The Round of Eight begins Sunday in Martinsville, so who's most likely to progress to the Miami showdown? We crunch the numbers...
Round of 12 debrief
“I don’t want to race like that. I want to race for wins. I don’t want to points-race, I don’t care what the damn format is.”
Brad Keselowski's words after his costly wreck at Kansas should surely resonate with those NASCAR fans who were outraged at Joe Gibbs Racing's back-of-the-pack tactics a week later at Talladega.
But while Keselowski did make a valiant effort in challenging for victory at 'Dega, it's difficult to see how points-racing was anything but correct approach in this “damn format”, and it's also difficult – although ultimately not impossible – to argue against JGR's tactics from a rational point of view.
Round of 12 should've been massively difficult for any and all teams, with Talladega as cut-off promoting a risk-taking approach in the first two races. But when Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano fell by the wayside early on at Charlotte – even though both would recover and make Round of 8 – that should've instantly changed the strategies.
But serious mistakes in risk assessment remained. Keselowski's crash was one of them, and the call to put two tyres on Austin Dillon's #3 car at Charlotte – which left him up front but vulnerable to the very crash that predictably followed – was seemingly another.
All of the misfortune combined for the lowest Round of 8 cut-off under this format so far (88 points under the old system compared to 91 in 2014 and 96 in 2015) – and made is so that the certain teams were incentivised not to push their luck at Talladega.
That was certainly contrary to pre-round expectations, but that's how it goes sometimes. Ultimately, that doesn't mean NASCAR should brace itself for similarly risk-averse runs in Round of 8 – but it does mean there's no guarantee that strategy won't rear its head.
Round of 8
Previous years' comparison
|Kevin Harvick||102||Jeff Gordon||121|
|Denny Hamlin||112||Kevin Harvick||123|
|Joey Logano||111||Kyle Busch||121|
|Ryan Newman||103||Martin Truex Jr.||106|
|Jeff Gordon||102||Carl Edwards||101|
|Matt Kenseth||100||Brad Keselowski||93|
|Brad Keselowski||95||Kurt Busch||85|
|Carl Edwards||88||Joey Logano||54|
Both in 2014 and in 2015, three of the four spots in the championship showdown were decided on points – Harvick more or less needed his Phoenix win in '14 to progress, while Jeff Gordon would've made it on points in '15 even without the automatic qualification provided by the Martinsville triumph.
The other three spots in both years allowed underdogs to sneak in – Newman and Truex, with respective runs of P3-P15-P11 and P6-P8-P14. Those might not look like championship-caliber results, but they combined for enough points to make sure they finished ahead of anybody who posted a single bad result amid the three races of the round.
Assessing Round of 8
|Year||Avg. Finish||Top-5 share||Top-10 share||Top-20 share||Win share||Laps led %|
If this Round of 8 follows the pattern of the previous two years, the cut-off will almost certainly be tougher to hit than it would've been in the earlier rounds, but there's still going to be a window for points-racing, especially with no Talladega to worry about.
This time around, even with Truex and Keselowski packing their bags early, this is still not an underpowered Round of 8 by any means. Going by most metrics, it's probably somewhere between the weaker '14 and the stronger '15, the latter slightly undersold by the fact series champion (and, by most metrics, 2015's best driver on average) Kyle Busch only did half the campaign.
Everybody who's made it this far is already a race winner, which wasn't the case in the two previous play-offs. As such, there's probably a pretty good chance there will be fewer spots in the championship four open on points – although it's certainly not implausible that Truex, Keselowski, Kyle Larson or Martinsville ace Jeff Gordon add to their tally and deny a Chaser an automatic bye.
Round of 8 drivers' stats at Martinsville
|Kyle Busch||107.2||1 ('16)|
|Kevin Harvick||104.3||1 ('11)|
|Denny Hamlin||97.3||5 ('08, '09, '10x2, '15)|
|Jimmie Johnson||95.6||8 ('04, '06, '07x2, '08, '09, '12, '13)|
|Kurt Busch||93.7||2 ('02, '14)|
Of the three Round of 8 tracks, Martinsville is definitely the biggest toss-up from a statistical point of view, having produced eight different winners in the past 10 races – even if the nine races before that were all won by either Johnson or Hamlin.
Johnson also won in 2012 and 2013 and he dominated in March of 2014, only to be outfoxed by Kurt Busch in the end. Worryingly for the #48 team, he hasn't led a lap there since.
