The time is here. 16 drivers, 10 races, four rounds and 1 champion. Who ends up making it to the Championship 4 at Phoenix and who wins the title among them? This year is as wide open as ever before in the sport. 14 of the 16 drivers have won a race this season. It’s been a wildly unpredictable 2022 year and I don’t think that necessarily changes now that the stakes are higher.
So who do trends say will win this year’s title?
Top Championship Trends
- Repeat Champ? Not likely — Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to repeat as a Cup Series champion. He did so in his five year reign from 2006 through 2010. Since, no one has repeated as a champion. Jeff Gordon was the last before Johnson to do so as he did it in 1997 and 1998. Since 1995, those are the only two instances where a driver won consecutive titles? Can Larson accomplish this feat in 2021? Just 4 of the 7 years prior has the defending champion made it back to the Championship 4 the following season. 2 last 3 were bounced in the Round of 8 and Round of 12 respectively.
- The driver to finish 2nd in the points the previous season made it to the Championship 4 in 2 of the last 4 years and at least to the Round of 8 5 of the last 6. Three times though they missed the playoffs all together including this year too.
- The driver to finish third in the Championship 4 has made it to at least the Round of 8 in each of the last 5 years with 3 of the 5 being in the Championship 4. That’s good news for Denny Hamlin.
- Playoff points during the regular season matter – 3 of the top 4 in playoff points entering the 2017 season made the Championship 4. In 2018, it was the top 3 making it to the final round. For 2019, all four in the top four of playoff points accumulated entering the playoffs made it to the Championship 4. 2020 saw 4 of the top five. Last year it was 4 of the top 7.
- Ranks of Championship 4 drivers in playoff points entering the postseason:
- 2017: 1st, 3rd, 4th, 6th
- 2018: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 7th
- 2019: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th
- 2020: 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th
- 2021: 1st, 3rd, 5th, 7th
- No one past the 7 seed entering the playoffs has ever made the final round.
- 3 times since 2016 did the #1 seed entering the playoffs win the championship. It happened in odd numbers years only – 2017, 2019 and 2021.
- The 16th seed has been eliminated in the first round in 3 of the 5 years. They’ve never made it past the Round of 12.
- The 15th seed has made it out of the opening round every year with the exception of last year.
- The 3rd seed has made the Championship 4 every year.
- The 2nd seed has made the Championship 4 in 3 of the last 4 years and the Round of 8 every year.
- The regular season champion has made it to the final round in 4 of the last 5 years and the Round of 8 every year.
- Parity – We’ve had this playoff format since 2014. In the 8 years of this, we’ve seen 7 different champions. By those accounts, that means Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larosn won’t win the title at Phoenix this November. Jimmie Johnson is the only other driver to win a title in this span but he’s since retired.
- Champion likely won’t have won most races during the season — 5 of the 8 champions in this era has won five times during the season that they were crowned. One of them won just three times. Only three times in eight years did a driver that won the most races during the course of a season actually win the title itself.
- Eventual champion has actually started each season off slow – It actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Last year Larson had 1 win in the 1st 14 races. In 2020, Chase Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons.
- In all 8 years of this format, at least 1 of the 1st round races were won by an eventual Championship 4 driver.
- 4 of the 8 years the eventual champion was winless in the 1st round
- Kevin Harvick started 0-for-4 in 2014
- Kyle Busch won only the finale in 2015
- Jimmie Johnson started 0-for-4 in 2016
- Martin Truex Jr. won the playoff opener in 2017
- Joey Logano started 0-for-6 in 2018
- Busch won only the finale in 2019
- Chase Elliott started 0-for-5 in 2020
- Kyle Larson started 0-for-2 in 2021
- 2014 saw the Championship 4 members win 1 of 3 1st round races
- 2015 saw the Championship 4 members win 1 of the 3 1st round races
- 2016 saw the Championship 4 members win 0 of the 3 1st round races
- 2017 saw the Championship 4 members win all 3 of the 3 1st round races
- 2018 saw the Championship 4 members win 1 of the 3 1st round races
- 2019 saw the Championship 4 members win 2 of the 3 1st round races
- 2020 saw the Championship 4 members win 1 of the 3 1st round races
- 2021 saw the Championship 4 members win all 3 of the 3 1st round races
- 4 of the 8 years the eventual champion was winless in the 1st round
Who Has Momentum
With the final 4 races during the final month of the regular season now behind, one has to wonder in a season of unpredictability, can the momentum gained in August translate over to a deep playoff run?
We’ve seen this in all sports before. Whomever is on a hot streak coming into the postseason are usually the ones to triumph in the end.
Last year, Kyle Larson had 3 top 3 finishes over the final 4 weeks of the regular season.
In 2020, Chase Elliott had 3 top 5’s over the final 4 races.
