Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Best Simple Metric for Predicting the full NASCAR points standings

Forget, for a second, everything you know about the current NASCAR points system: 185 points for a win, 34 points for last place, 5 points for leading a lap and 5 points for leading the most laps.

Imagine if the NASCAR points system consisted only of this:

1 point for finishing the race
1 point for finishing on the lead lap
1 point for finishing in the top 10
1 point for winning the race

In this system, you would get 0 points for not finishing and 4 points for winning. How relevant a points system would this create? Who would the champion be in this system?

What if I told you that in seven of the last eight seasons, the champion in the traditional NASCAR points system was the same as the driver in my fictional system?

For our purposes, let’s call this the Watermill Score. Ignoring the reset of points caused by the Chase, in every single Chase year the driver who scored the most total points all season was the same driver who had the highest Watermill Score. The year 2002 is the only exception because of a rare closeness in the competition, where seven drivers were within 226 points of the champion.

In 2009, for example, the top three under this system are Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. They also are the top three in the traditional standings.
In fact, going back every single year this decade, there is a .98 correlation between the Watermill Score and the traditional NASCAR points system, not just at the top of the standings, but for every spot down the line.

In every single year, the Watermill Score is more correlated than any other individual metric of Top 10s, Top 5s, Most Wins, Lead Lap Finishes, Racing at the Finish, Average Finish, Average Start, etc. There is no single other metric that is a better estimator of the points standings.

Why is this interesting? And why is this important?

Despite the complication of the current system, and all of the talk that it needs to be changed, this revelation is interesting because it tells you that the essential factors that go into winning a championship are finishing the race, finishing on the lead lap, getting Top 10s and getting wins. Two of the four points you receive just for being consistent and the other two points you receive for finishing up front. The points system is half-based on consistency and half-based on running up front.

It's important because it suggests a new way to approach race strategy. If you are a crew chief who is thinking about gambling for fuel at the end of the race, think about this math:

If you do not gamble, you are guaranteed a Top 10 finish, which is a guaranteed 3 points in this system. But if you do gamble, and you try to take the win, the risk is that you will fall off the lead lap. Your reward in this case is 4 points; your risk is going home with 1 point. Assuming a 50/50 chance of running out of gas, the average of that is 2.5 points. You would need an 80 percent chance of saving fuel all the way to get back to a 3-point-average scenario. And would you really want to risk that? Is that a good trade?

So when you simplify a situation like this, you can make a quick guess as to what to do. Come in now for the gas, take your guaranteed Top 10 and go home; the guaranteed 3 points is better than anything else. And I have just proved to you that if you can win based on this points system, you will also win in the real NASCAR points system.

Using the Watermill Score as a guide, crew chiefs will take the guaranteed Top 10. They will take the 3 points per race because NO DRIVER THIS DECADE has finished a season above a 3-points-per-race average. Tony Stewart has 66 points in 2009, which is a 2.75-points-per-race average. So whenever you can get a guaranteed Top 10, you should take it every time. The gambles are not worth it in the long run.

By simplifying the points system to this easy checklist, crew chiefs can better come up with strategies during the race without getting caught up in how other drivers are doing, where they might finish the race, etc. Just focus on these four categories (finishing the race, finishing on the lead lap, getting a Top 10, winning) and everything else will work itself out.

Also note the importance of finishing on the lead lap. It is one-fourth of the entire points system here. It is just as important as a Top 10 or winning. Again, if you are having a bad day, if you can still finish on the lead lap, you will earn yourself 2 points. Think about what that means for crews making adjustments to bad cars. Do you swing for the fences on a big adjustment, another gamble, to try to get the car way up in the front, but carry the risk of going the wrong way and sending your car to the back? Or do you focus on smaller adjustments you know will work, even if it means riding around the back of the lead lap?

As we see in this system, the answer is to go for the guaranteed small adjustment. First priority is not losing that lap. If your car is not a Top 10 car this weekend, then focus on finishing on the lead lap, and again the points will take care of themselves.
email any comments to

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Updated What if Nascar Used Formula 1 Points Standings

As I showed earlier this month, the NASCAR standings might be a lot more interesting if we were using the Formula 1 points system. Drivers like Kyle Busch and Mark Martin would be in the thick of a championship race, we might not even need a Chase playoff with this format, and drivers like Juan Montoya who are racing ultra-conservatively would not be anywhere close to the title hunt at this time.

