Dr. Diandra: Execution key at Kansas for championship contenders

Kansas could be Denny Hamlin’s race to lose, but don’t count out a run for the checkered flag by last week’s winner Kyle Larson, or a run from points leader William Byron.

Hamlin, Christopher Bell and Kevin Harvick hope to rebound from last week’s loose wheels, slow pit stops and bad luck. Bubba Wallace, one point out of the last transfer spot to the next round, must take advantage this week at a track that has historically played to his strengths. The Kansas race airs Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.

Spotlighting strengths and weaknesses

While it is impossible to predict which driver will have an accident or penalty ruin his shot at a win, it is possible to factor in a drivers’ propensity for getting in accidents and incurring penalties.

For this week’s race, I compiled the usual stats, such as average finish at Kansas and at Kansas’ comparison tracks, Michigan and Las Vegas. But I also include information on how well each driver has done finishing races, avoiding accidents and not incurring penalties. In the chart below, the deepest blue is the best and the deepest red the worst in each category. Grey signifies the middle. I list the drivers according to how much I weight each of these components.

Driver Kansas Finish Comp Track Finish Race Completion Incident Avoidance Penalty Avoidance Non-Caution Incident Avoidance

Denny Hamlin 90.02 52.77 59.26 92.59 77.78 51.85

Kyle Larson 79.50 67.96 40.74 77.78 85.19 51.85

William Byron 64.21 45.52 70.37 88.89 88.89 62.96

Martin Truex, Jr. 49.32 64.26 77.78 96.30 74.07 74.07

Bubba Wallace 63.22 36.86 66.67 81.48 88.89 44.44

Ross Chastain 54.05 39.08 70.37 92.59 92.59 77.78

Kevin Harvick 29.29 44.86 62.96 96.30 96.30 74.07

Joey Logano 43.70 26.46 55.56 85.19 77.78 66.67

Chris Buescher 15.15 42.97 88.89 96.30 88.89 92.59

Ryan Blaney 21.89 30.97 66.67 92.59 85.19 70.37

Brad Keselowski 16.71 37.67 55.56 92.59 85.19 59.26

Tyler Reddick 29.04 16.77 44.44 88.89 74.07 59.26

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. 25.17 8.83 70.37 92.59 81.48 77.78

Christopher Bell 19.80 34.64 51.85 88.89 74.07 55.56

Kyle Busch 16.02 24.04 55.56 81.48 66.67 48.15

Michael McDowell 7.69 6.42 66.67 88.89 55.56 74.07

The first two columns are weighted average finishes. They combine results from this year, last year and from 2017-21. I don’t include data from before stage racing, and I weight recent data more.

The 2023 race completion rate column reflects the percentage of races a driver finished. Corey LaJoie, who didn’t make the playoffs, is the only driver to have finished every race. After him Chris Buescher, Martin Truex Jr. and Harvick each have only one DNF.

The 2023 incident avoidance column ranks the average percentage of races in which a driver avoids involvement in a caution-causing incident.

The 2023 penalty avoidance column is based on the average percentage of races in which the team did not incur a penalty. I exclude intentional penalties, like pitting before pit road is open after a driver had an accident. I include before-race penalties that make a driver start from the rear of the field.

The last column, 2023 non-caution incident avoidance, measures misfortunes that don’t cause cautions. It includes slow pit stops, unscheduled pit stops (e.g., for loose wheels or mechanical issues), pit road contact and minor contact on track that didn’t cause an accident but did cost the driver positions.

Drivers most likely to win

This graph highlights each driver’s strengths and weaknesses. Compare, for example, the drivers with the top-three records at Kansas: Hamlin, Byron and Larson. Hamlin won the spring race while Larson finished second and Byron third.

Hamlin has minor issues finishing races (2 DNFs) and a little more trouble with non-caution incidents. I count 13 of the latter, which is third highest among all drivers. But Hamlin has a 2.33 average finish and hasn’t finished worse than fourth at Kansas in the Next Gen car.

Larson has a similar profile. He hasn’t finished worse than eighth in the Next Gen car at Kansas and his average finish is 4.0. He’s stronger at the comparison tracks than Hamlin.

But Larson has had major problems this year finishing races without trouble. He has the most DNFs of any playoff driver with six. Larson also has been involved in the most caution-causing accidents of any playoff driver this year. He’s done about as well as avoiding non-caution incidents as Hamlin has.

For Larson and Hamlin, speed isn’t the question. Execution is. Compare their records with Byron, who shows blue in every column except non-caution incidents. Even that column is barely red.

The second three drivers also have reasonable chances of winning. Martin Truex Jr. hasn’t finished better than fifth at Kansas in the Next Gen car, but he tends to finish races and (mostly) stay out of trouble.

Bubba Wallace won last year’s playoff race at Kansas, but he has also had issues on pit road and on the track that lower his chances of winning. Failing inspection twice this weekend means he’ll have one of the worst pit boxes for the race.

Ross Chastain is solid mid-blue across the board. After his fifth-place finish last week, his performance at Kansas could tell us if he’s shaping up to be a true championship contender or if he’ll fall out before the Round of 8.

There aren’t many drivers outside the playoffs poised to be spoilers at Kansas. The top non-playoff driver in my algorithm is Chase Elliott, who would slide in between Joey Logano and Chris Buescher on the table. Elliott’s best finish in the Next Gen car at Kansas is seventh, which he earned this spring. Elliott finishes races and avoids trouble better than the average. While he’s not racing for the driver’s championship, Elliott is strongly motivated not to end the year winless.

Drivers for whom Kansas could be a long race

Michael McDowell has not finished better than

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