Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Real Road Course Ringers: They're Not Who You Think They Are

(This is a cross-post with BSports Stats Insights)

As we go into Sonoma this weekend, for the first of two road-course races this year, there is always talk about the road course ringers who are specialists at turning left and right, and dominate the other drivers when not on our usual oval tracks.

Look at this list:
Left and right turns this weekend at Sonoma

Brad Keselowski
Carl Edwards
Clint Bowyer
Denny Hamlin
Greg Biffle
Jeff Gordon
Jimmie Johnson
Juan Pablo Montoya
Kevin Harvick
Kurt Busch
Kyle Busch
Marcos Ambrose
Robby Gordon
Ron Fellows
Scott Pruett
Tony Stewart

Lots of big-time "oval" names in there, right? Yet, here's the surprise: these are the drivers who have performed the best on road courses in the past 10 years.

If you apply the Pure Speed Ratio of top 5 finishes to lead lap finishes to the drivers on this list, you see this ranking:

(The data includes only drivers with 5 or more lead lap finishes at road course events in the last 10 years)

What do we observe?
  • Marcos Ambrose is truly dominant on road courses, and is virtually guaranteed a Top 5 finish, barring any major problems
  • Scott Pruett (a noted road course expert) is also excellent, proving his reputation in the numbers
  • Ron Fellows (another ringer) is at the bottom of this list, not where you'd expect him to be, below many typical oval drivers
  • Other famous ringers like Boris Said (just a single Top 5 in 14 lead-lap-finishes), don't even make this list.
Just to give you some context about how rare it is for a ringer to actually succeed in Cup, here are the names of several other road-course experts:

Andrew Ranger
Andy Lally
Andy Pilgrim
Anthony Lazzaro
Brandon Ash
Brian Simo
Butch Leitzinger
Max Papis
Patrick Carpentier
P.J. Jones
Patrick Long
Tom Hubert
Tomy Drissi
Tony Ave

The total combined number of top 5 finishes among all these drivers is 0. Think about that. None of these drivers have ever scored a top 5 finish on a road course.

Let's go back to the original list of drivers, now with some color-coding:

I've highlighted them in three colors:
  • Beige is for the true ringers, who are clearly outperforming compared to their performance on oval tracks. Notice that every single one of these drivers came from another series. None of them are native NASCAR veterans– for example, Pruett, Gordon, and Montoya all ran IndyCar.
  • Blue is for any Sprint Cup Series Champions. Did you see how many of them show up here?
  • Gray is for any driver who has been close to a title. Look at these names again: Bowyer, Harvick, Busch, Edwards, Hamlin, Biffle. All of them have come very close to winning the title (many second and third places in the final season standings) 
Those three categories cover every single driver on this list. Notice you don't see any "mediocre" driver on the list. We see only the guys who have all won titles, or come the absolute closest to winning them. This list of drivers is responsible for 74% of all the top 5 finishes at road courses in the last 10 years.

So what's my point? In general, minus a couple of extreme exceptions:

The best road course drivers are in fact the best oval drivers.

Consider the names that don't make this list:

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Jamie McMurray
Jeff Burton
Joey Logano
Kasey Kahne
Martin Truex, Jr.
Paul Menard
Ryan Newman

Etc. Etc. 

These guys are all good drivers, but haven't shown the type of full-season dominance that the elite drivers above have all shown.

What can we learn from this?
  • Race car driving really is a skill: The best NASCAR drivers are the best no matter where the track is.
  • Contending for titles means you need to be good everywhere
  • The true ringers are the same guys we see every weekend: You don't need road course experts if you already have a top-level driver