Thursday, April 18, 2013

A Smarter Way to Predict the Chase Cutoff: Why Making the Chase is about Racing Against History, Not Other Drivers

(This is a cross-post with StatsInsights.com)

After 26 races, the top ten drivers in the points standings qualify for the Chase (plus two wildcard drivers).

The key obviously is making it into the top 10 in points. That tenth position takes on supreme importance in discussions throughout the season, every week from now through the summer.

Here's the fascinating thing: cracking the top 10 is not really about beating the other drivers, but about racing against a historically consistent benchmark. If you focus on making that benchmark, it doesn't matter what the other drivers do.

Let's take a closer look.

We know that after each race, the winner gets 43 points, and last place gets 1 point (each position is worth one point), plus some bonus points.

Here's what happens though: after just a few races, the amount of points it takes to be in any given position is very consistent.

I have highlighted 10th place: notice that the average points per race required to be in 10th place is very consistent throughout the season, hovering between 30 and 31. No matter how many races into the season we are, 30 points per race will keep you in the 10th spot. For example, right now 10th place in points is Paul Menard. His 206 points after 7 races is an average of 29.4 points per race, very close to the predicted average.

What does this mean in terms of qualifying for the Chase? After 26 races, you would need about 26*30 = 780 points to make the top 10. Using 800 points as a round number for where a driver would need to be after 26 races, it's very easy to predict now what each driver needs to do in the next 19 races to make it in.


In the table above, you see that Kyle Busch could average just a 15th place finish from here on out and still qualify. Jeff Gordon would need to do significantly better, averaging better than 11th in every race to make it in. Here you see how important every position is each week. Paul Menard, for example, needs to average 12th each week to make the chase, but averaging 13th will mean he probably won't make the cut.

The most important takeaway from this table is that a driver just has to focus on hitting a target; the Chase berth will naturally follow. Using this thought process may be easier, less stressful, and more predictable for teams and their drivers: focus on staying consistent, executing well, and hitting the benchmark rather than worrying about how everybody else is doing.  

(If you like this article, check out this post in 2009 where I described Chase qualifying levels, based on the old points system)