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.