Let's update what those standings would look like if we were using the F1 system right now. These standings are after Saturday night's Bristol Race.

Notice here that guys like Kyle Busch and Mark Martin are in the Top 5, and that makes a lot more sense given how strong they've raced this year. Sure, they've had some bad luck and crashed out of a few races, but do we really want to penalize them that harshly for such bad luck? This is a question of major philosophical proportions. Is NASCAR in the game of rewarding good runs, or in the game of punishing you for a bad race?

Could we really accept a champion like Juan Montoya, who has been openly admitting to "Chase Racing"? Sure Matt Kenseth's "boring" 2003 title was the impetus for creating the Chase, but by keeping the exact same points system over the final 10 races, what have they really done to change this super conservative concept of winning?

email any comments to

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Robby Gordon Trying to Defend his 2008 FLOPPER Award

As I highlighted at the end of last year's season, Robby Gordon won the infamous FLOPPER award.

Well folks, he is on pace to do it again. It would be the first back to back title since Dale Jarrett accomplished the feat in 1988-1989.

For those who aren't familiar, FLOPPER is the driver who:

Last in
Points while
Participating in

After Bristol's race, we have had 24 races. So take a look in that dark deserted part of the standings, where the ghosts of David Stremme, Paul Menard, and Michael Waltrip hang out.

Fortunately for Waltrip, Scott Speed, John Andretti, and David Gilliland, they have each missed a race or two in 2009, eliminating them from FLOPPER contention.

See, the FLOPPER award goes not to the absolute worst driver, but to the unique driver who can find the healthy balance between the skill it takes to qualify for every race, and the skill lacking to be the worst of that group.

Here are the current standings after Bristol:

Notice that only 350 points separate the bottom ten drivers, from Kevin Harvick down to Robby Gordon.

Right now Paul Menard is the closest competitor to Gordon. Notice I've color coded each group of drivers every 100 points out. Kevin Harvick was fourth in the Chase last year, and is now infamously making the top 10 on this table. David Ragan barely missed the Chase last year, and now hopes he'll be able to barely miss this new title as well.

This will be a very interesting battle for the rest of the season. Right now Gordon's best hope is he doesn't run one of the final races. But considering he is 34th in owner points right now, over 200 points ahead of 36th, it looks likely he'll be able to qualify for every race this season. Let's see if Menard can find the skill it takes to lose those 60 points he's going to need to reach Gordon.

We'll keep watching, and see what happens...

email any comments to

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Kyle Busch 38 Percent, Matt Kenseth 68 Percent: Updated Chase Qualifying Probabilities for Every Driver

Following the night race at Bristol, we see a big shakeup in points, and one step closer to the Chase.

With only two weeks to go, it's time to update last week's probability table.

Let's take a look:

First off, due to the strength of the competitors in the 12th through 14th spots, we are updating the Chase 12th place points target to 3172. This is up from 3149 last week, and the 3120 number we had been using the last few weeks. This will also cause some previous "100 percent" numbers to drop a tiny bit. But the overall effect is not changed.

Some notes of interest:

1) We say official goodbye to 17th place Marcos Ambrose and below. With only two races to go, the most somebody can score is 390 points. Marcos is more than 390 points behind 3172, so he is mathematically eliminated from the Chase. So is everybody else behind him. I suggest ESPN should limit the YELLOW bubble labels on their scrolling leader-board to just the names I'm including in my table.

2) We are *ALMOST* going to say goodbye to Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann, who each had poor nights, dropping them to zero percent chances of making the 3172 target. Of course, my percentages are based on performance this year. If one of them won both of the next two races, they could get in. But neither have them have two wins all year, which is why they get 0 percent on this table.

3) Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers have converged to each other. They both have the same chance of getting in, as they are virtually tied in points.

4) Mark Martin's strong run moved him up two spots, and gave him a 20 percent boost in getting into the top 12. Things look a lot better for him now.

5) Kasey Kahne's 28th place was one of his worst finishes of the year, dropping him down a big chunk. Also remember he got 29th in Richmond earlier this season.

