Forecasting the 2020 NASCAR championship

By Steve Makinen  () 

Each November a new NASCAR champion is crowned, and though the playoff system narrows it to one season finale race each year, an entire season of races goes into building a champion. Eventual champions have to win races, demonstrate consistency or get hot at the right time — and have their teams on pit row execute. Since the playoff format has three knockout rounds en route to the championship, a bad stretch can eliminate even the best drivers. If you want to invest your betting dollar when we have no daily action, picking up a futures wager or two on an eventual NASCAR champion could be an option, as typically only a handful of drivers seem like realistic possibilities.

 

Since 2014, the first season of the 16-driver playoff format, five different champions have emerged. Only defending champ Kyle Busch has won more than once. However, only 10 total drivers have competed for the title in the season finale during that span. Two, Carl Edwards and Jeff Gordon, are retired, and another, Ryan Newman, is injured. Furthermore, the last three finales have featured Kyle Busch, Martin Truex and Kevin Harvick along with one other contender. The championship pool is not very deep, so the possibility of pegging the champion is a lot better in NASCAR than in many other sports, and the odds are better as well.

 

These were the odds for the 2020 championship as of last week courtesy of the Westgate SuperBook. I’ve limited it to the top 12, as I don’t think it’s realistic to go deeper. With 12 drivers on this list, the average price for each is + 1175, so there isn’t a lot of vigorish built into these, perhaps another reason to partake.

 

Kyle Busch: + 600

Kevin Harvick: + 600

Joey Logano: + 700

Martin Truex Jr.: + 800

Chase Elliott: + 800

Brad Keselowski: + 1000

Denny Hamlin: + 1200

Kyle Larson: + 1200

Jimmie Johnson: + 1600

Alex Bowman: + 1600

Ryan Blaney: + 2000

William Byron: + 2000

 

In analyzing this field, I’ll use a method similar to what I have used to determine potential champions in the NCAA tournament — shared statistical characteristics. But I’ll be doing it for just the first four races. This should help us narrow the field. Even if we choose a group of five drivers and one wins the title, we are guaranteed to make a profit.

 

Two key variables could play a factor in how a champion is determined:

— Altered schedule due to the coronavirus. With races having already been postponed through at least May 9 and the potential for more beyond that, NASCAR has said it still plans to run the full schedule. This will mean major changes to the schedule and the frequency at which races are run, with the expectation that midweek events will happen. This could mean a big change for how teams navigate the season, and I believe that with more races run in a much smaller calendar, momentum will be a bigger factor than ever.

— Season finale now at Phoenix. The championship race, previously run at Homestead-Miami Speedway, has been moved to Phoenix International Raceway. This is a major change and one that could benefit bettors, as we have already seen a race run there in 2020. That was the last race before the postponements, won by previous champion Joey Logano. However, Kevin Harvick had the highest driver rating that day, while Chase Elliott led the most laps and Brad Keselowski was also a consistent front-runner.

 

Here is a rundown of the top four finishers in each season finale since 2014:

 

— 2014: Kevin Harvick, Ryan Neman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano

— 2015: Kyle Busch, Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex

— 2016: Jimmie Johnson, Logano, Busch, Carl Edwards

— 2017: Truex, Busch, Harvick, Brad Keselowski

— 2018: Logano, Truex, Harvick, Busch

— 2019: Busch, Truex, Harvick, Hamlin

 

All of these drivers besides Busch in 2015 ran full seasons. Busch broke his leg in an Infinity Series race on Daytona 500 weekend that year and missed much of the first half of the season. He eventually won a regular-season race and received a waiver to become eligible for the playoffs.

