Friday, February 8, 2013

How important is a Pole Position really?

After a hiatus, I am back at 36 Races with a fresh web look, and some new data to look at for the 2013 season.

To start things off right, let's talk about the importance of starting positions, and how relevant they are to finishing position.

I looked at every race in NASCAR Sprint Cup History that had 43 cars (remember that in the old days you didn't always have 43 cars in a race), and plotted every start / finish relationship.

Most importantly, I split it up by each starting position.

For example, here is the finish for every driver who started first.

Not surprisingly, if you start first, your most likely finish is first.  And then second, then third, then fourth, then fifth. There is a nice curve that defines the top 10.  

But look what happens after that.

The chances of finishing between 10th and 16th are equal.  You see the flat red line there.

And after 16th place, the line drops in half, with another straight line from 16th all the way to last place. 

This is surprising, right?  I am sure you didn't expect that.  I certainly didn't.

I was expecting a nice even curve all the way down, not a short curve followed by straight lines.

What does this tell us?  That if a pole-winner can't finish in the top 15, their chance of finishing is completely random, all positions 16-43 are equally likely.

Think about what this means for your fantasy racing leagues, and for media stories about driver performance.  What is really the value of a pole starting place?  It is definitely correlated with top 10 and top 15 finishes, but beyond that it means nothing.  So the chance of finishing 16th or 26th or 36th or 43rd are all the same.

And the chances of finishing 10th or 15th are the same.

Are finishing positions much, much more random than we think?

We'll explore more start/finish relationships in upcoming posts. For a preview, here is the finish histogram for every starting position, 1-43:

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