Battling Up Front: Laps in the Top 15

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Last week Kyle Busch became the 10th different winner in the first 11 races of the 2021 NASCAR Cup season. Three of last year’s most dominant competitors still have not yet found Victory Lane so there is a high degree of likelihood that Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, and Chase Elliott will win before the playoffs begin.

That will bring the number to 13 and there is a very real chance that NASCAR will need to use a tiebreaker to determine playoff eligibility.

Even if the series does not hit 16 winners before the cutoff, we are on record pace to see more winners than before in the Modern Era. There are still two more aero-restricted superspeedway races and several road courses where luck and strategy play a critical role.

NASCAR has been searching for parity for decades. It would seem they have found it to a much greater degree than ever in their history. The ripple effect is that picking outright winners is extremely difficult for bettors. For gamers, however, there are great values to be had – and the chart below shows which mid-pack drivers have been in the front 40 percent of the field with consistency.

One key to success is in finding a new metric to gauge strength. Earlier this season we tracked Driver Rating and Average Running Position. This week, we will take a look at the amount of time racers have spent among the top 15. Since Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway behave by their own set of rules, those two tracks have been excluded from the chart below.

Martin Truex Jr. tops NASCAR’s statistical charts in a number of aspects. He has the most wins and has been competitive in nearly every race. He has failed to score a top-10 twice in the first nine races on unrestricted tracks, but that does not mean he has not been in the running. So far this year, with the exclusion of the two plate tracks, he has been ranked among the top five in seven events and has not been worse than seventh-best at any time.

The cumulative effect is that Truex leads the series in Top-15 laps with 2,602 of the potential 2,661. His best race was the Blue-Emu Maximum Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway where he spent all 500 laps inside the top 15 in route to one of his two victories. At Richmond Raceway the following week, he was in the top 15 for 399 of the 400 laps. Conversely, he was ranked only seventh-best best at Phoenix Raceway, where he scored his other win, proving that it is possible to overcome early race hardships.

William Byron climbed to second in this week’s Power Rankings. His sixth-place finish in that race was the ninth consecutive time that he scored a top-10 this season. That streak began with what was a somewhat surprising win in the Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The victory was not a fluke, however; he spent the second-most laps inside the top 15 that week and backed up his performance with another solid run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where he was also ranked second in this category.

Like Truex, Byron was perfect at Martinsville and he also spent the entire 253 laps in the top 15 on the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track. In order to challenge for top-fives and -10s, a driver has to stay in contact with the leaders throughout the race. In total, Byron has spent 94 percent of his laps (2,500) inside the top 15.

Denny Hamlin is regarded by many experts to be the strongest driver this season even without a win. He’s leading the points, and should the regular season end that way, he would make the playoffs regardless of whether he finds Victory Lane. He’s backed up his performance with the third-most top-15 laps on unrestricted tracks with a total of 2,497.

When Hamlin is on his “A” game, he’s been practically unstoppable. He was ranked first in top-15 laps four times this year by never falling below that mark on the Daytona road course, at Phoenix Raceway, Bristol, and Richmond. His biggest hit came on a track where he was expected to run well: Hamlin was inside the top 15 for only 149 of 267 laps at Homestead, which ranked him 14th that week. He finished that race 11th, which was the only time until Talladega that he was outside the top 10.

Team Penske drivers Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano round out the top five.

Blaney has spent 2,230 laps inside the top 15 with perfect performances at Phoenix and Atlanta Motor Speedway. He was ranked among the top five at Vegas, Martinsville, and Kansas Speedway as well, but he struggled at Daytona, Homestead, Bristol, and Richmond with rankings outside the top 10. To be a serious contender for the Cup, Blaney needs to find more consistency.

Logano has been in the top 15 for 2,191 laps of the possible 2,661. Like his teammate Blaney, he needs to find better consistency among the leaders before he contends for regular wins. His best rankings came at Phoenix and Bristol. He was a surprise winner on the dirt track after Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell crashed in Stage 1, but Logano was never out of the top 15 there. Logano’s worst effort came last week at Kansas as he battled food poisoning.

If it seems like Chase Elliott has not performed up to his potential, that is because it is largely true. He has only two top-five rankings in regard to top-15 laps. One of these came on the Daytona road course, where he was highly favored to win. He failed to grab the checkers there because of a self-inflicted mistake. The other strong performance came at Martinsville, where Hendrick is always supposed to be strong. But Elliott has been more “miss” than “hit” this season with four rankings outside the top 10.

One reason Kyle Busch’s win last week was not a complete surprise is because he is among the top 10 on the chart below with 1,955 laps inside the top 15. That ranks him eighth for the season-to-date.

Brad Keselowski (2,022), Larson (1,947), and Kevin Harvick (1,841) are the other drivers inside the top 10.

Laps in Top 15, non-restrictor plate

(2,661 possible laps)


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