How can Statistics be Utilized to Assess a NASCAR Driver’s Performance?
Throughout his NASCAR career, Jeff Gordon won 85 races and is currently 3rd on the NASCAR all-time win list. He has always been considered one of the strongest drivers since his first season in 1993. But in the first 11 races of 2012 Gordon is not only winless, but also 24th in the point standings ("Jeff Gordon"). Gordon did not suddenly lose his ability to drive a race car; he simply experienced misfortunes in nearly every race of the season despite always having a strong car. Gordon is not the only driver in NASCAR who finishes worse than he ran throughout a race. Does anything prove how well these drivers were doing before events occurred that hurt their finishing position? The statistics NASCAR provides about a race can often go very far in explaining more about a driver’s performance than merely the finish that is put in the record books. How can statistics be utilized to assess a driver’s performance?
1. The Statistics of NASCAR
In NASCAR there are many different types of statistics that offer a variety of quantified information regarding details of the sport. The statistics can be information about a driver or information about the field in general. The statistics regarding a single driver can be put into three categories; season, career, or specific race.
Season statistics and career statistics have the same information; including the number of wins, laps led, top five finishes, and top ten finishes as well as number of races that the driver did not finish and average starts and finishes (“NASCAR Statistics”). They differ slightly in how they are able to be used. The season long statistics can be mainly used to compare finishes to other drivers in the same season or finishes from past seasons, which shows if a driver is performing above or below what is expected. Career statistics can be useful in not just determining which drivers have the most wins, top 5s, top 10s, and fewest DNFs, but also in determining which drivers are strong on all types of tracks and which drivers perform best at specific types of tracks. For example, Juan Pablo Montoya performs really well on the two road courses on NASCAR’s schedule, Sonoma and Watkins Glen, and he is expected to finish well at both of those but not necessarily expected to be as strong at the other tracks during the season (“Juan Pablo Montoya is a road course ringer”). Similarly, Tony Stewart typically does the best in the summer races when the tracks are hot and slick. Therefore, when Stewart won two races in March one season, this was a sign to many that he was performing above his normal and would be stronger than usual throughout the year (Blount et al.; Graves.)
Race specific statistics give both an overview and details of important factors of a race. Some aspects include the driver’s position at certain points, such as the starting position, lowest position, highest position, position in the middle of the race and finishing position. A driver’s performance can also be reflected in the statistics encompassing the entire race. Several different statistics are collected regarding passes under green flag conditions. “Green flag passes” show how many times the driver passed another during green flag, green flag times passed shows how many times the driver was passed, and quality passes shows the number of times the driver passed cars that were running in the top 15. The different green flag pass statistics can be used together to determine how competitive a driver was regardless of their finishing position. Statistics also detail how many laps were spent in the top 15, led, and the fastest of all drivers. These prove whether a driver was at any point one of the best out of all cars on track. Also important to showing a driver’s performance in regard to indicating if there was an incident is the “status at finish”, typically listed as running, crash, or any of several mechanical issues including vibration, engine, brakes, and overheating. ("NASCAR Sprint Cup Stats")
Of all of the race statistics, the one most analysts favor the most is the Driver Rating. The Driver Rating is a formula that combines several of the loop data statistics to evaluate a driver’s performance. Calculations are broken up into 3 sections. The first section is Primary Statistics which includes Finish, Average Running Position, Average Speed, and the average of the fastest three laps. Initially, the points for all four statistics range from 34 to 180, but then they are adjusted by scaling each one. Finish and Average Speed are left alone by multiplying by 1, Average Running Position is multiplied by 2, and Fastest Lap is divided by 9. Section 2 is Fixed Bonus Points, which are extra points added for meeting certain criteria; a win is 20 points, top-15 is 10, leading most laps is 10, lead lap finish is 5, average running position better than 10th is 5, average running position better than 6th is 5, and average running position better than 2nd is 5. Third section is Variable Bonus Points, which is the total number of laps that the driver either led or had the fastest lap, divided by the total laps the driver ran, multiplied by 100, and can be a maximum of 100. Lastly all of the sections are added up and then divided by six to give a driver rating between 23.3 and 150.0. (“Driver Rating Explained”)
Statistics can be very useful in looking at single races to find a more complete understanding than just what the finishing position provides. There are many cases in which a driver’s finishing position doesn’t completely reflect how they performed throughout the course of the race, and statistics can be usefully incorporated to comprehend a driver’s performance through the race. Events commonly occur during a race that directly affect a driver’s finish but weren’t at the fault of the driver or poor performance.
