Chasing 16: The Problem with Parity

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With time running off the clock last week at Sonoma Raceway, the entire Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) organization threw a Hail Mary. Four drivers favored for top-10s, finished well down the order and busted quite a few rosters.

The implication of the Save Mart 350k and the parity of the NextGen car is that handicapping formulas must be changed on a weekly basis. No bet is safe.

With the collective decision at JGR that race points didn’t matter nearly as much as the potential for a win. The decision was the right one for Denny Hamlin with two wins locking him into the playoffs, but their remaining drivers are not mathematically in the show, including Kyle Busch with only one win.

It was an even odder choice for two of the drivers. Martin Truex, Jr. and Christopher Bell are still winless on the season, and with the top four drivers in the running order seeking their first victory of 2022, there was a high degree of probability one less spot in the Playoff 16 would be open to a driver trying to qualify on points.

The potential for 16 unique winners still exists. If Ryan Blaney can erase his 25-point deficit to Chase Elliott while leapfrogging Ross Chastain and Kyle Busch, he will be guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, making 15 winners the magic number to fill the lineup. The 16th winner would enter the final 10 races as an also-ran.

With stage points, a driver can bank up to 59 points per race without actually winning it. Twenty-five or even 55 points is not an impossible gap.

Truex needs to close a 55-point difference while outperforming five drivers consistently to become the points’ leader, but with 10 races remaining, a lot can happen. His path to leading the points is more challenging than Blaney’s, but still a possibility. One would imagine points would be foremost in JGR’s minds.

Daniel Suarez’s accomplishment was great for several reasons. He became only the fifth foreign-born driver to win at NASCAR’s top level, is the first Mexican driver to win, and was the fourth first-time winner this season.

That last distinction is important.

When Suarez became the 12th different winner of 2022, he expanded the bubble. Blaney may sit fourth in the standings, but another way of looking at this is he is the fourth driver above the cutline. Sitting sixth in points, Truex is three above the bubble, while 10th-place Christopher Bell is two above and 11th-place Aric Almirola would be the next driver to get knocked out if a driver below him in the standings wins.

Since NASCAR initiated the falsely-described, win-and-in format, they have never had to implement the tie-breaker. The regular season points’ leader automatically advances, so organizations should be prepared for the tiebreaker to kick in at a potential of 16 winners.

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Just because there have not yet been 16 or more winners in the regular season yet, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. NASCAR has chased parity like a dog after a mail truck for decades and it has been elusive. The NextGen car has provided it.

Four first time winners is not unparalleled. As recently as 2011, NASCAR had five first timers. One of these came on a road course and two were on carburetor-restricted superspeedways. For the next three seasons, we did not have another fresh face in Victory Lane.

We often have paid lip-service to road courses, calling them wild cards because of the potential for strategy to alter the ending. Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson’s dominance of the track type last year challenged that notion, but in 2022 both road courses have been won by new drivers: Chastain at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) and Suarez last week.

Austin Cindric earned his first win in the Daytona International Speedway lottery, and with the last-lap wreck at Talladega Superspeedway, that race had the potential for a new winner. Instead, Chastain got his second career win.

The 10 races remaining on the calendar showcase three road courses and two pack-racing lotteries with Atlanta Motor Speedway‘s reconfiguration. Moreover, the winless drivers of 2022 include several strong contenders like Kevin Harvick who finished top-five last week, Blaney, Truex, and Bell.

The potential for more than 16 drivers this late in the season will keep the competition honest. The drivers with wins lowest in the points – and right now that includes Kurt Busch, Cindric, and Suarez – need to gamble to get a second win. For that matter, none of the single-win drivers are safe.

The implication of this scenario and the parity of the NextGen car is that handicapping formulas must be changed on a weekly basis, and no bet is safe.

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Average Running Position: Dover through Sonoma
Driver Rating: Martinsville through Kansas
Keystone Races of 2022