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Dr. Diandra: History predicts at least two new winners before the playoffs start

Previewing top stories in Atlanta Cup Series race
Nate Ryan and Jeff Burton break down Chase Elliott's playoff hopes, the keys to winning at Atlanta and more.

Pundits and fans alike were abuzz at this time last year, heatedly debating whether the Cup Series might have more than 16 winners in the regular season. Thirteen drivers had won in the first 18 races.

Four more winless drivers earning checkered flags during the next eight races would have made 17 winners. For the first time since NASCAR instituted the playoffs, a driver who had won a race wouldn’t make the playoffs.

It didn’t happen.

The 2022 regular season ended with 16 different winners. Because Kurt Busch could not compete in the playoffs due to injury , Ryan Blaney was the only driver who made the playoffs on points .

The 2023 season continues the trend

Although there has been considerably less fanfare, 12 different drivers have won races this year. While that’s one driver less than 2022, the graph below shows that it is still the second-highest number of different winners after 18 races in the last decade.

A vertical bar chart showing the number of different winners after 18 races from 2013-2023

The 2012 season was the last time there were 12 different winners at the halfway point of the season.

Only two years in the last decade had fewer than 10 different winners at the halfway point.

· 2018 was the year of the ‘Big Three’ : Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch combined to win 20 of 36 races. Joey Logano, however, won the championship.

· In 2019 , Busch, Truex, Harvick and Denny Hamlin won 22 of 36 races.

But those seasons are exceptions. Since NASCAR standardized seasons at 36 races in 2001, there have been only four years in which fewer than 10 different drivers had won by race 18. The number of winners by the halfway point was never fewer than seven and never more than 14.

Could 2023 break a record?

Fifteen drivers with at least one Cup Series race win are winless this year. Harvick, seventh in points, is the highest-ranked winless driver.

Joining him on the list are Daniel Suárez, Michael McDowell, Chris Buescher, Brad Keselowski, Bubba Wallace, A.J. Allmendinger, Alex Bowman, Justin Haley, Austin Cindric, Chase Elliott, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Chase Briscoe and Erik Jones.

Because stage racing changed the relative importance of points and wins, I’ll focus on seasons since 2017, when stage racing began. Below, I plot the number of winners after 18 and 26 races. The yellow block represents the number of new winners in the last eight races before the playoffs.

A vertical stacked bar chart comparing the number of different winners after 18 and 26 races from 2017-2023

In the stage-racing era, three drivers have won their first races of the season in the eight races before the playoffs every year except for 2020. Only one driver accomplished the feat that year.

This data suggests we should expect at least two or three more winners in the next eight races. Here’s why I think that number could be more than three.

· Harvick, Keselowski, Elliott, Jones, Almirola, Allmendinger, and Dillon each won their first race of the season in the eight races preceding the playoffs at least once since 2017.

· Elliott and Bowman — both usually good for at least one win a season — missed races this year. Neither has won yet.

· The leveling effects of the Next Gen car make a win by drivers just below the bubble, like Suárez and McDowell, more likely.

· The eight tracks left before the playoffs make additional first-time winners even more probable.

The likelihood of more than 16 winners before the playoffs start is low. Chicago winner Shane van Gisbergen isn’t full time in the Cup Series and thus not eligible for the playoffs. Six new winners would be required to impact the playoffs. But there’s a good possibility that 2023 could produce more than three first-time winners in the next eight races.

The best tracks for new winners

The specific eight tracks remaining in the regular season are key to gaining new winners. There’s something for almost everyone.

· Two superspeedways

· Two road courses

· Two large non-superspeedway ovals

· One 1-mile course

· One course less than a mile.

I calculated the percentage of races at each track that produced a new winner. I only included races that took place during final eight weeks of the regular season.

Tracks Run Between Races 19 and 26
Track Races Run Races with New Winners Pct New Winners
Daytona International Speedway 3 2 66.7
New Hampshire Motor Speedway 6 4 66.7
Atlanta Motor Speedway 2 1 50.0
Indianapolis Road Course 2 1 50.0
Richmond Raceway 2 1 50.0
Michigan International Speedway 7 2 28.6
Pocono Raceway 5 1 20.0
Watkins Glen International 5 1 20.0

Daytona has produced a new winner in two out of the three races where it served as the last race of the regular season. Surprisingly, New Hampshire has produced the same percentage of new winners as Daytona.

The presence of two superspeedways in these last eight races is promising for Ford drivers like McDowell and Keselowski. Superspeedways are one of the few types of tracks where Ford holds its own. Ford and Chevrolet each have 12 top-10 finishes in the three 2023 superspeedway races. Toyota has six.

There isn’t much data on Atlanta (6:30 p.m. ET, USA Network) because it has only been a superspeedway since last year. Elliott made Atlanta his third win of the year last summer. But in this year’s spring race, Chevy and Ford each had three top-10 finishes and Toyota four. A Ford (Logano) won the race, one of only two Ford wins this year.

The two road courses include one classic course (Watkins Glen) that plays to the strengths of veteran road course drivers, and one wild card track in Indianapolis. That offers drivers like Cindric, McDowell and Allmendinger extra probability of winning.

While it’s improbable that the series reaches 16 — or even 17 — winners, look for a record number of new winners in these last eight races before the playoffs.