Here's what we want to know: How good does a driver have to be to qualify for NASCAR's playoffs even if they don't win a race?
After Kurt Busch's win Sunday at Richmond International Raceway, nine races this year have already been completed. That's one-third of the way to the cutoff point for when the "Chase" starts—NASCAR's version of the playoffs. In these first nine races, we've seen seven different winners.
As we discussed earlier this month, only 16 drivers will qualify for the Chase. The simplest method of qualifying is by winning a race during the season. Based on my math projecting the most likely race outcomes, we should see 13 drivers qualify for the Chase by getting a win. That would match the number from last season. In the past decade, there has been an average of three winless drivers per year who made the Chase, according to an analysis by Andrew Maness of PitRho, a racing software and analytics firm.
If 13 winners turns out to be true, it will leave open three spots for winless drivers in the 16-driver field. These three drivers will qualify based on who has accumulated the most points during the season.
So the question is, how good does somebody have to be to get a spot? Based on results of the past few years, the third-best winless driver would fall around 11th in the points standings, with an average of 750 points through 26 races.
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If 750 points is the expected cutoff needed, here's how our current winless drivers would need to perform in the next 17 races to make it.
The drivers who have the best chance of making it are Martin Truex Jr., Jamie McMurray and Ryan Newman. "These three drivers may not win a race, but could be consistent enough to get in as winless Chase drivers," said Josh Browne, a PitRho co-founder and former NASCAR crew chief. "We would expect Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon to all get wins before the Chase starts."
Three big names who are on the outside looking in are Carl Edwards, Danica Patrick, and Tony Stewart. "It might be easier for them to simply win one race rather than having to run well enough each week to make up ground in the points standings," said Browne.
Now it's a matter of proving it on the track. We can track these standings as the season progresses, to see which drivers step up their game.
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