Saturday, November 23, 2013

Recapping the Final Race at Homestead

As we discussed last week, Matt Kenseth was predicted to be a huge favorite to win Homestead. He came as close as possible – winning the pole, leading the most laps, and finished second.

We also predicted that Jimmie Johnson was probably going to win the title anyway, taking a 91% chance into the final race. He easily wrapped up the title by finishing ninth, despite a scare late in the race. 

Johnson finished with 2419 total points, exactly as we forecasted a couple weeks ago. 2419 points puts Johnson well ahead of the previous two championship performances: Tony Stewart (2403) and Brad Keselowski (2400). 

Kenseth, despite finishing second this year, did so well that his 2400 points total would have won him the title last season. But Johnson’s domination put so much distance on the field, that Kenseth’s great performance ended up being closer to third place than to the title: Kenseth finished 15 points ahead of Kevin Harvick, while ending 19 points behind Johnson. 

As has been true every single season, pre-Chase bonus points again turned out to be irrelevant, validating what we discussed a couple months ago. Kenseth had an extra 3 points over Johnson to start the Chase, but lost by 19. Johnson had a total of 12 bonus points entering the Chase - even with 0 bonus points, Johnson would have still been the champion. 

Finally, here is a quick stats recap of Johnson’s season, across the full 36 races:
  • 6 wins (Kenseth had 7) 
  • 16 top-5s (tied with Kyle Busch) 
  • 24 top-10s (best in series: ahead of everybody else by at least 2) 
  • 3 poles (Hamlin had 5) 
  • 1985 laps led (ahead of everybody else by at least 200) 
  • 10.7 Average Finish (next best was 11.2) 
  • 1 DNF (three drivers had 0) 
  • 28 lead lap finishes (tied for 8th here – Kevin Harvick had 33) 
As you can see, in most fields, Johnson was not the best. His strength is in consistency: he had the most top-10 finishes, led the most laps, and had the highest average finish. He didn’t crash out, even in the many races where he finished off the lead lap. Johnson’s championship finish came by minimizing the damage in his bad races.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

How Did My Homestead Picks Do?

Let's review how my Homestead picks fared from the latest BSports video:

Homestead Favorites
  • Matt Kenseth (won the pole, led 144 laps, and finished second)
  • Carl Edwards (finished 12th)
  • Greg Biffle (finished 24th)
Threats for First Homestead Win
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished 4th)
  • Kyle Busch (finished 7th)
  • Kevin Harvick (led 8 laps and finished 10th)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Kenseth’s Implosion Gives Johnson a 91% Chance of Winning the Title

With only one race left to go, Jimmie Johnson should have an easy time coming home with the championship. Johnson’s third place finish at Phoenix, compared to Matt Kenseth’s poor 23rd place showing, gives him a 28 point lead in the official standings, enough for a 91% chance of winning the title.

If Johnson finishes 23rd or better next week, he wins the title – regardless of how Kenseth does. 

Kenseth succumbed to the pressure at Phoenix, and Johnson took advantage of that to pull away. We also saw Denny Hamlin fall apart in the final two races of 2010, when he was competing against Johnson and Kevin Harvick for the title. 

Speaking of Harvick, his win this past weekend keeps him mathematically alive – he is only six points behind Kenseth in the standings, and has a 3% chance of winning the title. Harvick’s win also puts him in great position to take over second place in the final standings, along with the extra money that comes with it. 

What else is there to say? Johnson did a great job throughout this entire Chase, never had a significantly bad stumble, and even his absolute worst Chase race (13th at Talladega) was not bad in the big picture. He has the space he needs now to take it easy at Homestead. 

Early in the Chase our model put Johnson as the title favorite, even though Kenseth was still leading the points standings. We expected Johnson to pass Kenseth, and he did. Even our initial prediction, before the Chase started, put Johnson as the favorite – with Kenseth second. 

At this point, there is nothing left to calculate. Expect Jimmie Johnson to capture his sixth title at Homestead this weekend.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

How Did My Phoenix Picks Do?

Let's see how Phoenix picks fared today.


  • Jimmie Johnson (won the pole, led 1 lap, and finished third)
  • Kurt Busch (finished fifth)
  • Kyle Busch (finished seventh)

Threats for First Phoenix Win

  • Juan Pablo Montoya (finished sixth)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished eighth)
  • Greg Biffle (led 1 lap and finished 13th)

Not bad to get 3-5-6-7-8-13

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

With Win at Texas, Jimmie Johnson Takes a 68-31% Lead Over Matt Kenseth For the Title

By winning and leading the most laps at Texas, Jimmie Johnson’s dominating performance gave him a 7-point lead over Matt Kenseth in the standings, breaking their tie from last week. While 7 points may not seem like a huge lead, it’s good enough to give Johnson a 68.1% chance of winning the title. Kenseth’s fourth place finish put him at 31.4%, down from 41% last week.

Combined, these top two drivers have a 99.5% chance of winning the title. The only names left are Kevin Harvick (0.35%) and Kyle Busch (0.17%), who would need extreme miracles to catch up.

To get a sense of how far ahead Johnson and Kenseth are, the expected points total for this year’s champion is now around 2420. This is much higher than where recent champions Tony Stewart (2403) and Brad Keselowski (2400) finished in the last two years. Johnson and Kenseth are on pace to beat both of those championship totals. Unfortunately, the loser of this battle could have won the title in either of the past two years.