6) Similary, Montoya suffered some bad luck and saw a bit of his chances take a hit. Though he still has over a 90 percent shot of getting in as long as he keeps up with his conservative Chase strategy like he has been all year.

7) Say hello to Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin, who each clinched spots of making the 3172 target. They have nothing to worry about going forward. Even last place finishes in the next two races will cover them.

8) There is about a 30 percent chance that the current top 12 will all make it. Right now the strength of both Vickers and Busch suggest one of them will be able to sneak their way in, knocking somebody out.

email any comments to

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Mark Martin 54%, Brian Vickers 46%: Chase Qualifying Probabilites For Every Driver

The dramatic end to Sunday's Michigan race brought a big shakeup in the points standings, and most especially, the probabilities for each driver's chase qualifying percentages.

Some notes of interest

1) First off, due to the strong performances of the overall driving group, I am moving up the 12th place target level from 3120 points to 3149 points.

2) This 3120 to 3149 points upgrade, along with his bad race on Sunday, is why Juan Montoya's qualifying probability went down from 99.96 percent to 99.44 percent. In any case, the bad Michigan race is not going to affect him all that much.

3) Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Greg Biffle all had mediocre races, finishing outside the top 10. This brought each of their chances down between six and fifteen percent.

4) Like I said last week, Jeff Burton would not win Sunday, and he would be eliminated from the competition.

5) Alan Gustafson's big gamble for fuel ended up with Mark Martin finishing 31st, and losing a huge chunk of his Chase cushion.

6) The big winner of course is Brian Vickers, who got himself right to the edge of Chase contention. We'll see if he can use this momentum to his advantage.

7) Kyle Busch could NOT carry his momentum from last week into a good run at Michigan, and he finds himself back in the same bad spot as he did a few weeks ago.

email any comments to

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Top Drivers Stepping Up Their Game in 2009

Comparing the top 20 in the Sprint Cup standings after 22 races this year and last year, we find one striking observation:

Comparing each place in the standings between first and twentieth, in almost every place the 2009 standings have more points (notice all the green in the right column). What do we learn from this?

1) Kyle Busch's 2627 points this year would be one point short of Matt Kenseth's 12th place number last year.

2) Mark Martin's 2716 points, good enough for only 11th this year, would actually be a comfortable 8th place last year.

3) Despite how "dominant" everybody thought Kyle Busch was last year, Tony Stewart's 2009 performance in fact blows it away.

The question in all this is "WHY"? I have two theories:

1) The increased gap between rich and poor teams in the sport is creating an arms race at the top of the standings.

2) The emergence of the start-and-park brigade in 2009 has been a consistent force at the bottom of the standings, serving some buffer for these good drivers. Even if they have a bad day, they might finish 37th instead of 43rd simply because the start-and-park guys have already gone to the garage. So there are always a few more points to be had.

What do other readers think? I am open to your thoughts and feedback.

email any comments to

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Kyle Busch 43 Percent, Matt Kenseth 78 Percent: Updated Chase Qualifying Probabilities for Every Driver

Following up on last week's post, we have an updated Chase Qualifying Probability table.

Some notes of interest:

1) Kyle Busch doubled his chances of making the Chase by his great run at Watkins Glen on Monday.

2) David Reutimann is basically out of it at this point. He was so close a couple weeks ago, but these two Monday races have really taken him out of contention.

3) If Jeff Burton leads the most laps and wins the next 4 races, he might barely make the Chase by 10 points. Look for him to be officially eliminated next week when he doesn't win.

4) Montoya upgraded himself from 99% to 100%. His "chase racing" strategy has paid off. But is he a threat to win the title? No.

5) Mark Martin and Ryan Newman had bad days on Monday, and that took their chances down a little bit. Still, both of them have very good shots of getting in. They don't have a huge amount to worry about.

6) The good runs by Vickers and Bowyer helped them a little, but it's not enough still to make a big difference. They need to keep scoring Top 5s the rest of the way to get in.

7) There is a 54% chance that the current top 12 stays in tact. This is the first time that number has been above 50% since we've been monitoring it.

email any comments to

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Tony Stewart has a 43% Chance of Winning the Chase

After Monday's win at Watkins Glen, Tony helped himself with an extra 10 bonus points for the chase.

