Strong Openers

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Drivers and teams often speak about managing a race that can be broken down into a beginning, middle, and end. The same is true of a season.

In the first 18 races of 2021, four drivers had average finishes better than 11th and that strong start paid dividends for Denny Hamlin, William Byron, Kyle Larson, and Joey Logano – all of whom made the playoffs. Hamlin and Larson made their way into the Championship 4 in no small part because they also managed to end of their season.

Others were not as successful at putting a complete year together, but they are notable for bettors and players who want an idea of who to watch closely when the 2022 season kicks off in a little more than 60 days.

Byron showed the biggest differential between the first 18 races of 2021 and the final 18 at 7.72 positions. After back-to-back disappointments at Daytona International Speedway on both the oval and road course, he claimed his spot in the playoffs early with a win in Week 3 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That sparked an incredible 11-race streak of top-10s. In his next race, he sustained crash damage in the rain-soaked inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas, and then was part of the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut at Charlotte Motor Speedway with a fourth.

An accident at Sonoma Raceway the following week marked the third time in the first 18 races he failed to crack the top 25, but those few poor finishes were easily outweighed by 14 top-10s and an 11th.

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In 2022, the mid-point of the season came during the Pocono Raceway doubleheader. Race 1 technically belongs to the first half of the season and Race 2 is in the second 18. Byron finished third on Saturday that weekend and 12th on Sunday. Following that weekend, his results took a massive tumble with seven of the next 13 races ending 20th or worse. Byron finished strong with a sweep of the top-six in the Round of 8, but only after he had been eliminated from playoff contention.

Michael McDowell showed the second biggest falloff during the season at 7.39 positions. After drawing the No. 1 pill in the Daytona 500 lottery, he proved that was no fluke by finishing eighth the following week on the road course and sixth at Homestead. He is a solid plate racer, so a third at Talladega in April was not surprising – nor was a seventh at COTA.

All five of McDowell's top-10 finishes came in the first half of the year. In the second half, he failed to crack the top 15, but came close on five occasions with results of 16th or 17th. Four of those efforts came in the last six races, which may provide him some momentum to enter 2022.

There is a fairly significant drop off from second to third.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.'s differential stands at 4.22 and while top-10s were rare last year, both of those and most of his top-15s came before Pocono. Stenhouse was in the top 15 in seven of the first eight weeks and on the lead lap in all but one event. His other top-10 was a sixth at Nashville Superspeedway in Week 17. Once the playoffs rolled around and Stenhouse was not part of them, his results fell off considerably and he would not crack the top 15 again.

Joey Logano had the fourth best start compared to his last 18 races with a +4.17. This was mostly because of a run of bad luck from Watkins Glen International through the regular season finale. He sustained crash damage in four consecutive races to finish in the 20s twice and 30s twice. Once the playoffs began, he reversed the trend to finish 11th or better in nine of the 10 races, but a blown engine and 30th-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway kept him from advancing to the Championship 4.

Drivers better in 1st half of 2021

Opener
Rank

Driver

Avg. Fin
1st Half

Avg. Fin
2nd Half

Diff 1st to
2nd half

1.

William Byron

9.78

/

17.50

7.72

2.

Michael McDowell

16.78

/

24.17

7.39

3.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

17.61

/

21.83

4.22

4.

Joey Logano

10.56

/

14.72

4.17

5.

Daniel Suarez

18.28

/

21.83

3.56

6.

Ryan Newman

20.78

/

24.28

3.50

7.

Anthony Alfredo

26.00

/

29.00

3.00

8.

Kyle Busch

11.50

/

14.00

2.50

9.

Ryan Preece

21.72

/

23.83

2.11

10.

Austin Dillon

13.39

/

15.50

2.11

11.

Chris Buescher

16.67

/

17.94

1.28

12.

Cody Ware

30.76

/

31.53

0.77

13.

Alex Bowman

14.72

/

15.44

0.72

14.

Ross Chastain

18.28

/

18.94

0.67

15.

Garrett Smithley

30.92

/

31.53

0.62

16.

Denny Hamlin

8.22

/

8.67

0.44

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