Hamlin's recent races have been slightly better and he did win the spring race last year. Then again, his most recent run did end in a wreck.
The other standouts among the Chasers are Kyle Busch and Logano. Busch only has one win, but that win came earlier this year and was massively dominant; Logano, meanwhile, is yet to triumph, but would've surely done so last year if not for Kenseth and has led a good chunk of laps in all of his past five Martinsville starts.
Speaking of Kenseth, he remains winless at Martinsville in 33 starts, but did come very close with a great run in 2013 and has been pretty reliable since then, when not crashing into Logano.
As for the SHR duo, Harvick's not finished higher than seventh at Martinsville with the team, even though he has led a fair few laps. Kurt Busch, meanwhile, beat Johnson in that aforementioned 2014 race on what was his Martinsville debut with SHR – but, somehow, that is his only top-10 finish at the venue since 2005.
Round of 8 drivers' stats at Texas
|Jimmie Johnson||112.9||6 ('07, '12, '13, '14, '15x2)|
|Kyle Busch||108.9||2 ('13, '16)|
|Joey Logano||99.3||1 ('14)|
|Carl Edwards||97.9||3 ('05, '08x2)|
|Matt Kenseth||94.6||2 ('02, '11)|
|Kurt Busch||90.5||1 ('09)|
|Denny Hamlin||81.6||2 ('10x2)|
There are some tracks – like the aforementioned Martinsville – where Johnson ran rampant in the second half of the previous decade but has since slipped back into the pack. But Texas sure isn't one of those - 88 percent of the laps he led here happened between 2012 and 2015 and he won five times in the last eight races.
Of the three he didn't win in that time, two – including the one in April this year – went to Kyle Busch. In terms of averages, Johnson is in a league of his own, but Busch and his six top-fives in the last seven races isn't that far off.
On the other hand, Busch's fellow JGR drivers Kenseth, Edwards and especially Hamlin haven't managed a particularly strong result in the past few years – albeit Edwards did have a very credible run earlier this year.
Since his switch to Penske, Logano's Texas record has been very reasonable (blown tire in the Chase race last year aside) and he won as recently in 2014. As for the SHR drivers, Harvick is still winless at Fort Worth but come quite close in the past couple of years, while Kurt Busch hasn't been in the top five since 2010.
Round of 8 drivers' stats at Phoenix
|Kevin Harvick||147.0||8 ('06x2, '12, '13, '14x2, '15, '16)|
|Kyle Busch||102.375||1 ('05)|
|Carl Edwards||102.3||2 ('10, '13)|
|Kurt Busch||101.02||1 ('05)|
|Matt Kenseth||97.15||1 ('02)|
|Jimmie Johnson||95.04||4 ('07, '08x2, '09)|
|Denny Hamlin||85.16||1 ('12)|
The presence of Phoenix in the Round of 8 means that Harvick has, at this point in time, the best odds of anyone to win the championship this year. He is nowhere near odds on, but past record suggests he has by far the highest likelihood of making the championship four – and that's because of Phoenix.
The series simply does not have a driver-track combination that has produced as much success recently as Harvick – Phoenix. He's no guaranteed winner, because that's simply not a thing in motorsport and he sure came pretty close to losing a Phoenix win to Edwards earlier this year. But, ultimately, a 1.2 average finish over six races would be very good even for, say, a Mercedes F1 driver – for a Cup driver, it's unreal.
But in case Harvick does falter this time, who could pick up the pieces? Of the JGR quartet, nobody has really excelled continuously at the venue, although Kyle Busch and Edwards probably have the edge – both have a few eye-catching performances from the past few years and both ran very well in March. Kenseth and Hamlin, while both past Phoenix winners, are a bit adrift, the former looking an especially unlikely challenger with all of 1 lap led since 2012.
Johnson, who once had a four-in-five winning run at Phoenix, remains a credible threat. Kurt Busch. yet to lead a Phoenix lap with SHR machinery, should probably just aim to put points on the board with a solid top-10 finish as he's had plenty of those at the venue.
Finally, Toyota and Chevy shouldn't overlook Logano, who, since his Penske arrival, has probably been just about second-best to Harvick at Phoenix – a quiet run in March of 2016 that was compounded by a fueling mishap notwithstanding.