Notice the long tail below 2400, stretching as low as 2375. These results would only happen if Johnson and Kenseth both suffer problems in the final two races, and it might allow Busch or Harvick to sneak in with an unexpected victory. Busch and Harvick’s only chance for winning the title can come if both leaders have problems in both races. It’s theoretically possible, but not probable.

Check in next week, after Phoenix, for the probabilities going into the last race at Homestead.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

How Did My Texas Picks Do?

Let's review how my Texas picks turned out today:

Texas Favorites

  • Matt Kenseth (led three laps and finished 4th including an early pit-road penalty)
  • Greg Biffle (led one lap and finished 12th)
  • Kyle Busch (led two laps but finished 13th because of a late pit-road penalty)

Threats for First Texas Win

  • Brad Keselowski (led 30 laps and finished 6th)
  • Clint Bowyer (finished 10th)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished 14th) 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

It’s Not Really a Tie: Jimmie Johnson Still Has the Edge over Matt Kenseth

Matt Kenseth had a career day this past Sunday at Martinsville, leading the most laps and finishing second to Jeff Gordon. Somebody who did not have a career day was Jimmie Johnson, whose fifth-place finish could actually be considered a disappointing result, given how well he’s typically performed there.

As a result of Kenseth’s outperformance over Johnson, the two of them now have exactly the same number of points in the standings (2294), with Kenseth holding the tiebreaker.

According to our calculations, however, it’s Jimmie Johnson who still has the higher chance of winning the championship. In fact, even by finishing fifth, Johnson’s title chances increased this weekend, to 53% from 52%.

Kenseth, now at 41%, made the biggest move, jumping from 33% last week. The extra 8% he gained came at the expense of Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, who both finished outside the top-5. The two of them combined only have a 5% title chance, much lower than their 14% last week. If you are Harvick, for example, sixth-place doesn’t cut it when your main competitors all beat you.

Jeff Gordon, with his win, is still barely hanging on to title hopes, at 1%. He will have to effectively win out the final three races to make it happen. Even though he is third in the points standings, he is fifth in our probabilities, because he has a lower chance of winning multiple races, compared to Harvick and Busch.

The expected points total for the champion now hovers around 2410, which would beat the 2403 that Tony Stewart earned two years ago.

Taking 2410 as the assumed points total needed, that would mean Johnson or Kenseth would have to earn 116 points in the final three races, or 39 points per race, which is a top-5 average finish.

For Jeff Gordon, he would need 143 more points to reach 2410, or 48 points per race, which is only doable by winning and leading the most laps in the final three races. This is unlikely to happen. Gordon fans should be less concerned about his own success, but rather hoping for Kenseth and Johnson to suffer problems. In that case, the total points necessary to win the title might come down to 2390. This would reduce the number of points Gordon needs to 123, which is 41 points per race, or a third-place average finish.

Check in next week, after Texas, for the latest probabilities.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

After Talladega, Jimmie Johnson Takes a 52% - 32% Lead Over Matt Kenseth

The big story from Talladega this past Sunday was that none of our Chase contenders crashed out – instead, they took 12 of the top 20 spots.

Unfortunately for now-former points leader Matt Kenseth, he finished in that that 20th place.

Jimmie Johnson, however, led the most laps and finished 13th, putting him into the official points lead with 4 races to go.

According to our forecasting models, that gives Johnson a solid 20% edge in winning the title:

At 52.4%, Johnson becomes the first driver since the start of this year’s Chase to have over 50% shot of winning. It’s now Johnson versus everybody else.

Kenseth is hanging in there at 32.6%, which still provides him a reasonable opportunity to win. But the shift in momentum matches our initial forecast: all along, we expected Johnson to eventually overtake Kenseth, and now we’ve reached that point.

Kyle Busch (8.0%) and Kevin Harvick (6.4%) have low title chances. Their path to winning involves flat out dominating the final four races, finishing in the top 3 at worst.

The rest of the field amounts to a rounding error – nothing short of a miracle will result in anyone else walking out of this year’s Chase with the title.

Finally, our expected points total for the champion is still hovering right around 2400, right where we ended up the previous two years.

Check in next week, after Martinsville, for updated forecasts.

Monday, October 21, 2013

How Did My Talladega Picks Do?

Let's review how my picks from last week's Talladega preview video turned out:

Talladega Favorites
1) Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (led 38 laps and finished second)
2) Jeff Gordon (led 3 laps and finished 14th)
3) Matt Kenseth (led 32 laps and finished 20th)
4) Denny Hamlin (finished 38th, after an engine problem)
5) Jimmie Johnson (led the most laps, 47, and finished 13th)
6) Brad Keselowski (finished 29th)

Like I said last week, Talladega is the most difficult track to predict winners, because of the randomness of the finishes. At least we can take some consolation that Earnhardt, Johnson, and Gordon were the three drivers who led the most laps on Sunday.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Chase Midpoint: 89% Chance of Johnson or Kenseth Winning Title

Another Chase race – another pair of top-5 finishes for Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. By consistently finishing up front, our two leaders continue to squeeze out every other driver from any chance at a title.

The probability of Johnson (47%) or Kenseth (42%) winning the Chase is now 89%, up from 85% last week. They have not shown any signs of weakness in the past five races.

Even Johnson’s late bobble and missed opportunity to win Charlotte did not cost him much, according to these probabilities. If Johnson had won the race, he’d have a 48-41 lead over Kenseth rather than his current 47-42 lead. If he stays consistent throughout the Chase, his Charlotte mistake shouldn’t matter.