When looking at a race it can be difficult to assess a driver’s performance due to a variety of circumstances that occur that are often unrelated to performance, but will affect the outcome. Mechanical problems are the issue that is most often not a driver’s fault. Not all mechanical problems are the same; they can affect different parts of the car to different degrees. When parts of an engine break, it can be catastrophic or just timely to fix. If the engine cannot be fixed the status at finish on the results sheet will list “engine”, but if the engine was repaired before the race was over then the status would list “running” and the engine issue wouldn’t have been noted. ("2011 Official Race Results : Subway Fresh Fit 500")
Drivers can get caught up in many different types of wrecks. Some wrecks are the driver’s fault, but drivers can also be involved in another driver’s wreck, such as getting hit by a wrecking car or having nowhere to go and running into a pile-up. Whether a wreck is a driver’s fault or not, there is a dramatic difference between performance before and after the wreck.
Even if a driver was not in any wrecks and did not have any mechanical failures, it still can be difficult to determine whether results are due to a driver’s performance or the car’s handling. Dustin Long, motorsports reporter for Sports Illustrated and USA Today, pointed out that the two factors are interrelated in that a driver’s finish is affected by both their performance and cars speed and handling in conjunction with each other (E-mail interview). Sometimes drivers cannot overcome a poor-handling car; drivers complain that the car just wasn’t good enough to race and they could never adjust it to the point that they could drive it. Other times drivers overcome deficiencies of a car such as when they drive a poor handling, or wrecked, car to a decent finish.
2.0 Law of Averages
Much can be inferred about a driver’s performance by looking at the averages of the statistics. When looking at a driver’s performance in a given race, the statistics sheet gives the average running position. Jim Utter said that the average running position is highly indicative of a driver’s performance over the course of a race because it will reflect whether a driver spent a majority of the race up front or deep in the pack (E-mail interview); a detail that finishing position alone would not show. For example of a race that a driver spent much of the race leading or in the front is the 2011 Camping World Truck Series race in Darlington, South Carolina (figure 1), Kasey Kahne finished 1st and never ran lower than 4th, with an average position better than 1.5 ("Kahne cruises to Truck victory at Darlington"). On the other hand, in the 2011 Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega (figure 2), Jimmie Johnson won, although he had an average running position of 17th (Associated Press). In conjunction with average position, the standard deviation of the driver’s running position would go to show how consistent they were throughout a race. In this case when looking at Kahne’s win as opposed to Johnson’s the standard deviations show that Kahne was far more consistent than Johnson, whose running position fluctuated drastically through the race.
The tracks run on a NASCAR circuit rarely change much between seasons (2010 Sprint Cup Series Results), so it is relatively straightforward to compare a driver’s performance at a specific race on a track to their average statistics at the same track. Comparing a finish to the average finish can be helpful to determine whether a driver finished better or worse than what would be expected, considering all of their past finishes. The finish in a certain race could also be compared to the average finish position for the rest of the season, concluding whether a driver has bettered his season performance or worsened it. This feature of average finish and consistency was utilized by Dr. Pelecky; she explains that the standard deviation is associated with consistency, the smaller the deviation, and the more consistent the driver ("Allmendinger vs. Ragan: Moneyball Turning Left"). In the way that the average running position can be used to conclude a driver’s consistency in a race, average finishing position can be used to determine a driver’s consistency throughout a year or career. Matt Kenseth’s 2006 season, Jeff Gordon’s 2007 season and Kevin Harvick’s 2010 season have all been referred to as displays of consistency throughout a year, with them having average finishes of 9.8, 7.3, and 8.7 respectively (Busbee; Willis; “Matt Kenseth”; “Jeff Gordon”; “Kevin Harvick”).
3.0 Breaking It Down
Often times races can be broken down into sections, one method of doing so would be separating periods between cautions or pit stops. This can help focus on driver performance alone, because when a caution or pit stop occurs factors are introduced that are not solely related to performance. This change can be beneficial or harmful to a driver’s running position; in some cases the crew chief may make adjustments that improve the car, or a pit stop may be fast enough to gain a driver a number of positions. On the other hand, the adjustments made in a pit stop can hurt the handling of a car or the pit stop can be slow and cost the driver positions. By looking solely at the green flag laps between caution flags or pit stops, the driver’s performance is the focus.
