Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Moving on Up: The Surprising List of Drivers Who Gain Spots During a Race

(This is a cross-post with BSports StatsInsights)

This week, we take a look at a very simple stat to identify which drivers actually improve during a race. Let's call it "Positions Gained in Race".

Our method is simple: take the top 35 in driver points for 2013, and compare each driver’s average starting position with their average finishing position. This shows us who moves up during the race, and who loses spots.

First, here is the raw data, sorted by average finish in Figure 1:

What can we infer? It’s hard to visualize in tabular form, so let’s plot the data in Figure 2.

Generally speaking, if you start towards the back, you’ll finish towards the back.

But now here is the twist: when you compare the difference between the starting and finishing positions, and sort accordingly in Figure 3, a few things stand out:

  1. Toyota fields 5 of the bottom 6 cars on this list. Specifically, all 3 Joe Gibbs Racing cars are in this bottom 6.
  2. Danica Patrick, despite her overall struggles this year, is doing a good job moving ahead during a race. She is a better racer than qualifier.
  3. Cars that start up front tend to lose spots during a race, and cars that start in the back tend to gain spots during a race.
  4. The exception to #3 is Jimmie Johnson, who starts very well (11.3) and then still improves nearly 3 spots from there. Amazing.

Figure 4 is a visualization of the table above:

From above, point #3 is worth exploring: Do cars that start up front generally lose that advantage during a race?

Refer to the Figure 5 below.  The bottom left corner shows those cars which start well but lose that advantage during the race. Notice they have a starting position around 10th or better, but generally lose spots during the race.

Look at the upper right corner: these cars start poorly (in the high 20s and 30s), but gain spots during the race.

Today's Lesson

There is a tendency for mean-reversion during a race: finish position is generally more centered than starting position. When we say mean-reverting, that suggests drivers who start up front tend to fall back during the race. Drivers that start poorly find their way higher during the race. Both the best starters and the worst starters will move toward the middle by the finish.