What about everyone else? Kevin Harvick (6%) and Kyle Busch (4%) have a very small chance of sneaking in, while the rest of the field is basically done – the bottom nine drivers have a combined 1% chance. The chart above does not display the lowest five drivers, because according to the model, they have no way of winning the title.

Johnson and Kenseth are so far out in front, that Jeff Gordon’s fourth place rank is actually closer in points to tenth place Carl Edwards than it is to the lead. Gordon is 36 points behind first and only 31 points ahead of tenth.

If any statistical “miracles” were going to happen, this weekend’s race at Talladega would be the place. The racing there is practically random, and the results give anybody a chance. This will be the biggest opportunity to shake up the field – and the best chance for anybody not named Johnson or Kenseth to make a move forward.

The only way for the field to make up ground is if Johnson and Kenseth both crash, but it’s more likely only one of them will, leaving the other to grab a giant points lead. That said, the most likely outcome at Talladega this weekend is less about the field catching up to the two leaders, but rather about one of them breaking away from the other.

As our two leaders continue to finish up front each week, the expected points for the champion continues to rise. Our model’s championship expectation is now above 2400. At this rate, they would break Tony Stewart’s 2403 total from two years ago:

As always, check in after the race next week for updated numbers.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Reviewing my Charlotte Picks

In last week's BSports Video, I gave my picks for yesterday's race at Charlotte. Here's how those picks did:

Charlotte Favorites

  • Kasey Kahne (led 138 laps and finished second - got passed for the lead with 9 laps to go)
  • Matt Kenseth (led 1 lap and finished third)
  • Jimmie Johnson (led 130 laps and finished fourth - lost the lead on final pitstop)

Threats for First Charlotte Win

  • Kyle Busch (led 4 laps and finished fifth after an early pit road issue)
  • Greg Biffle (finished 16th)
  • Brian Vickers (finished 25th)

I would say 2-3-4-5 is not bad, with that group leading 273 of the 334 laps.

On to Talladega next weekend, this one will be much harder to pick. Maybe I'll just go with the "Dave Theory".

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

And then there were two: 85% Chance of Johnson or Kenseth Winning the Title

The race at Kansas finally provided an opening for the rest of the Chase field to catch up to our top 3 drivers: Jimmie Johnson (6th), Matt Kenseth (11th), and Kyle Busch (34th) all finished outside the top 5.

Kevin Harvick took advantage of this opportunity. By winning the race, Harvick's championship hopes rose to 9%.

Kyle Busch was the big loser, crashing down to 4.6%, well below his 21% last week.

Despite having several problems on Sunday, Johnson’s 6th place finish pushed his title chances to 46.7%, and has given him a reasonable lead in our predictive model:

Even though Kenseth officially leads by 3 points in the standings, our model gives Johnson the edge, because the numbers suggest Johnson has a higher chance of outperforming Kenseth in the next six races.

Kenseth’s 11th place finish at Kansas, his worst of the Chase, still boosted his title chances ever so slightly, from 37.6% up to 37.8%.

The main problem for the rest of the field: our two top drivers, Kenseth and Johnson, actually increased their chances of winning the title to 85%, up from 75% last week.

The other nine drivers only have the faintest of hopes: 1.0% for Jeff Gordon, and 0.8% for everybody else combined.

If you look closely at the table, you will see Kasey Kahne is missing. That’s because the model gives him absolutely no hope at all of winning the title. In 50,000 championship simulations, Kahne wins the title zero times. The other drivers on the list still have a miracle shot, like Ryan Newman at .002% (1 title in 50,000 simulations) or Carl Edwards at .022% (11 titles out of 50,000).

Finally, we still expect the points total for this year’s champion to be right around 2400 points, just like the last two champions:

Check in next week, after Charlotte, for updated forecasts.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Video of Kansas Preview + Reviewing Picks

In last week's latest BSports Video, I discussed the most recent championship forecast probabilities, and previewed the race at Kansas.

How did my picks do?

Kansas Favorites

  • Jimmie Johnson (led 6 laps and finished 6th after a few problems, including entering the pits right after a caution flag came out)
  • Matt Kenseth (led 21 laps and finished 11th after a few problems, including a pit road speeding penalty)
  • Greg Biffle (led 0 laps and finished 13th - not a great bad day)

Kansas Dark-Horses

  • Aric Almirola (raced into the top 5 and finished 10th)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished 19th but was in the top 5 earlier)
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (raced in the top 5, was running well but hit the wall and finished 30th)

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Kenseth + Johnson + Busch = 96%. Everybody else 4%

For the third consecutive week, the three best drivers in the Chase dominated.  Jimmie Johnson had a convincing win at Dover, while Matt Kenseth (7th) and Kyle Busch (5th) both led many laps and finished strong.

This trio continues to pull away from the field, and has increased the chances of the title going to one of them.

Here’s the latest view:

Johnson’s win closed the gap on Kenseth in our probability table.  According to the prediction model, Johnson now has a 37.1% chance of winning the title, right behind Kenseth at 37.6%. Kyle Busch has been hanging steady in the 20-22% range the last couple weeks, and remains there at 21%

Other than Kevin Harvick at 2.7%, everybody else has a title chance under half a percent. In fact, the bottom ten drivers only have a combined 4.4% chance of winning the title. Unless we see a major turn of events in the next few weeks, the Chase is down to three drivers.

