And Then There Were Four - StatChat's Guide to Each Playoff Driver

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After the dust settled at Martinsville, four championship contenders remained:  Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin, and Martin Truex Jr.  Depending on how this weekend’s finale at Phoenix goes, there truly is a chance for each of them.  In typical StatChat style, we’ll dive into the numbers to make the case for each driver.


Kyle Larson – Pros


Kyle Larson might just be the obvious favourite.  His 9 wins on the year (so far) lead the Cup Series by a long shot.  He has also been in the fastest car at Hendrick Motorsports, who have dominated this year as well.  Hendrick cars have accounted for 16 wins (Joe Gibbs Racing only has 9). 


He hasn’t even needed to always be in the fastest car.  Before finishing 7th at the Spring Phoenix race, Larson was the driver of the Chip Ganassi #42.  The car was certainly not a backmarker by any means, but the team was nowhere near as competitive as Larson’s #5 Hendrick Chevrolet has been in 2021.  In his four previous races at Phoenix, Larson earned a 6th place, two 4th’s and a 3rd, all in lesser equipment – he clearly has a knack for Phoenix.


Kyle Larson – Cons


Kyle Larson’s dominance has been primarily at the 550 HP tracks – Phoenix runs the 750 HP package.  And while Larson’s average finish at 750 HP ovals of 6.40 is nothing to scoff at, it’s still not the best of the final four drivers (stay tuned for more on this below). 


Larson has also had some trouble with mistakes this year.  While his record really speaks to his talent despite these mistakes, a one-race shootout to decide the season’s champion has no room for error.  Larson has a career DNF percentage of 13.18%, which ranks 27th of active drivers (behind noted wrecker Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and perennial backmarker Josh Bilicki, no less).  He has also had penalties and/or pit strategy mistakes derail multiple races this season, most notably at the Bristol Dirt race and the Las Vegas Playoff race.  Can Larson run a clean and mistake-free race to claim his first championship?


Chase Elliott – Pros


Perhaps the most obvious thing in Chase Elliott’s favour is the fact that he is the reigning champion.  However, it is not to be overlooked.  The final race of the season is bound to be stressful, and filled with variables beyond the driver’s control.  Knowing that he did it as recently as last year under similar pressure could be the mental edge he needs to complete the job.  Martin Truex Jr. is the only other final four driver with a prior championship under his belt, but that was four years ago. 


Of the championship four, Elliott holds the 2nd best career average finish at Phoenix, with 11.18 over 11 starts.  For tracks less than 1.5 miles long, Elliott’s career average finish of 12.67 over 56 starts ranks 4th out of all active drivers.  Earning a good finish can be a combination of many things going well – one of which is passing.  Elliott is a prolific passer, and even more so when driving in the Top 15.  Passing within the Top 15 (also known as a Quality Pass) is an area where Chase Elliott leads all active drivers this season.  His 2,143 Quality Passes are 134 more than 2nd placed Kyle Busch.  He also ranks first in pass differential.  His +451 differential means that he has passed other drivers on the track (in all situations) 451 more times than he has been passed by others.  If any mistakes happen on track for Elliott, don’t count him out until the very end.


Chase Elliott – Cons


Chase Elliott has only won two races this year, and neither of them were on ovals.  He won at a rain-shortened COTA, and at Road America – both road courses.  Every win does count, but there could be some doubts about his confidence on ovals this season.  His average finish at 750 HP ovals (like Phoenix will be) ranks worst of the final four drivers, and by quite a margin.  His 12.30 average finish is nearly 5.5 positions worse than 3rd placed Denny Hamlin.


The other thing to consider is that Chase Elliott may no longer be ‘top dog’ at Hendrick Motorsports.  While he may have a claim to his fourth Most Popular Driver award in a row at the end of this season, are all of Hendrick’s resources being given to 9-time winner Kyle Larson?  Not to mention he may not be the most popular driver on the track.  He has famously had some feuds with other drivers in the field, most recently with Kevin Harvick.  Does Harvick have one last attempt revenge up his sleeve?


Denny Hamlin – Pros


Despite going winless through the first 26 races of the year, he really was in a fierce battle to win the Regular Season Championship.  He eventually came second to Kyle Larson, falling only 18 points short.  His average finish this year is the best of all drivers (including Larson) in 2021, at 8.60.  With only two wins on the entire season, that is an extremely impressive average finish.  Hamlin also has the best career average finish at Phoenix of the championship four drivers – ranking 2nd overall out of active drivers behind only Kevin Harvick.


Denny Hamlin has also been the most consistently clean driver this year.  Not only has he not had a single DNF all year long, he has finished off the lead lap only twice all season (Spring Talladega and Nashville).  His career DNF Percentage of 7.11% ranks 6th All-Time of drivers with a minimum of 50 starts.  If he can get himself into good track position, count on his ability to maintain it and stay clean for the race.


Denny Hamlin – Cons


He only has two wins this season, none of which came in the regular season.  The championship will most likely come down to whoever wins the race on Sunday.  As consistent as Denny has been, stage points don’t count for the playoff drivers.  It’s a race to win, not a race to consistently run well. 


Is Denny Hamlin capable of winning in a high-stakes race?  Hamlin has unfortunately earned himself a bit of a reputation as a choke-artist.  Four separate times in his career, he has entered the championship race with a shot to win it all, only to come up short.  When the pressure mounts, as it most certainly will this weekend, will he be able to exorcise these demons and claim his first career championship?


Martin Truex Jr. – Pros


The #19 Joe Gibbs Toyota team was clearly focused on a championship this year.  Knowing the final race would take place at Phoenix, the team has been preparing for that track all year long.  His 4 wins this season (tied for 2nd best on the year with Alex Bowman) all came at 750 HP tracks.  If you break down his average finishes this year into four categories – Super Speedways (24.25), Road Courses (15.14), 550 HP Ovals (11.77) and 750 HP Ovals (5.50) – it’s clear to see where the focus has been all season long.  He even won the spring race at Phoenix this year, and will definitely be able to carry over what they learned that day to this Sunday. 


A reliable predictor of good finishes in the Cup Series is how fast your car runs from week to week.  Martin Truex Jr.’s #19 car was the fastest car on the track for 555 laps this year, 3rd best this season.  52 of those laps came at the Spring Phoenix race.  With only 312 laps remaining this season, speed will be absolutely crucial to scoring another championship.


Martin Truex Jr. – Cons


Despite recent success, Phoenix is not Truex Jr.’s best track on the NASCAR circuit.  His career average finish of 15.39 ranks 12th of all active drivers, and last of the final four drivers.  At 41 years of age, he is also the oldest driver of the championship four.  As is frequently pointed out by David Smith of Motorsports Analytics, a driver’s statistical peak tops out at age 39, meaning Martin Truex Jr.’s best years may already be behind him.


Interestingly enough, the final four drivers all make up the top four in laps led this season.  However, Martin Truex Jr. ranks last of the four, having led 793 laps this year.  And while he is a decent passer with a +146 pass differential on the season (9th best of all drivers), all of the other final four drivers have better passing numbers.  The key to winning the race may come down to getting the lead and being able to hold it.  Will Martin Truex Jr. be able to repeat his performance in the spring and execute a perfect race?


Whoever ends up winning the championship, it’s bound to be a thrilling battle with plenty of drama and intrigue.  Check it out this Sunday, November 7th at 3:00pm EST (12:00 PST).


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