In 2019, Kyle Busch had 3 top 6’s in the same stretch.
In 2018, Joey Logano had 3 top 10’s including 2 top 4’s over the final 3 weeks.
For 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had just 2 top 10’s and 1 top 5 over the final 4 week stretch, but prior to those 4 races he had three straight top 3’s.
In 2016, Jimmie Johnson had 3 top 11’s.
For 2015, Kyle Busch had 4 top 11’s including 3 straight top 8’s to close the regular season out with but on the grander picture, he had 6 top 2 results over the final 11 weeks.
Finally in 2014, Kevin Harvick had 2 top 10’s, both in the top 5 in this stretch.
Moral of the story is, you better be on top of your game at this point, especially at Michigan which was the 1st race in this stretch. Harvick was 2nd in this race in 2014. Busch was 11th in 2015, Johnson was 6th in 2016, Truex Jr. was 2nd in 2017, Logano was 10th in 2018, Busch was 6th in 2019, Elliott was 7th and 9th in the two races run in the doubleheader weekend in 2020 while Larson was 3rd last year.
None of the eventual champions were worse than 11th in this race including 3 of them in the top 3.
Playoff finishers in this past year’s race in the top 11: Kevin Harvick (1st), Denny Hamlin (3rd), Joey Logano (4th), Martin Truex Jr. (5th), Ryan Blaney (6th), Kyle Larson (7th), Alex Bowman (9th) and Chase Elliott (11th).
What made this year’s final 4 week stretch challenging is you have a high speed 2 mile oval, a short track (.75 miles), a road course and a superspeedway.
The top drivers that are hot during this stretch:
- Joey Logano – 4th, 6th, 3rd, 12th
- Kevin Harvick – 1st, 1st, 12th, 20th
- Denny Hamlin – 3rd, 4th, 20th,
- Chase Elliott – 11th, 5th, 4th, 25th
- Kyle Larson – 7th, 14th, 1st, 37th
- Ryan Blaney – 5th, 10th, 24th, 15th
- Tyler Reddick – 29th, 31st, 7th, 2nd (4 top 5’s last 14)
- Christopher Bell – 26th, 2nd 8th, 36th
- Martin Truex Jr. – 6th, 7th, 23rd, 8th (not in playoffs oddly enough)
- Daniel Suarez – 25th, 19th, 5th, 24th
- William Byron – 12th, 11th, 22nd, 34th (0 top 10’s last 10, 1 in last 18, 0 top 5’s in last 18)
- Alex Bowman – 9th, 20th, 14th, 14th (1 top 10 last 12, 0 top 5’s in last 15)
- Austin Cindric – 37th, 12th, 13th, 3rd (2 top 10s last 7)
- Ross Chastain – 24th, 18th, 21st, 33rd (Each of last 6 are 18th or worse)
- Kyle Busch – 36th, 9th, 32nd, 10th (2 top 10 last 11, last top 5 1st weekend of June)
- Chase Briscoe – 20th, 23rd, 25th, 31st (0 top 10’s last 12)
- Austin Dillon – 13th, 16th, 17th, 1st (1 top 5 (win at Daytona) in last 16, 2 top 10’s in last 14)
Trends Championship 4:
Chase Elliott (regular season champion has made it to the final round in 4 of the last 5 years)
Joey Logano (he’s made the Championship 4 every other year, 2016, 2018, 2020…2022? Plus, The 2nd seed has made the Championship 4 in 3 of the last 4 years and the Round of 8 every year)
Ross Chastain (The 3rd seed has made the Championship 4 every year since 2017)
Denny Hamlin (The driver to finish third in the Championship 4 has made it to at least the Round of 8 in each of the last 5 years with 3 of the 5 being in the Championship 4. That’s good news for Hamlin).
Who Wins The Title?
Not Elliott. It’s an every other year thing for this.
The 3 seed has never won a title and I don’t see this being Chastain’s year.
That means it’s down to Logano vs. Hamlin. Logano has won a championship before. Hamlin has not. We’ve had 8 different champions in the 9 years of this format. This trend says Hamlin. Also does this one – Eventual champion has actually started each season off slow – It actually pays to have a slower start to a season for some reason. Last year Larson had 1 win in the 1st 14 races. In 2020, Chase Elliott had just one win through the first 22 races. He won the title. In 2018, Joey Logano had one win in the first 32 races but won the championship. Martin Truex Jr. had one trip to victory lane in the first 17 races of the 2017 campaign. He won the championship still. Jimmie Johnson in 2016 was 2-for-29 in 2016 and Harvick 1-for-30 in 2014. They both were champions in those seasons. Hamlin started the year off 1-for-13 and 2-for-26.
Trends pick: Hamlin