Friday, August 30, 2013

Video of Chase Bonus Points Article Plus Atlanta Preview

Atlanta Favorites
  • Kurt Busch (finished 4th)
  • Jeff Gordon (led 17 laps and finished sixth)
  • Carl Edwards (led 68 laps and finished 18th after a bad pit strategy call)

Threats for First Atlanta Win
  • Brian Vickers (finished 10th)
  • Matt Kenseth (finished 12th)
  • Greg Biffle (finished 15th)

Updated 9/2/13 with race results

Monday, August 26, 2013

NASCAR’s Chase Points System: Where Everything’s Made Up and the Bonus Points Don’t Matter

The media likes to make a big deal about how many wins drivers will have going into the Chase, because those wins equate to bonus points entering the final 10 races. That logic makes it easy to pick on somebody like Clint Bowyer who, despite being second in points, is presumably disadvantaged because he doesn’t have any wins yet. The conventional wisdom is that his lack of bonus points will hurt him in the Chase.

Continuing with that theme, another discussion point centers on drivers who get in through the wild card. If they finish in the top-10, their wins will count for bonus points, but not if they finish 11th.  Kasey Kahne, with his two wins and borderline top-10 position, is the prime example here.

Here’s the thing we all need to remember:


Look below at the entire history of the Chase.  I have recounted the points (and made new rankings) as if there had never been any bonus points awarded, and compared those rankings to the results that actually happened (with bonus points).

In 9 years of the Chase:

  • Zero titles were affected by bonus points entering the Chase
  • Only in 3 of the 9 years did any spot in the top 5 final standings change because of bonus points
  • Most of the changes in standings due to bonus points happened around 10th place

This means that everybody can relax. Teams should just focus on getting into the Chase, do their best in the final 10 races, and ignore everything else. In the past 9 years, NASCAR has changed the way they give out bonus points, but no matter these changes, one thing stays the same: the bonus points are too small to matter.

If NASCAR did want bonus points to have an impact, they should increase their value to levels with meaningful effect.  As the evidence shows, they are too small to make a difference. The only thing they do is create unnecessary discussion.

Or maybe this is exactly what NASCAR wants: a lot of discussion in the media without changing any of the on-track results.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Ranking NASCAR's Luckiest Drivers in 2013

Luck is always a big factor in determining where a driver finishes a race, and for that matter, an entire season. Some drivers can race up front all day, only to find themselves caught up in a late crash, or a bad restart, or using a pit strategy that turns out to be wrong. Other drivers can run poorly all day, get a lap from a wave-around, and take advantage of attrition up front to walk away with an unexpected top-10 finish.

Today, we look at which drivers have been the luckiest (and unluckiest) in 2013.

Since it's hard to otherwise quantify what luck means, for this article we'll measure luck as the difference between average running position and average finishing position.

Let's look at an example: in 2013, Jimmie Johnson has an average finish of 10.0, but his average running position during races is 8.5.  That means he finishes 1.5 spots worse than where he runs – a sign of being unlucky.

Ryan Newman, however, has been lucky. His average running position during races is only 17.7, but his average finish is 16.8, a full position better than where he runs.

The chart below shows all full-time, contending drivers this season (minimum 15 starts and an average finish of 22nd), comparing their average running position to their average finish.

Each point on the chart represents one driver this season. Points on the diagonal line represent drivers with neutral luck this year: they finish where they run. 

Points far away from the diagonal line mean the driver has faced a significant amount of luck this year (either good or bad).

Using this data, we can now rank the luckiest drivers this season:

At the top of the list is Clint Bowyer, the only driver who finishes more than 2 spots better than where he runs. This is a lot of good luck, to the tune of 55 points in the standings. Without this luck, Bowyer would be fifth in the points rather than second.

At the bottom of this list is Matt Kenseth, who has had an amazing amount of bad luck this year. Kenseth has finished over 6 spots worse per race than where he’s run. Without all this bad luck, Kenseth would have 144 extra points, putting him ahead of Jimmie Johnson at the top of the standings, rather than the sixth place he’s in right now.

How Can We Use This Info?

When the Chase starts, points get reset and everybody starts over from 0 again. This creates an opportunity for drivers to generate a new set of luck. We can presume Kenseth won't suffer as much bad luck as he had so far this year. Because average running position is a better predictor of performance than average finish, we should expect some jumbling of the standings.

Even though Bowyer is ahead of Kenseth in the standings right now, this is because of luck, not performance. It does not imply Bowyer will be a stronger threat to win the Chase.  Kenseth has a much better average running position than Bowyer, so it's Kenseth who should be a bigger threat.