Here is some perspective on the disparity between the top three and everybody else: fourth place in the standings is Kevin Harvick, 39 points behind the leader. Yet Harvick is also 39 points ahead of Kasey Kahne, who is dead last in the Chase.

Think about that: fourth place in this Chase is just as close to last place as it is to the leader.

It’s not simply that these three drivers have an ever-increasing points lead: it’s also that they were the three most likely drivers to win the Chase in the first place. These are not surprise drivers who are having a lucky run. If they were on a short hot streak, we might expect better drivers to catch up from behind. But as it looks right now, the three best drivers are consistently delivering the best results, and increasing their lead on the field.

Finally, we see our expected championship points total is hovering right around 2400, exactly where the last two champions finished:

Check in next week, after Kansas, for updated forecasts.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

How did my Dover Picks do?

Reviewing my Dover picks, as featured in the latest BSports video:

Dover Favorites

  • Jimmie Johnson (WON the race and led 243 laps)
  • Jeff Gordon (finished 4th and led 3 laps)
  • Kyle Busch (finished 5th and led 30 laps)

Threats for First Dover Win

  • Joey Logano (finished 3rd)
  • Kevin Harvick (finished 6th)
  • Clint Bowyer (finished 10th and led 1 lap)

Going 1-3-4-5-6-10 is not bad.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Matt Kenseth + Jimmie Johnson + Kyle Busch = 90%. Everybody else = 10%

For the second week in a row, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch finished 1-2.
For the second week in a row, Jimmie Johnson got a top 5.
These are the only drivers to start this year's Chase with two straight top-5s.

And just like that, the 13-driver Chase has been cut down to a 3-man battle.

Everybody else has some serious catching up to do. The latest numbers from our Chase prediction model give our newest expectations:

Matt Kenseth is again the big winner, with his title chances now sitting at 41%. His increased lead in the points standings gives him a bigger cushion in the model, which will come in handy in case he falters in an upcoming race.

Johnson, with two consecutive top-5 finishes, has kept his title chances steady at 27%.  He has been hovering in the 25-27% range since the Chase began. Even without winning races, he could still win a title on the strength of numerous top 5s.

Kyle Busch, with another second-place finish, crept forward to 22%, up from 20% last week.

Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick were the big losers in the wake of Kenseth’s 16% gain (from 25% to 41%). Outside our top 3, Edwards and Harvick were the only two drivers last week with chances above 5%, but now the model shows them each at 3%.

It has very quickly become bad for the rest of the field: the ten drivers in the back have a combined title chance of only 10%. Think about that: we are only two races in, but there is a 90% chance of the title going to one of our top 3 drivers. Put another way: our three top drivers each have an average 30% chance of winning the title, while the ten others only have a miniscule 1% average chance.

If anybody were going to break away from the crowd, it's not surprising these would be the three to do it. Before we started the Chase, our prediction model had these same three drivers up top. No matter what, everybody else needs to step up soon, before this thing is over. For many drivers, it may already be too late.

Finally, in predicting how many points the champion will have, we are now looking at a 2380-2400 range, in line with our last two champions (2403 and 2400).

Consider using 2400 as a round number for what any driver will need to be champion. Take the example of 13th place Kasey Kahne, with 2040 points right now. For him to win the title, he’d need 360 points in the final 8 races, an average of 45 points per race. Since the winner of a race gets 47 points and second place gets 42, Kahne would need to finish top-2 in the final 8 races to be a threat to win. That would take a miracle, which is why the model puts Kahne's title chances effectively at 0 percent (0.042% to be exact). He should start preparing for next year.

Check in next week, after Dover, for the latest analysis.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

How Did My New Hampshire Picks Do?

Following up on this week's latest video, where I made my New Hampshire picks, let's see how I did:

New Hampshire Favorites
  • Jeff Gordon (led 36 laps and finished 15th)
  • Ryan Newman (won the pole, led 2 laps, finished 16th)
  • Clint Bowyer (led 5 laps and finished 17th)

Threats for First New Hampshire Win
  • Matt Kenseth (WON the race and led 106 laps)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (led 98 laps but finished 10th)
  • Brad Keselowski (led 2 laps and finished 11th)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Predicting the Chase Champion: These Numbers Still Say Jimmie Johnson is Leading the Chase

Predicting the Chase Champion: These Numbers Still Say Jimmie Johnson is Leading the Chase

Only one question matters now: “Who will win the Chase?”

We can accurately predict the likelihood of each driver winning the title, based on two factors:
(1) The current points standings
(2) Each driver’s full set of finishes this season.

We can also predict how many points the eventual champion will have.

More interestingly, we can update these predictions after each Chase race, based on the latest results and updated standings. This will show us exactly how much a driver’s title hopes changed, in percentage terms, from race to race.

Here were the chances for each driver to win the title, before the Chase started:

Jimmie Johnson, entering the Chase, was the model's favorite driver, due to the strength of so many upfront finishes in 2013. Remember, the percentage likelihood of winning the title may not match up exactly with the points standings. That’s because this model combines the points standings with the expectation of each driver’s performance.

Ryan Newman and Jeff Gordon, the two drivers who were added to the Chase after the fact, have very low odds of winning a title – notice them near the bottom of the chart. NASCAR did not significantly reduce the odds of the main contenders by including these two in the Chase.