Running through all the numbers, and including bonus points for wins that each driver will have, these are the probabilities for winning the chase for each driver. This table is based on how each driver has performed so far this year. If somebody were to perform their best or their worst during the Chase, then these probabilities might misrepresent that.

But assuming what we've seen so far is a good sample for what we are going to see, then this table is a good approximation.

43% Tony Stewart
15% Jeff Gordon
13% Jimmie Johnson
6% Mark Martin
5% Kurt Busch
5% Kyle Busch
4% Denny Hamlin
3% Ryan Newman
2% Greg Biffle
2% Matt Kenseth
1% Kasey Kahne
1% Carl Edwards
0% Juan Montoya

We see a few interesting points here.

1) If Kyle Busch would qualify for the Chase, he'd be a stronger threat than several other drivers who are already locked into the chase. We already know this from common sense, and it's good to see the math support it.

2) Montoya's "chase racing" strategy has been good enough to qualify for the chase, but it is definitely not going to help him win the title. Again, we know this from common sense - but the numbers show again the fallacy in his strategy.

3) If Tony Stewart keeps doing what he has all season, it will be tough to beat him, despite the fact he'd be losing such a big points lead on the reset.

4) Despite Jimmie Johnson's lead over Jeff Gordon in the points standings and the win column, it is in fact Gordon who has a slightly better shot to win the title.

email any comments to

Monday, August 10, 2009

Denny Hamlin leads SAL Ratings after 21 Races

In previous posts, I have explained the "SAL" rating (Start Adjusted Leaders), as a simple-to-calculate but very effective proxy for speed. Basically it's how many laps you lead as percentage of laps you completed, multiplied by how far back you started to get up front.

I first introduced the rankings last season, showing Kyle Busch #1 for 2008.

Then I reviewed the top ranked drivers since 1992.

And after the first, second, and eighth races of the 2009, I reviewed who topped the charts in SAL. We found that after eight races this year, Denny Hamlin was on top. And in fact, after Pocono's race, he is *still* on top.

Look at the table:

What does this tell us? Quite a few things actually:

1) Despite being the points leader, Tony Stewart hasn't been a dominating speed demon on the track. In fact, most of his success this year has come from completing nearly every race in the top 10, but not necessarily going out front and crushing the competition

2) Joe Gibbs Racing does in fact have a lot of race-day speed this year, as we see both Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch up there at the top of the charts.

3) Non-chasers like Earnhardt and Truex have actually been faster on track than guys like Montoya. More evidence of Montoya's very conservative "points racing" strategy, as opposed to the normal "trying to win" strategy most guys employ.

4) Of the four guys right outside the chase bubble, only Kyle Busch has shown really strong speed. Reutimann, Vickers, and Bowyer are very low on this table. And that makes sense too, since they are almost never factors to win a race.

5) Richard Childress Racing has not shown any speed this year, as you see both Burton and Bowyer way down the list.

6) Roush isn't as bad as you think. Despite the small number of wins, the combo of Biffle/Kenseth/Edwards are actually ahead of both Stewart-Haas cars

7) The champion is likely to come from one of the top 5 racers (usually with SAL ratings above 100 as we've seen in the past). This is a bad sign for Tony Stewart, since he might be finishing each race consistently, but he is rarely ever the car to beat in any given race. He'll need to step it up come Chase time.

email any comments to

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Quantifying How Much Denny Hamlin's Bump Killed David Reutimann's Chase Chances.

In Ricky Craven's recent piece, he suggests that Reutimann lost 60 points due to Hamlin bumping him out of the way.

Let's see what that means in terms of percentage chances of making the chase.

Going into the Pocono race, Reutimann only had a 26% chance of making the Chase. He left Pocono much worse, with only a 10% chance of qualifying.

But had he earned those extra 60 points, his Chase chances would be 39% instead. Simply put:

No bump = 39%
Bump = 10%

Look at the standings this way:

Shows you how big a swing one bump can have on a guy's season. Reutimann *should* be mad at Hamlin for doing that to him. Hamlin destroyed his entire chance of making the chase. From almost a half chance of getting in, he is now a one-in-ten shot. What a disaster.

