Who will join Larson, Bell in Championship 4?
Marty Snider, Jeff Burton, and Nate Ryan preview the Round of 8 cutoff race at Martinsville Speedway and debate the drivers who have the best chance to join Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell in the Championship 4.
With Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell locked into the Championship 4, plus four of the remaining six drivers age 31 or younger, this year’s playoff finals could have the youngest average age since the 16-driver elimination format started in 2014.
If veterans Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. prevail, the average could return to the range where it’s been every year except the last. It all depends on who finishes where at Martinsville (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)
How it started
This year’s playoffs started as is typical for most years. The graph below shows the average age of all 16 playoff drivers from 2014-23. I’m using those years because all ran under similar formats. I use the driver’s age as of the first playoff race of that year.
The average age of drivers entering the playoffs was between 32.6 to 36.7 years every season except one. The exception is the 2022 season, which had the youngest average age at 31.1 years. The oldest field was in 2015 at 36.7 years. This year’s average is back up to within the usual range at 34.6 years.
Chase Elliott was the youngest playoff driver during this 10-year period. He was just 20.8 years old when he made his first playoffs in 2016.
Harvick’s playoff berth this year made him the oldest at 47.8 years old. He’s 22 years older than this year’s youngest playoff driver, William Byron.
How it’s going
The graph below shows the average age of drivers in the Championship 4 from 2014-22.
Until last year, the average age of Championship 4 drivers remained between 32.9 and 39.1 years. There’s no discernable pattern to the changes, just a 6.2-year range from youngest average to oldest.
Sometimes the average of the last four drivers standing was higher than the average of all 16 drivers. In other years, it was lower.
The oldest average was in 2019, when Hamlin, Truex, Harvick and Kyle Busch competed against each other. Busch was the youngster of that group at age 34.4.
In 2022, the average age dropped to 29.1 years old. Eventual champion Joey Logano was the old man of the group at 32.3 years old. Chase Elliott, at 26.8 years old, was the youngest.
But averages never tell the full story. When there are only four drivers, one change makes a dramatic difference.
For example: Without Ross Chastain’s Hail Melon last year, Hamlin would have made the playoffs. The average age would have been risen from 29.1 years to 32.2 years. While this still would have been the lowest average age, it would decrease the record by just 0.7 years rather than 3.8 years.
So let’s delve a little deeper, past simple averages.
I’ve added yellow stars to represent each individual driver’s age in the next graph, which shows data for all 16 playoff drivers.
The gold lines show the average age for each year. Blue boxes indicate where the middle half of the ages lie, which gives you an idea of how the drivers' ages are distributed.
The ‘whiskers’ (the lines coming from either end of the boxes) run from the youngest to the oldest driver each year with two exceptions.
In 2015, youngest-driver Logano was five years younger than the next-youngest driver, Busch. That’s a large enough difference that the analyses program called it out.
The program also noted Hamlin and Harvick in 2022, when Hamlin was 4.4 years older than Busch — who was again the next-youngest driver to Hamlin. Harvick was 9.4 years older than Busch.
Every year between 2014-23, the ages of drivers making the playoffs spans about 20 years. The lowest age difference was in 2016: an 18.8-year age difference between 20.8-year-old Elliott and 45.4-year-old Tony Stewart. The largest was in 2016, when 24.5 years separated Elliott and Matt Kenseth.
At least one driver 43 years or older made the playoffs every year since 2014. At least one driver 25 or younger has made the playoffs as well.
But those numbers narrow when we switch focus from the 16 drivers who start to the four who survive. Here’s the analogous graph for the Championship 4 drivers.
The youngest driver to make the Championship 4 during this period was Logano, who was 24.3 years old in 2014. The oldest was Jeff Gordon in 2015. Gordon was 44.2 years old when his playoffs started.
The biggest age difference between oldest and youngest was in 2021 where Elliott and Larson competed against Hamlin and Truex. There was a 15.4 years difference between youngest and oldest. The smallest difference was last year — just 5.5 years separated Logano and Elliott.
What about 2023?
Larson (31.1 years old as of Darlington) and Bell (28.7 years old) secured their spots in the Championship 4 via wins at Las Vegas and Homestead respectively. If the two youngest remaining drivers — Byron (25.8 years old) and Tyler Reddick (27.7 years old) — make the playoffs, the average age would be just 28.3. That would beat last year’s record by ten months.
If Truex (the oldest driver still in the running at 43.2 years old) makes the Championship 4 instead of Byron, the average age would be 32.7 — younger than any year except last year.
If Truex and Hamlin both make the Championship 4, the average age rises to 36.4 years old.
What this record means is questionable. Because of the win-and-you're-in playoff format, luck and simply not making mistakes play an increasing role in who advances and who doesn't.