Using the same prediction model as above, we can now shift our focus from the winning driver to the number of points needed to win.  It’s all calculated as part of the same process, simulating thousands of possible race results. Here is the expectation, prior to the Chase starting, of how many points the champion will have:

As the chart shows, we should expect the champion to end with a points total around 2360-2380. Compare that with what happened in the past two seasons: Tony Stewart finished with 2403 points in 2011 and Brad Keselowksi had 2400 points in 2012. If somebody gets on a hot streak during the Chase, you will see this chart shift to the upside.

We will be updating both charts weekly so you can see how the field fares race by race.

Now that the Chase has begun, here are the updated title chances after Chicago:

The winner, on the race track and in the model, is Matt Kenseth. His title chances leaped to 25% from 14% due to his win and increased points lead. Jimmie Johnson, at 26%, still has a slight edge over Kenseth though. Remember, despite Kenseth's points lead, the model currently prefers Johnson due to Kenseth's high number of poor finishes this year. Kenseth can change this prediction by consistently finishing up front, breaking the pattern of his early-season troubles.
Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. hold down the bottom of the chart, because of DNFs at Chicago. Their equipment failures and mediocre 2013 performance may have already sealed their fates: their title chances are currently below 0.1%.

Finally, our expected championship point total predicts the winner to be near 2360-2400 points.

Check in after this weekend’s race to see updated numbers.

Monday, September 16, 2013

How Did My Chicago Picks Do?

In last week's BSports Video, I gave my six top-ranked favorites to win at Chicago.

Here's how I did, listed in rank order for how likely they were to win:

  1. Jimmie Johnson (finished 5th after leading 40 laps)
  2. Matt Kenseth (WON the race and led 89 laps)
  3. Kevin Harvick (finished 3rd and led 2 laps)
  4. Kyle Busch (finished 2nd and led 67 laps)
  5. Brad Keselowski (finished 7th and led 2 laps)
  6. Ryan Newman (finished 10th and led 1 lap)
Not bad this week.  All six of these drivers led laps and finished in the top 10.  My top 4 choices all got top-5 finishes, and my top 5 choices all finished in the top 7. Can't do much better than this.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How Important is Richmond to Building Momentum for the Chase?

Among drivers, teams and the media, there is always talk about building momentum to start the Chase. Specifically, Richmond is the place for teams to demonstrate they are primed for contention. In fact, if you listened carefully to the ABC telecast on Saturday night, the announcers described how Dave Rogers, Kyle Busch’s crew chief, wanted to do well that night, so his team could enter the Chase “with momentum”. Also note these comments by Joey Logano after the race: “We’re gonna take this momentum we have getting into the Chase and let ‘er rip and have some fun.”

Today we examine how real this momentum is. Here are the questions we are trying to answer:
  • Does the winner at Richmond do significantly better in the Chase?
  • Does the eventual Chase champion come from being a top finisher at Richmond?

Here is the raw data:

The table shows us the answers to our two questions.
  • The winner at Richmond actually does very well in the Chase, with a median championship finish of 3 throughout the entire history of the Chase. In the 7 most recent years, the Richmond winner has a median championship finish of 2. This is a great sign for Carl Edwards, who won the race this past weekend.
  • As far as eventual champions go, they entered the Chase with a median 7th place finish at Richmond. Only once did a driver finishing outside the top 15 at Richmond go on to win the title (Jimmie Johnson in 2006, after finishing 23rd at Richmond).
Let's see how this applies to 2013: here is where the 12 Chase contenders finished this past weekend:

Recall that no driver has won the chase after finishing worse than 23rd at Richmond.  This would presumably diminish the chances for Clint Bowyer (25th) and Jimmie Johnson (40th). However, both drivers had uniquely rare incidents which caused poor finishes: Johnson missed all of practice and qualifying because of his baby’s birth, and Bowyer spun out his car (on purpose according to many analysts) late in the race. That would suggest all 12 drivers have a shot of winning the title.

In nine years of the Chase, six of the champions had top-7 Richmond Finishes. This should be good news for Carl Edwards (1st), Kurt Busch (2nd), Ryan Newman (3rd), and Matt Kenseth (6th). 

Overall, the data suggests that yes, momentum in fact does appear to be a factor in bridging Richmond to the final 10 races. Richmond winners are generally Chase threats, and the eventual Champions usually did well at Richmond. With his Richmond win, Carl Edwards should be a factor in the Chase.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Video of Richmond Preview

Richmond Favorites
  • Kevin Harvick (finished 11th)
  • Kyle Busch (finished 19th)
  • Denny Hamlin (finished 21st)

Threats for First Richmond Win
  • Carl Edwards (WON the race and led 46 laps)
  • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (finished 10th)
  • Greg Biffle (finished 12th)

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Why Dale Jr should have a 100% Chance of Making the Chase (and Keselowski 0%)

With one race to go before the Chase starts, only 6 spots in the top 10 have been clinched. That leaves 4 more spots still to be filled, with these 10 drivers mathematically eligible for them:

In today’s post, we look at these 10 eligible drivers, and using a simple forecasting method, we predict the chance each driver has of making the top 10.

For those of you who are too eager to wait, here is the final answer:

How did we arrive at these percentages?

One way to forecast how these drivers will perform this weekend is to consider their performance in the first 25 races this year.  This is a large enough sample size to suggest the full range of each driver’s results, based on their circumstances, equipment, and team quality this season. The table below shows the number of points scored by each driver in each race this season. For example, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. scored 42 points in the first race this season, 40 points in the second race, and 37 points in the third race, a sizzling start to the season.

