Monday, March 17, 2014

Four different winners in first four races, what does it mean?

Is Carl Edwards in the Chase with his win Sunday at Bristol?
Before we travel too far down the path of wrong thinking, there’s one thing followers of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing should understand — namely, that there is little statistical significance to the fact that four different drivers have won the first four races of the season.

It’s seductive to think that having four different winners in the first four races increases the likelihood of producing more than 15 different winners in the first 26 races, after which the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup field is set.

That very suggestion was made to Carl Edwards after he took the checkered flag in Sunday’s rain-delayed Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, and he ran with it.

“There’s been a lot of talk about it,” Edwards said. “I’ve been listening to the radio guys a lot, and everybody is assuming that you win and you’re in (the Chase), and that’s definitely not the case. We have 12 more races, and all of a sudden it turns into there are already 16 winners ‑‑ yeah, 12 more.

“But the first step is you have to win. I think we’re proving that right now. You’re going to have to have a win, I believe, to be in the Chase, so now that we’ve checked that box, we need to go get another win, and I think then we will be guaranteed to be in it.”

Edwards can relax. From the moment NASCAR’s new Chase qualification format was announced in January, the conventional wisdom has been that one victory in the first 26 races all but guarantees a berth in the Chase.

Guess what? That’s still true.

Fact: The first 15 spots in the Chase are reserved for race winners.

Fact: In the 10 years under the Chase format, there have been no more than 15 different winners in the so-called regular season.

Fact: In the last three seasons, there have been four different winners in the first four NASCAR Sprint Cup races.

The high-water mark for the number of different winners in the first 26 races came in 2011. There wasn’t a repeat winner that year until the sixth race, when Kevin Harvick completed the second leg of back-to-back victories at Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.

So the notion that there are likely to be more than 15 different regular-season winners this year has no basis in fact to justify it and 10 years of history to argue against it.

In fact, you could make a compelling argument that the current format renders it less likely the number of different winners will increase. Just look at the first four races. Drivers who already have victories in their pockets are taking more risks.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. gambled on fuel mileage at both Phoenix and Las Vegas and came within a whisker of winning a second race. After Sunday night’s race, Edwards exhibited the same mentality.

“I’ve been a little bit jealous of those guys that have wins this early in the season,” he said. “I was thinking today I can’t imagine what that must feel like to be able to come to a race track like this and have all that pressure off of you.

“So now we’ll be able to go have some fun. I’m really excited about the next 22 races. That will be a blast.”

As the number of different winners increases, so does the number of drivers with the freedom to take wild risks — both strategically and competitively — to win races. Logically, that gives them an additional advantage over winless drivers who must race for points and hope to qualify for the Chase via their positions in the standings.

Yes, two victories constitute an absolute guarantee of a Chase spot, but in all likelihood, one will be enough to get there.

- Reid Spencer / NASCAR Wire Service

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