In other cases, drivers can fall victim to race ruining incidents that affect the entire race. As previously mentioned, crashes and mechanical issues have the affect of altering a driver’s position throughout the entire race following the incident. To account for this, it helps to focus on just the period before the accident. For example, in the 2011 Subway Fresh Fit 500 in Phoenix (figure 1), after starting first and leading twice for 21 laps, Carl Edwards was involved in a crash on lap 60 that caused him to lose 60 laps while his car was repaired ("Lap-by-Lap: Phoenix."). The statistics alone do not reflect that Edwards had been competitive prior to the accident as his average running position was 27th and the calculated driver rating was 74.4 ("2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Loop Data Stats for Carl Edwards”). What would account for the accident is looking at just the numbers from the laps before the accident occurred and adjusting the statistics accordingly, essentially treating the race as if it were only 60 laps. The statistics, specifically the average running position, would drastically improve as a result. A similar approach could be taken if something happened to a driver’s engine part way through the race, such as in the 2011 Kobalt Tools 500 (figure 2) in which Kyle Busch’s engine failed after 188 laps. Busch had started the race last, due to an engine change before the race, and had climbed to 3rd when the engine failed and he finished 36th ("Lap-by-Lap: Phoenix”). Similar to Edwards, Busch’s average running position and driver rating suggest poor performance. However, unlike Edwards, Busch did not spend the period before the incident in the top 10. In Busch’s case, the lap-by-lap chart shows a trend upwards and significant improvement through the course of the race before lap 188, circumstances under which the key statistic to look at would be the number of passes made and the improvement between starting position and position before the engine failure (“2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Loop Data Stats for Kyle Busch”).
It is not always the case that a driver is negatively impacted by an accident or mechanical troubles. The severity of such incidents varies case by case, depending on what part of the car was damaged and how long repairs took. For example, in the 2010 Tums Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville (figure 1), Mark Martin was caught up in a wreck that sent him crashing into the wall and damaged the rear of the car. Martin fell to 32nd, yet recovered to finish 2nd ("Lap-by-Lap: Martinsville”). This is an instance where it strongly helps to break the race into the period before and after the wreck, because the car was drastically affected by hitting the wall.
There are also cases in which the car could potentially be seriously harmed by an accident, but the driver and team are able to overcome such obstacles. An example of this is in the 2011 Ford 400 at Homestead, Tony Stewart ran over a piece of debris that broke a hole in the radiator. He was able to make a pit stop under caution in which the team removed and repaired the damage and he went on to win the race ("Lap-by-Lap: Homestead”). As previously explained, in Martin’s case the damage that occurred in the wreck was only detrimental in that he fell behind when he made pit stops to repair the damage; in large part the accident was beneficial in that it affected the car in such a way to make it faster. In Stewart’s situation, the damage sustained early in the race ended up having no significant effect besides briefly falling behind during repairs.
Fig. 1. 2010 Tums Fast Relief 500
Although in most cases a wreck or mechanical issue can be expected to hurt a driver’s performance in the remaining laps, this is not always the case and can only be determined by further looking at the events that follow.
4.0 What The Statistics Only Imply
Many of the issues that affect a driver performance-wise are not directly discernible from the statistics alone.
Some races are not determined by which car is fastest, but which car has enough gas to make it to the end of the race. These so-called fuel mileage races can be beneficial to some drivers while detrimental to others. The factors that affect which drivers do well in fuel mileage races are a complicated mix between driver skill, communication between driver and crew chief, amount of fuel in the tank, and the car’s fuel mileage. The individual factors themselves are straightforward, but they work together in a nature that makes most fuel mileage races gambles. A driver is able to make efforts to save fuel, which can allow them to last longer than their competitors ("NASCAR in Kansas: Drivers React To Fuel Mileage And Heat”). These driver actions include shutting the engine off under caution and minimizing the amount of gas and brake used (Hinton). In many cases, especially recently, drivers know what they need to do to save a certain number of laps worth of fuel, but their ability to save depends on what their crew chief tells them. The crew chief is the one who does the calculations to determine how far the fuel that is in the car will last the driver (“The Math of Fuel Mileage”). Typically, the crew chief is also the one who informs the driver of how much fuel they should