If a surprise driver wins at Sonoma, the playoff fight could get wild

The odds are better than normal for a first-time winner at Sonoma.

Granted, the odds have been seemingly pretty good for a driver to get his first win of the season over the past few weeks. As drivers like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Ryan Blaney have scored victories, Cup champions Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth are winless along with other drivers like Denny Hamlin.

Entering 2017, the latter four drivers had been responsible for 35 race wins over the past three seasons. That’s nearly a third of the races in that timeframe. It’s not going to be a shock to see any of those four drivers in victory lane as soon as Sunday.

But outside of the the big names who are currently winless, recent history at the near 2-mile road course tells us that there’s a good chance of a first-time winner on Sunday. Five of the last 10 races have been won by drivers who entered Sonoma without a victory. And four of those drivers’ only regular season victory of the year came at the California wine country track.

If a driver who we haven’t mentioned above gets his first win of the season at Sonoma, it could be someone like Kasey Kahne or AJ Allmendinger. Kahne won at Sonoma in 2009, and by now you know that Allmendinger is one of the better road racers in the Cup Series. He qualified for the first NASCAR win-and-you’re-in playoff format in 2014 via a victory at Watkins Glen.

If Allmendinger (or Kahne) wins at Sonoma on Sunday, not only would that win mean a likely spot in NASCAR’s playoffs, but would create an even further crunch on playoff spots.

Through the first 15 races of the season, 10 different drivers have won races. Though in NASCAR playoff parlance, the 10 is actually a nine. Joey Logano had a dreaded encumbered win at Richmond, so his victory doesn’t qualify him for the playoffs.

The number of winners is big because — if you need a refresher course — all drivers with wins make it to NASCAR’s 16-driver playoff field for the final 10 races and the rest of the spots are made up by winless drivers with the most points.

Through the first three years of the format’s existence, the most winning drivers a playoff field has contained is 13. That number is just four* winners away as it stands right now with 11 races before the playoffs begin.

On its own, the nine winners sounds like a lot. But it’s actually tied for the fewest number of winners entering Sonoma in the current format’s existence. In 2014 and 2016, there were 10 different winners in the first 15 races of the season. Both of those seasons finished with 13 winners.

In 2014, nine of the 10 drivers with wins were in the top 12 in the points standings. In 2015, seven of the nine winners were in the top 12. And last season, all of the winners entered Sonoma in the top 10.

This year seems poised to break that 13-driver mark. Probably because eight of the top 12 drivers in the points standings don’t have an official win. That’s an insane statistic compared to those past three seasons and why it seems likely that there will be a handful more first-time winners this season. It’s not common for a top-10 Cup Series driver to have a winless regular season. And even when it does happen, that driver doesn’t miss the playoffs.

But it could this year. Right now, 12th-place Clint Bowyer would miss out on the playoffs. If Allmendinger or Kahne or another driver below 12th gets his first win of 2017, the cut line moves up ahead of Kenseth, who’s tied for 10th with Logano. NASCAR’s move to reward winning over everything else could fully bloom this season. Sunday could give it a hefty dose of Miracle-Gro.

Both Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick haven’t won yet. (Getty)
Both Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick haven’t won yet. (Getty)

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Nick Bromberg is the editor of Dr. Saturday and From the Marbles on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at nickbromberg@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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