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.