save. The earlier the crew chief lets their driver know how much fuel to save and the more information they give them, the more likely it is that the driver will be able to save enough fuel (L. Spencer). Fuel mileage races can develop in many different ways and also the way they affect a driver varies drastically. In some races, such as the 2010 Kobalt Tools 500 in Phoenix (figure 1) Denny Hamlin’s crew chief determined that they were too short on fuel to make it to the end, so Hamlin made a pit stop with 12 laps to go and finished 12th behind the cars who were able to make it until the end of the race ("Lap-by-Lap: Phoenix"). In other cases, such as the 2011 Geico 400 in Chicago (figure 2), Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson all ran out of gas, but in different ways. Busch ran out of fuel with 2 to go and had to pit for enough fuel to finish, which caused him to lose a lap and finish 22nd, while Kenseth and Johnson ran out of fuel on the last lap. In Kenseth’s situation, he ran out of gas too far away from the end to finish on his own power and after being pushed by another car, which was deemed illegal by NASCAR, was listed as finishing one lap down. Johnson ran out of fuel later than both Busch and Kenseth, he was able to finish in 10th ("Dale Earnhardt Jr. Has Barely Enough Fuel To Finish Chicago NASCAR Race"; "NASCAR At Chicagoland: Chase Drivers React To Opening Playoff Race"; "NASCAR Chicagoland Results: Tony Stewart Wins 2011 Chase Opener"; "NASCAR: Matt Kenseth Penalized At Chicagoland After JJ Yeley Pushes Him On Last Lap"; “Chicago NASCAR Race Results in Disappointment for Jimmie Johnson”; "Lap-by-Lap: Chicagoland"). A similar finish occurred in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, when on the last turn of the last lap Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin ran out of fuel finishing 7th and 10th respectively while Kevin Harvick saved enough fuel to win the race (Horne).
Another event not reflected in statistics is if a bad pit stop occurred at some point, particularly at the end of the race. Poor pit stops can take place at any time in a race, but typically have the largest impact late in the race and during a pit stop made under caution. Often in pit stops under caution, most of the cars on the lead lap opt to make a pit stop and if a pit crew is slow or makes mistakes the driver can lose several positions. ("Pit-road mistakes prove costly at California"). This type of mistake happened in the 2011 Good Sam RV Insurance 500 at Pocono; Denny Hamlin, who typically had performed well at that track, ran well in a majority of the race prior to the final pit stop in which the pit crew had issues getting the tires on the car and Hamlin fell to 18th, which he only recovered up to 12th ("Keselowski guts out big victory at Pocono").
As previously mentioned, mechanical issues can be severe enough to require a driver to lose many laps while the problem is solved. This occurrence is not listed in the status at finish, so long as the driver is on track at the end of the race, regardless of how many laps down they are. Carl Edwards had parts of the engine break in both the 2011 5-Hour Energy 500 in Pocono (figure 1) and the 2011 Pure Michigan 400 in which he finished 141 and 29 laps down respectively. In the cases of both races, the statistics reflect no more than poor performance with the driver rating being low as well ("Lap-by-Lap: Pocono"; "2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Loop Data stats for Carl Edwards").
Fig. 1. 2011 5-Hour Energy 500
Drivers occasionally fall victim to wrecks which they were not at fault for. Similar to situations regarding mechanical failures, a wreck is only listed in the status at finish if it caused the driver to be unable to finish the race. This is commonplace in restrictor plate races, in which cars are racing so fast and so close together that drivers don’t have enough time to avoid a wreck. Fault in restrictor plate races is often assigned to one person for a wreck that collected several others, but sometimes such wrecks are determined to be no individual driver’s fault ("2012 Official Race Results : Daytona 500."; "2011 Daytona 500"). Therefore, generally speaking, if a driver appeared to have performed poorly in a plate race it can be assumed that they were not at fault. Wrecks that occur during non-plate races are much more ambiguous. Logically, wrecks that involve only one driver can be assumed to be the fault of only that driver, such as Jimmie Johnson’s accident in the 2011 Bank of America 500 at Charlotte where he was the sole car in the wreck ("Matt Kenseth wins at Charlotte as Jimmie Johnson takes hit"). Beyond single car accidents, it’s nearly impossible to attribute fault solely based on statistics. In some cases more than one car is responsible (McReynolds), in other cases only one car is responsible and the others were in the wrong place ("Early wreck at Richmond shakes up Chase hopefuls"), and in the last case one car is responsible and intended to wreck the other car (Bromberg). Of course there are countless wrecks where the perpetrator is in dispute. Regardless of why the wreck occurred, blame is difficult to designate based on statistics because there is no way of determining which car caused the wreck without being given the details.
