Wednesday, May 1, 2013

A Closer Look at “The Closer”: What the Data Says about Kevin Harvick’s Nicknames

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

This past weekend at Richmond, Kevin Harvick won the race despite leading only 3 laps (out of 405). He took the lead when it mattered most, and it's not nearly the first time he's done this.

In fact, Harvick has built a reputation on his prowess at finishing strong: there is even a section specifically devoted to this quality on Kevin Harvick's Wikipedia page:

"Because of his last-second passes to win many of his races and his ability to start deep in the field and finish towards the front, he was nicknamed "Mr. Where did he come from?" by NASCAR on Fox announcer Mike Joy. In the 2011 season, commentators began referring to Harvick as "The Closer" for his late-passing wins."

Does the perception match the reality? Is he really "The Closer"? Does he really come out of nowhere to win races?

The short answer is YES.

Using NASCAR's Loop Data, we can examine all race winners since 2005 and see which drivers best display the ability come from behind to squeeze out the victory.

We'll focus on the elite drivers here, those with at least 6 wins since 2005.

Harvick's average running position in races he wins is 8.0, the worst of any of these drivers (Figure 1):



Harvick leads very few laps when winning. In fact, he leads less than 10% of laps in races he wins, the lowest percentage of all elite drivers (Figure 2):



If you look at every race winner's position at the halfway mark of any race, Harvick is again at the bottom (Figure 3):



In fact, among these elite drivers, in races he wins, Harvick spends a significant amount of time outside the top 15 during the race. He is the only driver with less than 90% here, which is again, the lowest of the elite drivers (Figure 4):


Remember, this isn't just a stat from last week or the last couple years. This is going back almost a decade. Harvick is by far the standard-bearer in getting wins at the last second. 

What can we conclude from this evidence? Clearly, the nicknames bestowed upon him are well-deserved. Harvick is winning races in ways others are not. He is smart about picking his spots and getting to the front when it matters – further proof that it’s not about how you start, it’s about how you finish.