Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Difficulties of Passing at New Hampshire: Why Crew Chiefs Matter More

This weekend, NASCAR visits Loudon for the first of two races there. New Hampshire's track is 1 mile in length, and features very flat banking.

Unlike what we saw at Daytona last week, where there were many passes and lead changes, races at New Hampshire behave more consistently. It's much more difficult to get around other cars.

This observation leads to our key takeaway: passing will be at a premium this weekend. It will be important for drivers to start up front, make their moves early, and stay up front for the duration of the race.

Unlike other tracks, at Loudon drivers can't wait until the end of the race to shake things up. The image below shows the average number of spots gained by drivers in the last 10% of races at New Hampshire (2005-2012). Notice that for most drivers, the average gain is 1 spot or less. It's very rare for a driver to move more than 2 spots on average late in a race at New Hampshire. This means drivers need to get themselves into position early. Don't bet on a big surge late in the race.

Next up, consider the difference between average running position and average finish at New Hampshire races. Look how closely connected these variables are. A driver’s position in the early and middle part of the race is typically a good predictor of the finish. Because of this, don't expect to drivers to hang back early in the race, waiting to make a move at the end. It will be too late for that. The race is short (barely over 300 miles) and the flat banking makes passing difficult, so drivers need to get up front as early as possible.

We’ve already talked about how important the starting position is for maintaining a lead and finishing strong. Notice in the chart below how closely these two stats are related: as with the previous plot, there’s virtually a linear relationship. How can a driver maximize starting position? The answer of course is qualifying: expect that to play a big role in this weekend’s race.

Building on our common theme: we asserted that passing cars on the track is very difficult at New Hampshire; the data illustrates this claim very nicely. Below are the net green flag passes per race by driver. Notice that it's rare for somebody to gain double-digit positions on the track. Generally speaking, drivers will only pass a net total of 10 or fewer cars during the race.

With everything above discussing the importance of starting up front and staying up front, remember that there are still some big variables that can result in surprising winners:

  • 2008: Kurt Busch stayed out on the track (instead of pitting with the leaders) during a late caution, before the race ended early due to rain.
  • 2009: Joey Logano collected his first career Cup win after earning a free pass from being a lap down, lucking out with the right amount of fuel because of a rain-shortened race.
  • 2010: Tony Stewart ran out of gas on the last lap, giving the win to Clint Bowyer.

Statistically, if you want to see an exciting race at New Hampshire, it will come not from passing but from unpredictable weather, pit strategies, and fuel gauges. And so the human element becomes important for mitigating these factors: look to the crew chiefs to have a big impact.