During a NASCAR race there are a variety of ways in which a driver can be penalized and the punishments vary depending on timing and severity. Penalties can be in response to a driver’s actions or the actions of the team. In either case, penalties are the result of driver error or team error and not driver performance. The most common transgression is speeding on pit road. The pit road at every track has a speed limit, and although the speed limit varies depending on the track, drivers are confined to going no faster than 5 miles an hour above the set limit. If the speeding occurred during a pit stop under caution, the driver is put to the tail end of the longest line on the restart. If the speeding occurred during a pit stop under green flag, the driver must make a “pass-through” in which they pull down pit road and drive straight down at pit road speed. Depending on the track and the time of the race that the penalty happened, a driver may or may not be able to overcome the penalty. Such situations can be shown by looking at two instances of speeding on pit road; Jimmie Johnson in the 2011 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 (figure 1) and Carl Edwards in the 2011 AAA 400 (figure 2). In both cases, the driver was doing well before the penalty. In Johnson’s case the penalty occurred in the late stages of the race during the last caution and he was never able to make up the positions (Aumann). In Edwards’ case, he had enough time to make up the positions along with several caution periods ("Busch spices Chase by beating 'nemesis'”; “Mistakes cost Johnson & Edwards"). Although speeding on pit road is the most common violation, a result of NASCAR’s computers which monitor pit road speeds, there are many other violations that can be made during a race. Most of the infractions made on pit road are penalized the same way as speeding is; pass through if under green, restart at the back if under yellow, and if the penalty involved a safety hazard the hazard must be fixed as well. Driver errors that result in penalties include passing before a restart, or restarting before crossing the start-finish line. In the 2011 Daytona 500, David Ragan was leading the race but penalized for changing lanes before the restart (figure 3). Drivers are required to maintain lane position until they pass the start-finish line on the restart. Ragan’s mistake cost him greatly, as it was so late in the race that he had no chance of recovering ("David Ragan gave away the Daytona 500 with late penalty"). On the other hand, in the 2011 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 (figure 4), Matt Kenseth was penalized for changing lanes at the very start of the race but had enough time that by the end he finished 6th (Sisk). The most costly violations are those which result in a driver not being given the win despite crossing the finish line first. This happened to Regan Smith, Denny Hamlin, and Johnny Sauter. Sauter’s mistake was the previously mentioned changing lanes before the start. In the case of Smith and Hamlin, they were penalized based on the rule that drivers may not pass beneath the yellow line on restrictor plate races. Drivers are judged by whether they passed beneath the yellow line subjectively, so not every instance is penalized ("Drivers seeing red over the yellow line"; "Hamlin’s penalty argues for change to yellow-line rule"). It’s fairly straightforward to conclude that mistakes made by the pit crew that cost the driver do not reflect a driver’s performance. Similarly, although speeding, changing lanes, and other driver related infractions are the driver’s fault, they typically are mistakes and they also do not reflect a driver’s performance. The last type of infraction that happens during a race is intentional wrongdoings by drivers. These include intentionally causing a caution, rough driving, and disobeying a NASCAR request and the penalty is at NASCAR’s discretion. Although it has rarely happened, making obscene gestures toward a NASCAR official is considered a punishable action and in the 2010 AAA Texas 500 (figure 5), Kyle Busch was held on pit road for 2 laps after doing so ("Aftermath, Texas: Thoughts On Jeff Gordon Fight, Kyle Busch's Middle Finger, Pit Crew Swap And More"). Such driver infractions are not a reflection of the driver’s racing performance, but unlike infractions due to driver or crew error they were intentionally committed and therefore reflect on a driver’s performance similar to a wreck caused by the driver ("NASCAR Sprint Cup Penalties").
Charts of different instances of drivers receiving penalties; Jimmie Johnson in the 2011 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 (speeding), Carl Edwards in the 2011 AAA 400 (speeding), David Ragan in the 2011 Daytona 500 (changing lanes before restart late in the race), Matt Kenseth in the 2011 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 (changing lanes before start), and Kyle Busch (gestures toward an official)
The pitting strategy that is typically employed late in the race by the crew chief can drastically affect a driver’s position in the race, partly or entirely independent of the driver’s actions. There are two main ways in which the pit stop strategy has an impact; either the timing of when the pit stops were made or what was done during the pit stop and how long the pit stop took. The strategy of making pit stops is just that; strategy. It is common for the exact same call to have different effects in different races. The decision that often has the greatest outcome is how many tires to change on a pit stop; two or four. Four tires takes longer but typically makes the car faster, two tires is quicker and can gain the driver track position but not make the driver as fast as if he had changed all four tires. In some cases track position is invaluable, such as the 2010 Brickyard 400 (figure 1), in which during the last pit stop under caution Jamie McMurray took two tires on pit road while the leader, Juan Pablo Montoya, took four tires. McMurray inherited the lead after the pit stop and maintained it until the end of the race, while Montoya fell to 7th after the pit stop and was involved in a wreck later ("Montoya's gaffe gives McMurray win"). In some cases, a driver can even win the race without taking any tires, exemplified in the 2011 Showtime Southern 500 when much of the field made a pit stop during a caution with 10 laps to go, Regan Smith did not pit at all and was able to beat Carl Edwards to the finish with significantly older tires ("Regan Smith holds off Edwards at Darlington for first Cup win"). In other cases, the decision is more complicated, such as the 2011 Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas (figure 2); on the second to last pit stop Tony Stewart took 2 tires which gained him track position, but that put him in the position of needing to get four tires on the last pit stop when several other drivers only took two tires and Stewart lost the lead ("Edwards finally gets his 2011 victory at Las Vegas.").
