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- NASCAR driver
In 2021, nine drivers ended the year with average finishes that were three or more positions greater than they started the season. While only one of these drivers made it to the Championship 4, this was an important trend to note because betting lines are often influenced by recent momentum – and when one surges like some of these drivers did in the closing events, it can create some interesting dark horses.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at drivers who showed a better performance in the first half of the season and now it's time to look at the strong closers.
Martin Truex Jr. was the only Championship 4 driver who showed significant improvement, it is notable that Kyle Larson (+2.17) and Chase Elliott (+0.83) are included in the chart below. The only Championship 4 contender who is not on the list is Denny Hamlin with a -0.44 average difference in the last 18 races compared to the first. For all intents, that means Elliott and Hamlin were practically even throughout the season and the more important statistic was their raw average results.
Elliott had a 11.78 in the first 18 races and a 10.94 in the second half. Hamlin had an 8.22 and 8.67 respectively, which meant the handicappers had a strong set of notes from which to work and there was not added value because of lost momentum.
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The traders may have been caught off guard by a few drivers, however.
Most notable of the strong closers was Aric Almirola, who improved his second half performance by more than seven positions on average. The driver of the No. 10 Ford had a miserable opening to his season. He crashed out of the Daytona 500 on Lap 13, which wouldn't have been held against him because carburetor-restricted superspeedways are essentially lotteries where the whim of Fate determines the finishing order. But, he also sustained significant crash damage two week later at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The following week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Almirola failed to finish again with crash damage. By Week 13, he amassed five DNFs, all with crash damage, and each result was well outside of the top 30. In addition to his bad results, this carnage had to deplete his inventory.
For Almirola, things began to turn around just shy of the midpoint. He earned the pole for the inaugural race at Nashville Superspeedway and finished fourth. He still had a huge hill to climb and likely would not have made the playoffs without the New Hampshire Motor Speedway that came with just five races remaining in the regular season. From that point on, he was nearly always in the top 20 and ended 2021 with back-to-back sixth-place finishes at Martinsville Speedway and Phoenix Raceway.
Kurt Busch had an even more dramatic end to his season. Busch has long been known as a consistent driver with solid top-10 potential. That rarely makes him a good value on sportsbooks, but it did make him incredibly attractive in fantasy NASCAR.
Before the series rolled into Pocono Raceway, he had four top-10s. Two of these came in the first three weeks, but after finishing eighth at Homestead, he went 12 races without another. For Busch, things changed dramatically at Sonoma Raceway in Week 16. He rattled off five top-10s in his next six attempts, which was capped by a win at Atlanta Motor Speedway. That righted his ship and nine of his 14 top-10s for the season were earned in the second half. His Atlanta win came with odds of +3300.
Matt DiBenedetto was fighting for his job in the second half of the season. The Wood Brothers ultimately chose Harrison Burton to fill the cockpit, but it wasn't for a lack of effort on the driver's side. His results improved 4.61 positions on average in the second half of the season on the strength of six top-10s. If he manages to secure at least a moderately-funded ride, he should be watched closely in the final 18 races of 2022.
The fourth driver with a better than four-position differential in the second half of the season also requires some attention. It's not as if Ryan Blaney had a bad opening overall to his season with an average finish of 14.00 because those numbers were significantly impacted by two accidents in the first three weeks. He regained his composure and scored four consecutive top-10s immediately afterward and secured a playoff invitation with a win at Atlanta 1.
Most of his finishes in the first 17 races leading into Pocono were outside the top 10, but he was close on four occasions with results of 11th-13th and that gave the team a strong set of notes. Beginning with Pocono, he came alive with seven top-six results in the final nine races of the regular season. Included in this streak were back-to-back wins at Michigan International Speedway and Daytona International Speedway.
Blaney got put on his back foot early in the playoffs when he finished 22nd, with brake problems, at Darlington Raceway. He would probably have made the Championship 4 if not for an accident with Austin Dillon at Kansas Speedway. The following week, the two made contact again at Martinsville. While he may or may not have had anything for Larson in the finale, he was the highest finishing non-playoff driver in fourth.
Drivers better in 2nd half of 2021
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