 

I will look at the shared statistical characteristics over the first four races of the year for the final four drivers dating to 2014. This is only one-ninth of the schedule, but I believe it is realistic to narrow the field of contenders significantly based on early-season performance. I have selected 12 key statistical categories and charted the contenders by their performances in these categories. They are:

 

— Position in standings

— Wins

— Top-5 finishes

— Top-10 finishes

— Average finishing position

— Average driver rating

— Average running position

— Number of fastest laps

— Top-15 laps

— Average qualifying position

— Percentage of laps completed

— Laps led

 

After determining the series ranks, I compared the ranks from the last six years for the championship four drivers and the winner. For each category, I look for minimum performance, typical series ranking and the percentile of drivers that qualify within certain ranges.

 

Shared Traits of Championship Four Drivers

This is a list of the statistical traits after the first four races shared by drivers who eventually battled for the title at the championship race. I used about a 60th-percentile cutoff to eliminate some of the more fluky drivers from recent years. The sample had 23 drivers.

 

Of the last 23 championship four drivers, about 60%:

— Were in the top six in points after four races

— Had at least two top-5 finishes thus far

— Had at least three top-10 finishes thus far

— Had an average finishing position of 10.0 or better, ranking in the top seven in the series

— Had an average driver rating of 98 or better, ranking in the top five in the series

— Had an average running position of 10.5 or better, ranking in the top six in the series

— Had 60 or more fastest laps in the first four races, ranking in the top five in the series

— Had run about 850 laps or more in the top 15 in the first four races, ranking in the top six of that category

— Qualified at an average spot of 12 or better in the first four races, ranking in the series top 10

— Completed at least 99% of the total laps thus far

— Led at least 55 laps, ranking in the top seven of the series

 

Using the logic of qualifying all of this year’s 12 top contending drivers under these criteria, here is a chart showing the number of times each driver qualified for the 12 categories. Based on our belief that the championship four drivers share quality characteristics, the drivers at the top of the list are most prepared to compete for the title in the season finale.

 

We should pretty much eliminate Martin Truex and William Byron from consideration for being in the hunt in November. In fact, I would say long shots like Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola should be given better consideration than them. As to further elimination, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin aren’t far behind, but their championship pedigree prohibits me from doing that so early. Let’s call Kevin Harvick a lock right now to be a championship four contender. He has checked all the boxes he needs thus far to set himself up for a title-caliber season. Now let’s look for a potential champion.

 

Shared Traits of Series Champions

Let’s look at the last five champions (excluding Kyle Busch in 2015) to try to find heightened statistical traits previous champions share after the first four races.

 

Of the last five Cup champion drivers, the majority:

— Were in the top three in points after four races

— Had won a race in the first four events

— Had a top-5 finish thus far

— Had at least two top-10 finishes thus far

— Had an average finishing position of 8.5 or better, ranking in the top five in the series

— Had an average driver rating of 106 or better, ranking in the top four in the series

— Had an average running position of 10.0 or better, ranking in the top four in the series

— Had 70 or more fastest laps in the first four races, ranking in the top three in the series

— Had run about 1,000 laps or more in the top 15 in the first four races, ranking in the top five of that category

— Qualified at an average spot of 16 or better in the first four races, ranking in the series top 15

— Completed 100% of the total laps thus far

— Led at least 150 laps to date, ranking in the top two in series

 

Drawing up a similar chart to what we used in determining the most likely championship four drivers, here is a look at the elite drivers with the best shot at a title in 2020.

 

 

Naturally, there are exceptions to every rule. But it’s a fairly safe bet that the championship four drivers and the 2020 champion will be found near the top of these lists. Harvick would seem a heavy favorite to win the title, and at 6-1 odds he is certainly worth your investment. In fact, a strong hedge opportunity may present itself in November if he were listed at 3-1 or something similar. But with his strong career resume at Phoenix and having run well there just a couple of weeks ago, hedging would probably be my last thought.

 

In my opinion, a futures wager on Harvick to win the title would be worthwhile. If you’re looking to take some of the risk out of that 6-1 wager, perhaps an accompanying bet on Logano at 7-1 or Elliott at 8-1 would make sense. I wouldn’t go any further than that.

 

 

To see the charts with this story, see VSiN’s “Point Spread Weekly.”

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