Dr. Diandra: The playoff drivers most likely to be eliminated in the Round of 16

The Cup Series points are reset and the playoff bubble shifts from which drivers will make it into the playoffs to which drivers will stay in the playoffs. The next three races will trim the championship-seeking field from 16 to 12.

Each playoff driver starts with 2000 points plus the playoff points earned during the regular season. Only 36 points separate the first-seeded driver from the 16th seed. The bottom nine drivers are within 11 points of each other.

Winning is always important, but this round can produce at most three winners. At least nine drivers will advance to the next round by points.

It is all but impossible to predict race winners thanks to accidents, mistakes and mechanical failures. No one could have predicted, for example, that Kyle Busch would have two engine failures in a single playoff round, as he did last year.

With this caveat in mind, let’s see which drivers are most likely to be eliminated in the next three races.

Sizing up the Round of 16 tracks

Darlington, Kansas and Bristol form the first playoff round: two unique shorter tracks and the first true intermediate oval since the Coca-Cola 600 in May. (Although Atlanta is 1.5 miles in length, it races more like a superspeedway since its conversion last year.)

Bristol presents a challenge given there’s been only one Next Gen race on its asphalt. In that race, 16 cars were involved in caution-causing accidents or spins. Four cars failed to finish due to steering problems. I’m thus relying on average running positions rather than average finishing positions for Bristol.

I also utilize an adjusted regular season average finish that includes only pavement non-superspeedway ovals (since that’s what we have in this round.) This average excludes the Chicago street course, the Bristol dirt race, superspeedways and road courses. You can find the graph at the end of the post.

As a measure of what teams have learned during the season, I compared each driver’s average finishes in the first part of the season relative to the second.

And, of course, how many playoff points they’ve earned.

Drivers with a high probability of elimination

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is having a strong year for a single-car team with seven top-10 finishes and a Daytona 500 win. But he doesn’t have an average finish better than 16.7 in the Next Gen car at any of the three tracks. His average finish over the second half of the regular season is 19.4, the worst of any playoff contender. He also holds the worst average finish on non-superspeedway ovals.

Tyler Reddick won the sixth race of the season (COTA), but his performance since then has been troubling. His average finish dropped almost four full positions from the first half of the season to the second. He’s got an average finish of 9.0 at Darlington in the Next Gen car but finished 22nd this spring in the only race he’s had there with 23XI Racing. Add on recurring problems with his pit crew, and I fear Reddick won’t go far in this year’s championship.

The first round doesn’t offer Michael McDowell a track that really leverages his strengths. Bristol is his strongest track of the three, but his running position there last year was just 13.9. He’s a potential top-15 finisher at all three tracks, but with only seven playoff points and a very tight race, it likely won’t be enough.

I also downgraded these three drivers based on the historical record. Drivers who make the playoffs with a single win at either a superspeedway or a road course usually exit the playoffs in the first two rounds.

Medium-high probability of elimination

Ryan Blaney’s stats are slightly better than McDowell’s at Darlington and Kansas. He had a 29.2 average running position at Bristol last year. But the Penske driver also has the largest drop in average finish from the first to the second half of the season with 6.6 positions lost. He rises into the medium-high list because of Ford’s aerodynamic disadvantage.

Teammate Joey Logano does well at Darlington (7.7 average finish) but finished 18th there this spring. His 13.3 average at Kansas and a 16.1 average running position at Bristol should be enough to stay int, but Logano has had a difficult time putting together three good races in a row. He has four DNFs this year.

Ross Chastain won at Nashville but hasn’t finished better than seventh since that win. Chastain’s 6.3 average finish at Kansas in the Next Gen car and 10.8 average running position at Bristol last year save him from being in the high-probability category. His average finishing position dropped almost six positions from the first half of the season to the second. He hasn’t demonstrated the spark he did last year.

Bubba Wallace has a respectable average Darlington finish of 13.7 — ninth highest among playoff drivers. He finished 29th at Bristol last year with a 23.6 average running position. But he’s also the defending winner of the fall Kansas race and finished fourth there in the spring. Wallace can get through this round with a stellar performance (preferably a win) at Kansas. But with no playoff points, he’ll likely struggle to stay in with anything less.

Check back in three weeks to see how accurate my predictions were.

Playoff driver averages at non-superspedway asphalt oval tracks.

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