There are many aspects of a race that are not directly reflected in the statistics sheet. Typically the lap-by-lap chart will show a sudden drop or gain in position, but with no explanation why. Cross referencing the list of cautions and when they occurred with the list of lap leaders may in some cases determine if events took place under caution that had an outcome on the restart.
5. When statistics miss good moments
As much as statistics overlook important events that negatively impact a driver during a race, they also miss out on important moments that are entirely due to a driver’s performance. Often times when analysts speak about a driver’s performance they point out individual moments that exemplify a driver’s skill.
Tony Stewart’s performance throughout the 2011 Ford 400 in Homestead (figure 1) has been recently been celebrated as one of the best driven races. Racing legend A.J. Foyt, as well as Stewart himself, said that that race was the best performance of his life ("Tony Stewart storms to Sprint Cup title with win in finale"). Stewart came from deep in the field several times, as well as overcame a number of issues, to win the race. Many NASCAR reporters point to the fact that Stewart passed 118 cars as proof of how strong he was (Fryer). The statistics, however, do not portray nearly the story that the analysts do. Certainly the statistics suggest that Stewart was strong in the race, but none of the statistics really suggest anything special. Stewart started the race 15th and ran as low as 40th. Nevertheless, his average position was a respectable 8th and he led over 24% of the race. Stewart’s statistics in reality fall short of his prior statistics just in the 2011 season. His driver rating, which was 126.3 at Homestead, had been higher in 4 other races. Similarly, he made fewer quality passes than he had made in previous races, had fewer fastest laps, led fewer laps, and had a lower percentage of top 15 laps than in prior races ("2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Loop Data stats for Tony Stewart"). Why do writers claim that Stewart’s performance was so impressive if statistics suggest it was no more than typical for the race winning car? The answer mainly lies in the details of what Stewart did, beyond the objectivity of the numbers. One crucial event that doesn’t stand out statistically was Stewart taking the lead on lap 201 and running as long as possible before making a pit stop, which enabled him to run to the end without another stop. Even more impressive, and more overlooked statistically, is the way that Stewart passed cars to make his way forward. It’s not uncommon for drivers to pass a lot of cars and drastically improve their position, but typically drivers do so slowly and carefully. That was not the case with Stewart. Many of the passes that he made were aggressive, including intentionally going three wide at several points ("Tony Stewart roars back with vengeance"). The statistics show no reflection on the risk involved with the passes that Stewart made, nor do they quantify the skill that went into many of the passes.
Fig. 1. 2011 Ford 400.
