NASCAR: Kyle Larson completes trend not seen since 1970

Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)
Kyle Larson, Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images) /

After Kyle Larson’s win in the fourth race of the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, William Byron is still the only playoff driver from last season to win.

Four races into the 36-race 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, and things have not gone like many had anticipated them going entering the year.

The season opened up with two first-time winners, something that hadn’t been done since the 1950 season, when Front Row Motorsports’ Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway in his 358th career start, the second most ever for a first-time winner, and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell won the race at the track’s road course in his 38th career start.

Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron then won at Homestead-Miami Speedway to end the first-time winner trend, but even he had only entered the season with one win.

So the season’s first three winners had a combined one victory entering the year.

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The only time it has ever been less was entering the inaugural season in 1949, when it was naturally zero.

And most recently, Hendrick Motorsports’ Kyle Larson, who was fired by Chip Ganassi Racing four races into the 2020 season, won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his seventh career victory, which was his first since October 2019 and just his second since the end of the 2017 regular season. So already, three drivers who were not in last year’s playoff have been victorious this season. That is something that had never happened in the playoff era, which began in 2004.

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In fact, the only time that no drivers who had been to the previous season’s Championship 4, which began in 2014, won any one of a season’s first four races happened in 2017, when Kurt Busch, who finished the 2016 season in seventh place in the championship standings, was the highest finishing driver from 2016 among the first four race winners.

But this year’s trend goes back a lot further than the start of the playoffs.

Byron is the only one of the four race winners this season who qualified for last year’s playoffs. But even he didn’t qualify for the round of 12, much less the round of 8 or the Championship 4.

He only managed to finish in 14th place in the standings, but he still leads all winners so far this season in that category, as Bell finished in 20th, McDowell finished in 23rd and Larson, who missed the final 32 races, finished in 34th.

In 50 consecutive seasons entering 2021, at least one of the winners of the season’s first four races had finished the previous season in the top 10 in the standings.

The last time a season began with four straight race wins from drivers who hadn’t finished in the top 10 in the standings the year before was in 1970.

A.J. Foyt won the season opener at Riverside International Raceway before Cale Yarborough and Charlie Glotzbach won the two Daytona 500 qualifier races at Daytona International Speedway, back when they were still classified as part of the official schedule, and Pete Hamilton won the Daytona 500.

Yarborough had finished in 23rd place in the championship standings the previous (1969) season, leading those four drivers.

Aside from Yarborough and Byron, only two seasons in Cup Series history have ever begun without a winner of one of the first four races who had finished in the top 10 in the standings the previous season.

In 1965, Darel Dieringer was the highest finisher in the 1964 standings among the first four race winners, having finished in 11th place.

In 1966, Earl Balmer was the highest finisher in the 1965 standings among the first four race winners, having finished in 23rd place.

The only season in Cup Series history to take more than four races for a driver from the previous season’s top 10 in points to win was the 1966 season.

Could that change this season, despite the fact that back then, running the full schedule was a lot rarer than it is today?

In 1966, it took until the season’s seventh race at Bristol Motor Speedway for that to happen, with the 1965 runner-up, Dick Hutcherson, taking the checkered flag.

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Will this unique trend continue to start the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season? The fifth race on the schedule is the Instacart 500, which is set to be broadcast live on Fox from Phoenix Raceway beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET this Sunday, March 14.