Friday, April 5, 2013

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Sizzling Start to 2013 and what it might mean for the record books

(This article originally appeared at Bloomberg Sports)

The media is abuzz with the fantastic start Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is having this season. What do the numbers tell us about his performance so far? Let's take a look at NASCAR's Loop Data and see what we can learn.
Through the first 5 races of the 2013 season, Earnhardt’s average finishing position is 4.4. That’s not a secret.

Here’s the twist though, his “best position” in each race (i.e. the best position he reaches at any point during a race), is averaging 2.6. The difference between his average Finish (4.4) and his average Best Position (2.6) is 1.8. How good is a 1.8 compared to everybody else? Earnhardt’s ability to finish strong is ahead of everybody this year, including champions like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.

On average, Earnhardt finishes only 1.8 spots worse than his best position in a race. Consider this number is a driver’s ability to get the most from his car: a larger value means that a driver can get to a good position during a race, but cannot maintain it. A smaller number means the driver finishes as close as possible to his best place during the race. Sometimes a driver doesn't have the fastest car in a given week, but a championship-level season is based on squeezing the most out of what's available.

Earnhardt is doing a fantastic job of maxing out his potential in 2013.

In fact, it’s so good, that if he keeps this pace up, it would blow out the record since Loop Data became available in 2005. Here are the 15 best seasons for maximizing potential (the lowest Finish-Best spreads):

Notice the two best seasons are in the 4-5 range. Even a number in the 7s reflects a fantastic ability to get the most out of one’s car.

As we see in Figure 3, the vast majority of drivers finish about 10-15 spots worse than their best position in a race.

We'll keep an eye on this number over the course of the season to see if he can keep up the good work, and make history in the process. If he keeps it up, it would set a sizzling stat record.