The case of Stewart at Homestead shows how a driver can perform well in an entire race without statistics supporting such a claim. It is also extremely common for statistics to miss individual moments in which driver skill is demonstrated. Such is the case when a driver makes an impressive save. A save, unlike a pass or a crash, is a lack of an incident. Even though a save is a positive action, the immediate result can be negative as the driver often falls several positions. Early in the 2011 AAA 400 at Dover (figure 1), A.J. Allmendinger was bumped from behind by Denny Hamlin and was sent spinning. Allmendinger recovered his car; preventing it from spinning out and also keeping it from being hit by other cars ("Lap-by-Lap: Dover"). Although Allmendinger avoided sustaining considerable damage and potentially ending his race early on, immediately after the save he fell all the way to 41st. The only statistic that relates to Allmendinger’s save is the lowest running position, which indicates how many positions he lost as a result of his save. Later in the race, Allmendinger led 8 laps and finished 7th ("2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Loop Data stats for A.J. Allmendinger"), but while the connection between the save and the later results can be made qualitatively it cannot be shown quantitatively. Not only can statistics not connect a save to the impact it had on the remaining laps of the race, they also cannot reflect the skill that went into a driver making a save. In the 2012 Budweiser Shootout, Kyle Busch saved his car from wrecking not only once, but twice. On the first save, Busch had been hit in the left rear by Jimmie Johnson and the car began to turn. The car was going close to 200 miles per hour when it was turned completely sideways down the 30 degree banking, yet Busch found a way to get it going straight on track again without a caution coming out at all, while falling from 5th place to 11th. The second time Busch saved the car was a similar situation as the first; after being hit in the left rear by Jeff Gordon the car was once again sideways when he kept it off the wall and away from other wrecking cars as he fell from 2nd to 9th. Similarly to how Allmendinger parlayed his early race save into a top 10, Busch went on to win the race just a couple of laps after the second save ("Kyle Busch saves the day at Daytona"). In both cases, the saves depended in large part on the actions of the driver to save the car. Allmendinger and Busch both attributed their saves to presence of mind in trying everything they could to keep the car under control and being able to maintain it. Busch’s save in particular is looked at as extraordinary demonstration of skill; fellow driver Tony Stewart saw the save up close and complimented it as “the coolest I’ve seen in a long time”, former champion and current commentator Darrell Waltrip remarked that the save showed “unbelievable talent” as well as Busch’s crew chief Dave Rogers who gave all the credit for not only the save, but the win, to Busch ("Kyle Busch's moves on track bring back memories of Earnhardt Sr").
Fig. 1. 2011 AAA 400. Fig. 2. Busch’s save in the Shootout. Matthew Stockman
A driver’s ability to come back and finish well after struggling through a race is considered very valuable, especially considering that they are trying to accumulate points to potentially win championships. Although they are important, strong comebacks are hardly reflected in statistics and also rarely taken note of. In some cases, a comeback is noted if it has a particular significance to it; such as in the 2011 Hollywood Casino 400 in Kansas (figure 1) Carl Edwards started 2nd but spent much of the race struggling, then near the end of the race made a comeback to finish 5th. It is evident from the statistics that Edwards was not performing well; he only spent 25% of the race in the top 15, his average running position was 17th, and his driver rating was 87.6 ("2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup Loop Data stats for Carl Edwards"). What is difficult to conclude is how Edwards managed to finish well. The breakdown of caution flags notes that on the fourth caution that occurred on lap 221 Edwards received the “lucky dog”, which means that he was the first car one lap down and allowed to start on the lead lap. From that, as well as looking at the driver position start, it can be concluded that when Edwards got back on the lead lap he was around 17th ("2011 Hollywood Casino 400”). From that point, the team made adjustments and Edwards raced his way to 5th “("Carl Edwards: Fifth-Place Finish At Kansas Feels Like A Win"). Drivers also have to come back from damage sustained early in the race and recover as much as they can. In the 2011 Jeff Byrd 500 (figure 2), Brad Keselowski was involved in a multi-car wreck on lap 29 and then later had a flat tire on lap 137. Keselowski had to race his way into the lucky dog position and then finally got back on the lead lap as a result of the last caution on lap 459 ("Cup Series: Keselowski Perseveres To Finish 18th At Bristol"). Situations like this, where a driver must make stops to get repairs on the car and battle other cars just to get back on the lead lap, rely heavily on driver performance while the only statistical support of such efforts having been made is the record of the caution in which the driver was involved in, the caution in which the driver got back on the lead lap, and whether the driver was ever the fastest on a given lap.
Fig. 1. 2011 Hollywood Casino 400. Fig. 2. 2011 Jeff Byrd 500.
6. Statistics Don’t Discriminate
Similar to how statistics leave out important information, they also look the exact same in different situations. The most that the loop data can show is a change in position. No detail is shown in the circumstances in which the changes took place.
A prime example of how statistics don’t differentiate is the different ways a driver can take the lead. This is well exemplified in many of Kevin Harvick’s wins. Harvick, known as “The Closer” because of his affinity for often taking the lead late in races, has been able to do so in a myriad of different ways. In both the 2011 Auto Club 400 and 2011 Goody’s Fast Relief 500 Harvick made strategic passes against strong drivers on the last lap of the race. Similarly, Harvick’s reputation has been built on nearly perfectly executed sling-shot passes on the last turn of restrictor plate races to take the lead; most notably the 2007 Daytona 500 and 2010 Aaron’s 499 (Crossman; Kevin Harvick Stars In “The Closer”"). These four races are examples of late race, often last lap, passes that are impressive and take a good amount of driver skill. On the other hand, the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 the timing of the pass for the lead was the same as the other four races; on the last turn of the last lap Harvick took the lead. The difference is that in the 600, the leader ran out of fuel near the end of the last lap thus giving the lead to Harvick (Williams).