Similarly, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne have had plenty of bad luck this year (partially through pure bad luck and partially through aggressive driving that has caused them to crash unnecessarily). Even though they are behind in the standings now, they get a fresh start in the Chase. Eventually we expect driver luck to neutralize in the long run. If Busch and Kahne can experience neutral or even positive luck, they will be forces to reckon with.

For drivers like Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Kevin Harvick, a good portion of their success this year has come from luck, not from speed. If their luck runs out in the Chase, don’t expect them to contend. In fact, Biffle’s luck has been so good this year, he'd be 16th in the standings with neutral luck, instead of his current 10th place position.

The scary thing for everybody else out there: even though Jimmie Johnson has a huge lead in the standings, it’s happened despite Johnson’s bad luck this season. If he were to have neutral (or even some positive) luck come Chase time, he might blow everybody away this year.

Give Me One Example of This

In last year’s Chase, Brad Keselowski won the title because of luck, not speed.  He had 2.5 spots per race of good luck, while Johnson had -2.5 spots per race of bad luck. Putting that together, Keselowski gained 50 points over Johnson on luck alone. Had this evened out for both drivers, Johnson would have won the title by 10 points, rather than losing it by 40.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reviewing Michigan Picks

Let's see how my picks from this week's BSports video did today at Michigan.

Michigan Favorites

  • Greg Biffle (led 28 laps and finished 9th)
  • Carl Edwards (finished 10th)
  • Jeff Gordon (finished 17th)

Threats for First Michigan Win

  • Clint Bowyer (finished 5th)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished 16th)
  • Jimmie Johnson (led 3 laps but had an engine failure early, finished 40th)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Second Place is the First Loser: Ranking the Most Clutch Drivers in NASCAR

In racing, it's well known that everybody remembers the winner, while nobody remembers second place. Today we look at the difference in finishing first versus second.  When placed in a top-2 situation, which drivers are more likely to win versus lose?

Since the beginning of the 2005 season, here are all the drivers with at least 5 finishes in the top 2, color-coded by first-place (blue) and second-place (red) finishes:

It's no surprise to see big names like Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Kyle Busch lead the series in top-2 finishes.  In Tony Stewart's case, we see that he has 29 wins and 29 runner-ups.  This is an equal split, putting his "clutch" factor at 50% (29 wins divided by 58 total top-2 finishes = 50%). Because Stewart's clutch factor is right at 50%, when put in a top-2 situation, he wins or loses with equal frequency. This suggests Stewart is an average driver when it comes to being clutch.

Let's look at the clutch percentages for all the drivers.  Again, we calculate this by dividing wins over total top-2 finishes. (We focus on the top 2 positions in this article because it's the purest form of comparing winning versus losing. You could extend this analysis to consider wins versus top-5 finishes, for example.)

Greg Biffle is the most clutch driver, with 16 wins and 8 runner-up finishes. That means 67% of his top-2 finishes are wins.  This type of performance does not happen randomly. Biffle has a pattern of not settling for second-place finishes, and goes all out to get those wins. Many hard-charging drivers top this list, guys with reputations for being aggressive. Notice the Busch brothers, Brad Keselowski, and Jimmie Johnson as drivers with above-average clutch percentages.

Looking at the bottom, you see Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and Martin Truex, Jr.  They rack up second-places without winning. These are not drivers you would call clutch. When placed in a late-race top-2 situation, they will generally fail to get the trophy.

Furthermore, notice one point about the asymmetry of being clutch: it's very hard for drivers to do significantly better than 50%. Biffle is the only driver above 60%, while many drivers fall very short on the downside (6 drivers, or almost a third of the list, are below 40%).

It's difficult to be a clutch driver, as moving up from second to first doesn't usually happen by luck, but through grit, smarts, and skill. In general, many drivers can get second-place finishes, but only a few win. Demonstrating a consistent ability to get that one last pass is a key ingredient to being a successful NASCAR star.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reviewing Watkins Glen Picks

Let's review how my picks from last week's BSports video did:

Watkins Glen Favorites

  • Kyle Busch (led 29 laps and WON the race)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (led 1 lap and finished 5th)
  • Marcos Ambrose (led a race-high 51 laps but finished 31st after a late crash)

Threats for First Watkins Glen Win

  • Brad Keselowski (finished 2nd)
  • Martin Truex, Jr. (finished 3rd)
  • Carl Edwards (finished 4th)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Try Explaining This One to Your Sponsors: Nobody’s to Blame for Bowyer, Dale Jr., and Keselowski going winless this year

We are 21 races into the 2013 season, and many big name drivers are still looking for their first win:
  • Clint Bowyer
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  •  Jeff Gordon
  • Brad Keselowski
  • Denny Hamlin

Are they winless because of bad driving and team troubles, or simply due to chance?