It would only be fitting for Reutimann to get some payback from Hamlin later this year.

email any comments to

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What if Nascar used the Formula 1 Points System?

Recently we've been hearing a lot of complaints about the quality of the racing in Nascar. Should more points go to the winner to encourage harder racing? Should the Top 35 rule go away? Should teams like Montoya's #42, who have been speaking out loud their intention to "points race" instead of take risks to win, be able to conservatively race and still make the chase? Should teams with a minimum of 1 or 2 wins be automatically entered into the Chase?

Well let's take a look at what the points would be if we used the current Formula 1 points system. This is the current 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 system that was designed in 2003, to help balance reliability and consistency to their previously top-heavy way of awarding points.

First off let's breakdown how many finishes each driver had between first and eighth. This table is ranked in order of current points standings:

You can click on the images for bigger versions.

Then let's apply 10 points for each win, 8 points for each second, etc, all the way down to 1 point for each eighth place. Here's that table, and on the left side we see the total points. Notice this table is ranked by the new points standings.

What do we see here? That wins end up being a big deal. Guys like Mark Martin and Kyle Busch would be well in the top 12. Drivers like Montoya would be well out of the top 12, since he only has one top five finish all year.

There would only be 32 drivers that have scored any points. Would we even need a Top 35 rule? Could you just say that anybody with at least 1 or 2 points can qualify for the rest of the season? Would this encourage below-average teams to try to race hard to make into the top 8? Would they take more chances, change pit strategies, stay out and hope for rain, gamble on fuel, etc? Could we see a much wilder set of racing out there, because *everybody* has to get a top 8, and nothing less would matter?

With this points format, would we even need a chase at all? Drivers like Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin are not that far away from Tony Stewart in this points system, and if they got on a hot winning streak, they'd be able to pass him. There would be no season-devastating effects of crashing out of races, so there would be some forgiveness for having a bad day. And guys like Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne, who have not been dominant this year, would be well below Tony's points lead. Should they be allowed to have a points reset in the Chase, and get another shot to be a champion? Haven't we gone far enough this season to see that they are *NOT* the dominant drivers this year?

Also, cars who were many laps down would not try to get back on the track just to make laps, "just for points". Do we need them out there going slow, taking up space, holding up the leaders, and potentially causing more accidents? Since they'd never be able to get back into the top 8, there would be no reason to get back on the track. And it would be okay too, since a bad finish wouldn't kill your chances for the title. Our current system hurts you do for doing badly, rather than rewarding you for doing well. Wouldn't we rather have drivers rewarded for doing well, instead of just avoiding a bad finish?

These are some ideas. What do people think? Is this the type of points system that could work in Nascar, reward drivers for racing hard, and help encourage more racing all the time? Do the new standings seem "better" than the old standings? Does it make more sense that Kyle Busch and Mark Martin are in the top 6 here, while Montoya is down in 16th, since he has not been a dominating force at all this year?

I am not saying this is the perfect points system for Nascar - but it could fix a lot of the problems we have. What do you think?

email any comments to

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kyle Busch 21 Percent, Greg Biffle 76 Percent: Updated Chase Qualifying Probabilities for Every Driver

Following up to last week's post, showing the chances of each driver qualifying for the Chase, here is the updated percentage table after Monday's Pocono race.

Note a few things:

1) Mark Martin and Matt Kenseth really improved their chances of making the Chase by both coming home with top 11 finishes on Monday.

2) Brian Vickers and Clint Bowyer had breakout performances Monday, and this gave them huge increases in their Chase chances. If they can keep getting top 6 finishes over the next month, they could very well make it in.

3) David Reutimann was the big loser yesterday. He went from a 26% chance to 10% Chance. That's a huge drop.

4) Not surprisingly, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon clinched their way into the Chase.

5) The chance of anybody in the current top 12 *NOT* making the Chase moved down to 51%. There is a 49% chance the current top 12 will stay the same. This is mainly because Kyle Busch and Reutimann, who were the closest contenders, did not live up to potential, while at the same time, guys like Martin, Kenseth, and Biffle had good runs to stay well inside the top 12. This is a big improvement from last week's 67% chance that we'd see one of the top 12 drop out.

Click on the image for a bigger version.

Auto Racing Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

email any comments to