Let’s assume this weekend’s Richmond race will have a similar profile to one of the previous 25 races this season.  In that case, we have 25 possible outcomes for what the points standings will be following the race, by adding the current points of each driver to the 25 theoretical results. The "T" in front implies the theoretical outcomes that could occur, so "T9" is how many points each driver would have if the results from the ninth race this season are repeated this weekend.

With these 25 possible outcomes, we can now rank the points standings for these 10 drivers.  Remember that only the best 4 drivers from this group will make the top 10. The "R" implies what the rankings would be based on our theoretical results, so "R9" is the ranking that would happen if the results from the ninth race this year are duplicated.

Based on these rankings, we can count how many times each driver finishes in the top 4 of this group, and divide by 25 to get his percentage chance of making the Chase:

So there you have it: based on the previous races this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would qualify for the Chase every time.  On the other hand, Brad Keselowski and Jamie McMurray would not qualify, given how they've performed in their previous 25 races.

Notice one interesting observation that emerges from the data: even the narrowest of points leads can translate into a significant edge in making the top 10. For example, Kurt Busch has a small 6 point lead over Jeff Gordon, but that’s worth an additional 16% chance of making the top 10.

The method we've seen here is just one approach to calculating the odds of making the top 10.  This approach is intuitive because it's based on real performance data from the season, and gives you a quick sense for what we should expect from each driver.

All this is good news for drivers like Earnhardt and Joey Logano, who should feel very confident about making the cut.  In contrast, drivers like Keselowski and McMurray will have to pull off their best performances of the year to have any chance of qualifying.  And for the viewing audience, the most interesting battle for the top 10 should be among the three drivers with chances closest to 50%: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, and Kasey Kahne.

And yes, there is one fact we all know is true: anything is possible this weekend.  That's why they run the races while we sit and watch them.

By the way, in case you were wondering, the Richmond race from this spring is race #9. If history repeats itself this weekend, Jeff Gordon would knock Greg Biffle out.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Video of Chase Bonus Points Article Plus Atlanta Preview

Atlanta Favorites
  • Kurt Busch (finished 4th)
  • Jeff Gordon (led 17 laps and finished sixth)
  • Carl Edwards (led 68 laps and finished 18th after a bad pit strategy call)

Threats for First Atlanta Win
  • Brian Vickers (finished 10th)
  • Matt Kenseth (finished 12th)
  • Greg Biffle (finished 15th)

Updated 9/2/13 with race results

Monday, August 26, 2013

NASCAR’s Chase Points System: Where Everything’s Made Up and the Bonus Points Don’t Matter

The media likes to make a big deal about how many wins drivers will have going into the Chase, because those wins equate to bonus points entering the final 10 races. That logic makes it easy to pick on somebody like Clint Bowyer who, despite being second in points, is presumably disadvantaged because he doesn’t have any wins yet. The conventional wisdom is that his lack of bonus points will hurt him in the Chase.

Continuing with that theme, another discussion point centers on drivers who get in through the wild card. If they finish in the top-10, their wins will count for bonus points, but not if they finish 11th.  Kasey Kahne, with his two wins and borderline top-10 position, is the prime example here.

Here’s the thing we all need to remember:


Look below at the entire history of the Chase.  I have recounted the points (and made new rankings) as if there had never been any bonus points awarded, and compared those rankings to the results that actually happened (with bonus points).

In 9 years of the Chase:

  • Zero titles were affected by bonus points entering the Chase
  • Only in 3 of the 9 years did any spot in the top 5 final standings change because of bonus points
  • Most of the changes in standings due to bonus points happened around 10th place

This means that everybody can relax. Teams should just focus on getting into the Chase, do their best in the final 10 races, and ignore everything else. In the past 9 years, NASCAR has changed the way they give out bonus points, but no matter these changes, one thing stays the same: the bonus points are too small to matter.

If NASCAR did want bonus points to have an impact, they should increase their value to levels with meaningful effect.  As the evidence shows, they are too small to make a difference. The only thing they do is create unnecessary discussion.

Or maybe this is exactly what NASCAR wants: a lot of discussion in the media without changing any of the on-track results.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ranking NASCAR's Luckiest Drivers in 2013

Luck is always a big factor in determining where a driver finishes a race, and for that matter, an entire season. Some drivers can race up front all day, only to find themselves caught up in a late crash, or a bad restart, or using a pit strategy that turns out to be wrong. Other drivers can run poorly all day, get a lap from a wave-around, and take advantage of attrition up front to walk away with an unexpected top-10 finish.

Today, we look at which drivers have been the luckiest (and unluckiest) in 2013.

Since it's hard to otherwise quantify what luck means, for this article we'll measure luck as the difference between average running position and average finishing position.

Let's look at an example: in 2013, Jimmie Johnson has an average finish of 10.0, but his average running position during races is 8.5.  That means he finishes 1.5 spots worse than where he runs – a sign of being unlucky.

Ryan Newman, however, has been lucky. His average running position during races is only 17.7, but his average finish is 16.8, a full position better than where he runs.

The chart below shows all full-time, contending drivers this season (minimum 15 starts and an average finish of 22nd), comparing their average running position to their average finish.

Each point on the chart represents one driver this season. Points on the diagonal line represent drivers with neutral luck this year: they finish where they run. 

Points far away from the diagonal line mean the driver has faced a significant amount of luck this year (either good or bad).

