Cinderella postseason stories, like surprise Daytona 500 wins by Michael McDowell (2021) and Austin Cindric (2022). Those teams, along with every other season-opening winner since 2014, have had in theory a full seven months to then use the regular season as a test session. It’s like a NFL team clinching the playoffs the second Week 1 is complete. They can do whatever they want, lose the next eight games, and they’re still standing when the smoke clears.
This type of format can cause a variety of aggressive risk-taking, both for the drivers who have won (who, in theory, don’t need to worry about points) and those desperate for a win, especially as the regular season progresses. What’s lost in the process is the race-to-race, run-up-front resume that helps the champion stand out.
The weirdness often seems to shake out in the end. Larson, last year’s title winner, was unquestionably the most dominant driver in the sport during 2021. But 2022 seems a little more shaky. Take the current top 3 in points …
- Ryan Blaney has led the most laps this season (334) and earned three pole positions in the first seven races. But he’s yet to reach victory lane and has posted a position differential of -63, creating an average finish (13.1) nine full positions lower than where he’s started.
- Chase Elliott is tied for the point lead with Blaney despite being the only Hendrick Motorsports driver who hasn’t won. Elliott has just one top-five finish, a fourth at Circuit of the Americas, compared to an average of 2.7 top fives for teammates Byron, Larson and Alex Bowman.
- Martin Truex Jr. has been the sport’s most consistent Toyota driver this season. But despite three stage wins, close calls on races he’s failed to win (Daytona International Speedway, Richmond) are what stands out.
There’s also the issue of how stage points can lead to confusing results. Three times in seven races, the actual race winner didn’t score the most points. Truex, Blaney, Christopher Bell and Byron all had more points than Hamlin due to the fact his No. 11 Toyota didn’t gain track position until the final stage. Just try explaining that one to a casual fan.
So how do you fix the problem? Simple solutions that I’ve discussed before: fewer playoff spots and more points to race winners. The postseason field was set at 12 from 2007-13; reducing it to a similar size would ratchet up the pressure throughout the year. Typically, the regular season produces in the range of 13-14 winners, which means someone would get bumped (and it guarantees every playoff driver, unless they’re the points leader, has won a race).
NASCAR could also assure every race winner receives the equivalent of maximum points (60) under this current system. Applying that to this current season would bring Ross Chastain up to third, bringing him within 10 points of the Blaney/Elliott combo. Byron would stay fourth while Truex drops into a tie for fifth with Bowman.
You could also make the argument that it’s a good thing points don’t really matter anymore. Top drivers have the confidence they’ll make the postseason and focus on being aggressive, leaving “points racing” to mid-tier drivers who often don’t have the speed they need to win. You could also argue that, if a guy like Hamlin continues to struggle, he’ll enter the postseason with fewer playoff points and that’s the “punishment” for an inconsistent regular season.
But should a 20th-place driver (similar to Aric Almirola last year) even be eligible to win a title in the first place? It’s a question worth asking as a new car, freshened-up schedule and impending new TV deal by 2025 could allow NASCAR to rethink how the postseason itself should be structured.
Did You Notice? … No driver has lapped the entire field in a NASCAR race since Geoffrey Bodine won by a full lap at North Wilkesboro Speedway in October 1994? I mention this point because of what Hamlin did at Richmond Sunday to win the race.
Yes, the No. 11 Toyota was on newer tires. But Hamlin gained a full lap on leader Byron (about 24 seconds’ worth) over the course of just 30 green flag laps. Unlapping himself with 35 laps remaining, he was passing Byron for the lead with five laps to go (with Kevin Harvick in tow). In a sense, Hamlin put a full lap on a number of drivers while making a pass on over a dozen lead-lap cars.
The debate will rage on as to whether what we saw at Richmond was great racing (I’m on the “yes” side). But it’s hard to argue Hamlin’s drive was one of the finest we’ve seen in the sport in the past 25 years. For me, it’s right up there with Dale Earnhardt’s 18th-to-first surge at Talladega Superspeedway in 2000 or Terry Labonte’s late-race jump to the front on fresh tires at Bristol Motor Speedway a year earlier.
Did You Notice? … Quick hits before taking off…
- Remember when Kyle Busch was a short track specialist? His last Cup win on one came way back in the fall of 2018 at Richmond. The grille penalty this past Sunday there was the weird type of luck that keeps happening to the No. 18 team in recent years, whether it’s Adam Stevens or Ben Beshore as crew chief.
- Don’t look now, but Harrison Burton has back-to-back top-20 finishes and has been the highest-finishing rookie as many times as Cindric through seven races. Cindric has actually cooled off since his Daytona 500 win, with more wrecks than top-10 finishes (one) since.
- A look ahead to the possible payback list at Martinsville Speedway this weekend: Hamlin vs. Bowman (obvious). Multiple suitors vs. Ty Gibbs (seems likely and somewhat self-policing). AJ Allmendinger/Blaney vs. Chastain. My wild card that everyone is forgetting recently? Keep an eye on Harvick vs. Elliott. Doesn’t it feel like we’re not completely done there?
About the author
The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.
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