Today we look at the chances these drivers would be winless anyway, simply due to randomness and luck. It’s possible a driver and his team could do everything right and still come up short. In the same way a coin flip doesn't always come up heads, random chance plays a big factor in determining outcomes, regardless of one’s effort.

We answer this question by going back to our trusty friend, the binomial distribution, which we used two months ago to calculate the chances of Denny Hamlin and others getting two wins before the Chase.

The binomial distribution says how likely it is for a driver to win X races in a given period of time, based on his career winning percentage. This stat gives us an expected range of wins for each driver. It also says how many wins are outside the norm, either too many or too few for a driver to reasonably get.

Let’s start with a simple example. Jimmie Johnson has won 64 races in his career of 420 starts, a career winning percentage of 15%. Applying the formula, we should expect his wins per season to be distributed liked this:

 I’ve highlighted the fields with a > 10% expectation.  The highest-probability outcomes for Johnson are in the 3-7 win range, accounting for 76% of the most likely results. The math works out, as 9 of Johnson's 12 fulltime seasons (or 75%) have resulted in 3-7 wins. We now see Johnson's fantastic 10-win season in 2007 had a slim 2% chance of happening. Clearly he had good luck on his side, including equipment, strategy, and avoiding crashes. Even for an elite driver like Johnson, winning 10 races should only happen once every 50 years. He needed everything to go right to make it happen that year.

Similar reasoning applies to other extraordinary NASCAR performances. Consider Tony Stewart’s 2011 Chase, when he won 5 out of 10 races. The numbers suggest he only had a 0.1% of doing that by random chance (put another way, it’s a staggering once-in-thousand years opportunity). Again, he had many factors swing in his favor: the right setups, equipment, and a healthy dose of luck.

Let’s look at the expected wins so far in 2013, after 21 races, for the top 20 drivers in points:

The red boxes highlight the most likely outcomes.

Some observations:
  • Jimmie Johnson has 4 wins already this year, which is right in line with his career performance.
  • Clint Bowyer had a 54% chance of winning 0 races by this point in the season.  That he has 0 wins is perfectly sensible: it's his most likely outcome.
  • The same reasoning applies to Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He had a 44% chance of earning 0 wins in 21 races, higher than any other outcome.
  • For Brad Keselowski, getting 0 wins so far had a 26% likelihood. Even if he didn't have to deal with the pressures of being a defending champion, switching manufacturers, and adjusting to the Gen-6 Car, it's perfectly possible he would have been winless anyway.
  • In Jeff Gordon’s case, having 0 wins is a clear underachievement based on his career stats. His most likely outcomes would include winning anywhere from 1 to 4 races. His performance so far suggests this is not due to random chance, but a true decline at this late stage of his career, the natural dip that occurs as drivers move past their prime.
  • Contrast that with Matt Kenseth, the only driver who has many more wins than expected.  His 4 wins puts him way above his most likely range of 0-2 wins.  In fact, his career track record suggests he only had a 2% chance of winning 4 races so far. What changed? Kenseth switched over to Joe Gibbs Racing this year – clearly the move has made a significant and measurable difference for him.
  • On the other hand, Kenseth's JGR teammate, Denny Hamlin, has had a rough season, including sitting out several races due to injury. For Hamlin's 17 starts this year, going winless had a 24% chance of happening in normal circumstances. He was just as likely to have 0 wins (24%) as to have 2 wins (25%). These numbers tell us even if everything were going normally for Hamlin, he might still be winless from randomness alone.

Now let's see the likelihood of each driver’s win potential for the final 15 races this season:

This table gives you a sense for the most common outcomes. For most drivers, the most likely results are winning 0 or 1 more race for the remainder of the year. Outperformance (i.e. results that fall past the red boxes) will come from a combination of positive factors all working together to benefit a lucky driver. For example, you might see Kyle Busch win 3 more races before the season ends (9% chance of happening).

Finally, we can combine the two tables to look at the expectations for a complete 36-race season.

Look for your favorite driver and see what their most likely outcomes are.

