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.