Just how statistics don’t differentiate between the different types of passes, they also don’t discriminate between the circumstances in which a driver gets passed. Certainly drivers can be passed because they are slower or not handling the car very well, but they can also be passed as a result of factors that they are not responsible for. Some of the circumstances include previously mentioned issues which can occur in ways that are not as severe to require the driver to lose several laps but significant enough to drop a driver a number of positions; such as mechanical troubles or damage to the car. The odd nature of green flag pit stops can make drivers vulnerable to losing positions without being actually passed by another car. This can happen by having a slightly slower pit stop under green that causes a driver to lose time to the other car and therefore lose a position, but it can also happen by drivers pitting at different times and while drivers that pit earlier will be behind when they first come off pit road they will be able to make up ground with faster tires which could gain them positions on drivers that pit later ("Race Strategy"). One pass during green flag pit stops that stands out is in the 2011 Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix (figure 1), Carl Edwards was leading when he made his last green flag stop, but the time he had stayed out cost him ground to Kahne, who was leading by the time pit stops were over ("Lap-by-Lap: Phoenix").
Fig. 1. 2011 Kobalt Tools 500
Completely unsubstantiated by statistics, but highly indicative of driver performance is how a driver raced other drivers. In the 2011 AdvoCare 500 in Atlanta, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson battled each other hard in the closing laps of the race. Both Johnson and Gordon were driving as hard as they could, both handling cars that were nearly out of control ("Lap-by-Lap: Atlanta"; Newberry). However, the statistics only show their running positions at the time, there’s no way of knowing what situation their cars were in or how hard they battled each other. The same is the case in races in which drivers have to manage to hold off better cars with fresher tires from passing them; such as Denny Hamlin in the 2011 Helluva Good Sour Cream Dips 400 at Michigan and Regan Smith in the 2011 Showtime Southern 500 in Darlington (figure 1). In both situations, the drivers inherited the lead due to pit strategy after having not run particularly strong in much of the prior laps of the race. Hamlin won the race off of pit road with 7 laps to go in the race to restart in the lead with 5 laps to go and held off Matt Kenseth, who had been in the top 5 and was one of the fastest cars for much of the race ("Lap-by-Lap: Michigan"). In the Southern 500, Smith stayed opted not to pit when the rest of the field made pit stops and restarted in the lead with 10 laps to go and held off Carl Edwards, who was much faster ("Regan Smith holds off Edwards at Darlington for first Cup win"). Such finishes in which the winner holds off a stronger car show a significant amount of driver skill, however the statistics show very little indication of the nature in which a driver won the race, looking at the number of fastest laps, laps in the top 10, and laps led may suggest whether one driver was better throughout the race than the other, but those statistics don’t necessarily relate to the end of the race. It would require an actual understanding of the events in the closing laps to determine how hard the driver had to work to maintain the lead.
7. So What Do Statistics Show About a Driver?
Statistics are certainly valuable in showing which drivers were strong in a race by looking at laps in the top 15, top 10, and lead, while looking at green flag and quality passes can be useful to show a driver’s capability in improving his position. Certain statistics can also be pieced together to show whether a driver was better than their finish, such as their average running position and number of fastest laps. In general, statistics can offer a decent overview of driver’s running throughout a race, as well as an overview over the events in a race. Where statistics have the potential to be must useful is looking at them in conjunction with race reports; when you know the events that you are looking at you can use the statistics to either highlight or mitigate certain events. But also quite often, statistics leave out important information and individual moments that regard the quality of a driver’s performance.
Statistics have the potential to change the nature of the sport of NASCAR. Presently statistics could be used for details about a driver’s performance as a part of a team’s decision to hire or re-sign a driver to a contract. The information provided by statistics could eventually enable NASCAR to adopt a scoring system that is based partly on a driver’s overall performance instead of merely rewarding points based on finishing position. This would add an incentive for running up front the whole race and mitigate the impact of late race incidents, potentially improving the quality of racing altogether.
Associated Press. “Jimmie Johnson wins at ‘Dega.” Sports Illustrated. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. , 17 Apr. 2011. Web. 24 Mar. 2012.