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Quantifying which NASCAR drivers will make the Chase

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NASCAR's Sprint Cup series this Easter will have a rare weekend off in its 36-race schedule. After last Sunday's win by Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, we've now seen five different drivers win the first six races. Kevin Harvick has two wins, while four other drivers have one apiece. There are 20 more races to go before the "cutoff' for the Chase—NASCAR's version of the playoffs. The points system will be reset and only 16 drivers will qualify.

As the rules are currently set, every driver who gets a win during the first 26 races will qualify. That means we already have five drivers who are locked in. The rest of the 16 spots will be given to winless drivers who finished consistently high enough in the points standings.

The question then remains: How many different winners will there be? How many leftover spots will be filled by winless drivers? The answer matters because it affects how teams might strategize over the next few months, whether to make a risky call to win the race, or settle in for a solid top-five finish.

The chart below lists the current top drivers, and their recent winning percentage. The five names in green are the drivers who already have wins this year. The drivers in white still do not have a win this year. The drivers in red have such a low win percentage, like Danica Patrick's zero percent, that we would not expect them to get a win.

Consider Dale Earnhardt Jr. He has a 2.8 win percentage in the last five years. The math on that says he has a 43 percent chance of winning one of the next 20 races—not a slam dunk. But he has had a lot of strong momentum recently, and if he keeps that up, he should still be able to make the Chase.

The drivers shaded in red should not expect to get a win, based on past results. They'll need to step up their game and improve on their past results if they want to make the playoffs. Two drivers in particular—Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon—have shown potential to get a win. Don't be surprised to see either—or both—of them get a win this season. They are the two best bets of drivers from the red category being able to break out.

Contrast them to a top driver like Matt Kenseth—he's had a strong win percentage over the past five years, but my NBC Sports colleague Dustin Long points out that Kenseth is currently mired in a 50-race winless streak. Similar with Tony Stewart, he's recently performed much worse than his five-year average.

Based on these individual driver winning percentages, we can calculate how many different winners we'll see through the first 26 races. If Harvick wins all of the upcoming races by himself, then we'd still have only five unique winners. Obviously that's not going to happen, as other drivers are due to get some wins. The question is exactly how many can we expect? Here's the answer.

The most likely outcome is we get to 13 winners. That's the current five winners plus another eight new ones (like Jeff Gordon and Carl Edwards, who are certainly due a win soon).

If we get to 13 different winners, that would leave only three spots to fill based on the points standings. This is where drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer can make their way into the playoffs. Truex is currently third in the standings, but has only a slim 11 percent chance of winning a race. Bowyer has less than a 50 percent chance of winning a single race by the cutoff.

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And then there is Ryan Newman, who finished second in the 2014 championship despite going winless the entire year. He survived on the strength of clutch consistency. There is only a 36 percent chance that he can get a single win by the cutoff—and with his massive penalty this week, it may be the only shot he has to get in now.

For many drivers, getting lucky on finding a single win will be easier than staying consistent enough all season to make it in on points.

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