It would be fair to say that if you are a crew chief looking to save your job, or a driver looking for a sponsor, you can point to these stats to show that even if you had an “off year”, the results might be nothing more than random chance working against you. The public's definition of a “good year” versus a “bad year” may be too narrow, putting unrealistic expectations on everybody in the field.

We need to remember there is so much randomness that affects any given race, and sometimes drivers are just unlucky, no matter how carefully they and their team prepare. Just like in a bad coin toss, sometimes a driver ends up on the wrong side.

Let's also consider that a great season may not be indicative of how good a driver truly is, but rather a lucky streak that may not be matched again. For example, Brad Keselowski won 5 races in 2012. The numbers say he only had a 5% chance of doing that. Based on his career so far, he should perform this well once every 20 years, suggesting that luck was on his side last year. In fact, the numbers say he is more likely to win 0 races rather than 5. Perhaps his winless 2013 is his luck evening out from last year’s success. Maybe nobody is at fault: he and his team could have done everything right, and random chance would still cause this.

That being said, he still has a 61% chance of winning at least one race before the end of the season. The odds are in his favor to do it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Reviewing Pocono Picks

Let's see how my picks fared from the BSports video this week.

Pocono Favorites

  • Carl Edwards (finished 11th)
  • Jimmie Johnson (led 43 laps and finished 13th after an early crash)
  • Denny Hamlin (finished 43rd after an early crash)

Possible First Time Pocono Winners

  • Kyle Busch (finished 8th)
  • Clint Bowyer (finished 14th)
  • Mark Martin (finished 18th)

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Data Shows NASCAR Drivers Don't Quickly Learn How to Drive

Ryan Newman's win at the Brickyard 400 was the fifth time in 20 races this season that the race winner had started first. That means 25% of the wins in 2013 have come from the pole. To give you some context on how high this number is: the last time we saw a higher percentage was 1985, the year Kyle Busch was born.

What is special about 2013? Why are wins from the pole up so much?

The chart below shows the percentage of wins coming from the pole each season, color-coded by car generations. As we can see, 2013 is the first year of the Gen-6 car.

We can conclude a few interesting things from this chart:

Wins from the pole have been generally trending down
This is because of increased competition. In the early years of NASCAR, there were only a few good teams, and winners could often lap the entire field. When a car is that far ahead of the field, it's easy to imagine somebody starting first and running away from everybody. In recent years, we have seen see less than 10% of wins come from the pole.  Compare that to rates of 50% (Gen-1), 40% (Gen-2), 30% (Gen-3), 20% (Gen-4), and 10% (Gen-5). This is a clear trend downward, suggesting that wins from the pole have become increasingly rare.

The first year of a new car tends to bring a spike in wins from the pole
Let's look at the beginning of each new car generation, starting from the present:
  • Gen-6: The 25% rate of winning from the pole in 2013 is much higher than in the past few years.
  • Gen-5: In 2008, the first full year of the Gen-5 car, we also saw a 25% win-from-pole rate, much higher than any year in the previous decade.
  • Gen-4: The first 3 years of the Gen-4 car (1992-1994) saw a spike in wins from the pole, higher than the last several years of the previous generation.
  • Gen-3: The first year of the Gen-3 car (1981) was the peak for that generation, higher than the final years of the previous car, and higher than any other year in the following decade.
  • Gen-2: The first year of the Gen-2 car (1967) saw wins from the pole spike up to a level that was higher than the previous decade, and higher than any other year to follow in that era.

The pattern is very consistent.  Wins from the pole generally have decreased every decade. The exception, as we have seen, is with the introduction of a new car.

Winning from the pole suggests dominance by one car, and less competition from other teams. Why would a new car cause this? After all, the equipment is universally available to all teams, so other factors must be at play.

Do new cars take getting used to?  It is possible that when a new car comes out, some drivers and teams naturally figure it more easily, get ahead of everybody else, and can more quickly figure out the right setup needed to win. Maybe only after that first year is over do the other teams figure out what they need to do to catch up.  This would explain why the spikes happen early and then fade away, as other teams figure out how to race with their cars, catching up to the leaders. That would, over time, decrease the advantage of starting first, as other teams become able to close any qualifying gap during the race.

It's possible that this effect is no different than any regular person who buys a new car, as it simply takes time to figure out all the ways to make a vehicle handle the way the driver wants.  In NASCAR, some drivers can do this more quickly than others.  After a year, it becomes second nature to everybody, until a new car is introduced, when the learning process starts all over again.

Maybe NASCAR drivers are just like us when it comes to driving a new car. Slow.