Using this data, we can now rank the luckiest drivers this season:

At the top of the list is Clint Bowyer, the only driver who finishes more than 2 spots better than where he runs. This is a lot of good luck, to the tune of 55 points in the standings. Without this luck, Bowyer would be fifth in the points rather than second.

At the bottom of this list is Matt Kenseth, who has had an amazing amount of bad luck this year. Kenseth has finished over 6 spots worse per race than where he’s run. Without all this bad luck, Kenseth would have 144 extra points, putting him ahead of Jimmie Johnson at the top of the standings, rather than the sixth place he’s in right now.

How Can We Use This Info?

When the Chase starts, points get reset and everybody starts over from 0 again. This creates an opportunity for drivers to generate a new set of luck. We can presume Kenseth won't suffer as much bad luck as he had so far this year. Because average running position is a better predictor of performance than average finish, we should expect some jumbling of the standings.

Even though Bowyer is ahead of Kenseth in the standings right now, this is because of luck, not performance. It does not imply Bowyer will be a stronger threat to win the Chase.  Kenseth has a much better average running position than Bowyer, so it's Kenseth who should be a bigger threat.

Similarly, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne have had plenty of bad luck this year (partially through pure bad luck and partially through aggressive driving that has caused them to crash unnecessarily). Even though they are behind in the standings now, they get a fresh start in the Chase. Eventually we expect driver luck to neutralize in the long run. If Busch and Kahne can experience neutral or even positive luck, they will be forces to reckon with.

For drivers like Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Kevin Harvick, a good portion of their success this year has come from luck, not from speed. If their luck runs out in the Chase, don’t expect them to contend. In fact, Biffle’s luck has been so good this year, he'd be 16th in the standings with neutral luck, instead of his current 10th place position.

The scary thing for everybody else out there: even though Jimmie Johnson has a huge lead in the standings, it’s happened despite Johnson’s bad luck this season. If he were to have neutral (or even some positive) luck come Chase time, he might blow everybody away this year.

Give Me One Example of This

In last year’s Chase, Brad Keselowski won the title because of luck, not speed.  He had 2.5 spots per race of good luck, while Johnson had -2.5 spots per race of bad luck. Putting that together, Keselowski gained 50 points over Johnson on luck alone. Had this evened out for both drivers, Johnson would have won the title by 10 points, rather than losing it by 40.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reviewing Michigan Picks

Let's see how my picks from this week's BSports video did today at Michigan.

Michigan Favorites

  • Greg Biffle (led 28 laps and finished 9th)
  • Carl Edwards (finished 10th)
  • Jeff Gordon (finished 17th)

Threats for First Michigan Win

  • Clint Bowyer (finished 5th)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished 16th)
  • Jimmie Johnson (led 3 laps but had an engine failure early, finished 40th)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Second Place is the First Loser: Ranking the Most Clutch Drivers in NASCAR

In racing, it's well known that everybody remembers the winner, while nobody remembers second place. Today we look at the difference in finishing first versus second.  When placed in a top-2 situation, which drivers are more likely to win versus lose?

Since the beginning of the 2005 season, here are all the drivers with at least 5 finishes in the top 2, color-coded by first-place (blue) and second-place (red) finishes:

It's no surprise to see big names like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Kyle Busch lead the series in top-2 finishes.  In Tony Stewart's case, we see that he has 29 wins and 29 runner-ups.  This is an equal split, putting his "clutch" factor at 50% (29 wins divided by 58 total top-2 finishes = 50%). Because Stewart's clutch factor is right at 50%, when put in a top-2 situation, he wins or loses with equal frequency. This suggests Stewart is an average driver when it comes to being clutch.

Let's look at the clutch percentages for all the drivers.  Again, we calculate this by dividing wins over total top-2 finishes. (We focus on the top 2 positions in this article because it's the purest form of comparing winning versus losing. You could extend this analysis to consider wins versus top-5 finishes, for example.)

Greg Biffle is the most clutch driver, with 16 wins and 8 runner-up finishes. That means 67% of his top-2 finishes are wins.  This type of performance does not happen randomly. Biffle has a pattern of not settling for second-place finishes, and goes all out to get those wins. Many hard-charging drivers top this list, guys with reputations for being aggressive. Notice the Busch brothers, Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson as drivers with above-average clutch percentages.

Looking at the bottom, you see Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Martin Truex, Jr.  They rack up second-places without winning. These are not drivers you would call clutch. When placed in a late-race top-2 situation, they will generally fail to get the trophy.

Furthermore, notice one point about the asymmetry of being clutch: it's very hard for drivers to do significantly better than 50%. Biffle is the only driver above 60%, while many drivers fall very short on the downside (6 drivers, or almost a third of the list, are below 40%).

It's difficult to be a clutch driver, as moving up from second to first doesn't usually happen by luck, but through grit, smarts, and skill. In general, many drivers can get second-place finishes, but only a few win. Demonstrating a consistent ability to get that one last pass is a key ingredient to being a successful NASCAR star.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reviewing Watkins Glen Picks

Let's review how my picks from last week's BSports video did:

Watkins Glen Favorites

  • Kyle Busch (led 29 laps and WON the race)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (led 1 lap and finished 5th)
  • Marcos Ambrose (led a race-high 51 laps but finished 31st after a late crash)

Threats for First Watkins Glen Win

  • Brad Keselowski (finished 2nd)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished 3rd)
  • Carl Edwards (finished 4th)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Try Explaining This One to Your Sponsors: Nobody’s to Blame for Bowyer, Dale Jr., and Keselowski going winless this year

We are 21 races into the 2013 season, and many big name drivers are still looking for their first win:
  • Clint Bowyer
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  •  Jeff Gordon
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Denny Hamlin

Are they winless because of bad driving and team troubles, or simply due to chance?

Today we look at the chances these drivers would be winless anyway, simply due to randomness and luck. It’s possible a driver and his team could do everything right and still come up short. In the same way a coin flip doesn't always come up heads, random chance plays a big factor in determining outcomes, regardless of one’s effort.

We answer this question by going back to our trusty friend, the binomial distribution, which we used two months ago to calculate the chances of Denny Hamlin and others getting two wins before the Chase.

The binomial distribution says how likely it is for a driver to win X races in a given period of time, based on his career winning percentage. This stat gives us an expected range of wins for each driver. It also says how many wins are outside the norm, either too many or too few for a driver to reasonably get.

Let’s start with a simple example. Jimmie Johnson has won 64 races in his career of 420 starts, a career winning percentage of 15%. Applying the formula, we should expect his wins per season to be distributed liked this:

 I’ve highlighted the fields with a > 10% expectation.  The highest-probability outcomes for Johnson are in the 3-7 win range, accounting for 76% of the most likely results. The math works out, as 9 of Johnson's 12 fulltime seasons (or 75%) have resulted in 3-7 wins. We now see Johnson's fantastic 10-win season in 2007 had a slim 2% chance of happening. Clearly he had good luck on his side, including equipment, strategy, and avoiding crashes. Even for an elite driver like Johnson, winning 10 races should only happen once every 50 years. He needed everything to go right to make it happen that year.

Similar reasoning applies to other extraordinary NASCAR performances. Consider Tony Stewart’s 2011 Chase, when he won 5 out of 10 races. The numbers suggest he only had a 0.1% of doing that by random chance (put another way, it’s a staggering once-in-thousand years opportunity). Again, he had many factors swing in his favor: the right setups, equipment, and a healthy dose of luck.

Let’s look at the expected wins so far in 2013, after 21 races, for the top 20 drivers in points:

The red boxes highlight the most likely outcomes.

Some observations:
  • Jimmie Johnson has 4 wins already this year, which is right in line with his career performance.
  • Clint Bowyer had a 54% chance of winning 0 races by this point in the season.  That he has 0 wins is perfectly sensible: it's his most likely outcome.
  • The same reasoning applies to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He had a 44% chance of earning 0 wins in 21 races, higher than any other outcome.
  • For Brad Keselowski, getting 0 wins so far had a 26% likelihood. Even if he didn't have to deal with the pressures of being a defending champion, switching manufacturers, and adjusting to the Gen-6 Car, it's perfectly possible he would have been winless anyway.
  • In Jeff Gordon’s case, having 0 wins is a clear underachievement based on his career stats. His most likely outcomes would include winning anywhere from 1 to 4 races. His performance so far suggests this is not due to random chance, but a true decline at this late stage of his career, the natural dip that occurs as drivers move past their prime.
  • Contrast that with Matt Kenseth, the only driver who has many more wins than expected.  His 4 wins puts him way above his most likely range of 0-2 wins.  In fact, his career track record suggests he only had a 2% chance of winning 4 races so far. What changed? Kenseth switched over to Joe Gibbs Racing this year – clearly the move has made a significant and measurable difference for him.
  • On the other hand, Kenseth's JGR teammate, Denny Hamlin, has had a rough season, including sitting out several races due to injury. For Hamlin's 17 starts this year, going winless had a 24% chance of happening in normal circumstances. He was just as likely to have 0 wins (24%) as to have 2 wins (25%). These numbers tell us even if everything were going normally for Hamlin, he might still be winless from randomness alone.

Now let's see the likelihood of each driver’s win potential for the final 15 races this season:

This table gives you a sense for the most common outcomes. For most drivers, the most likely results are winning 0 or 1 more race for the remainder of the year. Outperformance (i.e. results that fall past the red boxes) will come from a combination of positive factors all working together to benefit a lucky driver. For example, you might see Kyle Busch win 3 more races before the season ends (9% chance of happening).

Finally, we can combine the two tables to look at the expectations for a complete 36-race season.

Look for your favorite driver and see what their most likely outcomes are.

It would be fair to say that if you are a crew chief looking to save your job, or a driver looking for a sponsor, you can point to these stats to show that even if you had an “off year”, the results might be nothing more than random chance working against you. The public's definition of a “good year” versus a “bad year” may be too narrow, putting unrealistic expectations on everybody in the field.

We need to remember there is so much randomness that affects any given race, and sometimes drivers are just unlucky, no matter how carefully they and their team prepare. Just like in a bad coin toss, sometimes a driver ends up on the wrong side.

Let's also consider that a great season may not be indicative of how good a driver truly is, but rather a lucky streak that may not be matched again. For example, Brad Keselowski won 5 races in 2012. The numbers say he only had a 5% chance of doing that. Based on his career so far, he should perform this well once every 20 years, suggesting that luck was on his side last year. In fact, the numbers say he is more likely to win 0 races rather than 5. Perhaps his winless 2013 is his luck evening out from last year’s success. Maybe nobody is at fault: he and his team could have done everything right, and random chance would still cause this.

That being said, he still has a 61% chance of winning at least one race before the end of the season. The odds are in his favor to do it.