Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chase Volatility: Who Gets In and Who Gets Left Behind

As NASCAR continues to tweak its Chase format, expanding from 10 drivers to 12 to 13 -- to possibly 16 now -- we should all remember they are never going to be able to get what they want: a perfect solution to answer all their problems, guaranteeing that stars are in contention until the end, while maintaining the value of the regular season.

The volatility of who makes the Chase – and more importantly, who doesn’t – has been baked in as a natural occurrence of racing since they started doing this a decade ago.

There are always several drivers who can make the Chase one year but miss it the next.

This natural rotation of Chase drivers is a fact of life. As we see in the table above, at least two drivers miss the Chase the following year, with that number going as high as seven in 2005. The average is consistently around four. Each year you can safely assume that on average, four Chase drivers from the previous year won’t make it back, leaving four spots open for those looking to get in. 

Four sounds right going into 2014. Who are some likely candidates? Assuming NASCAR leaves the Chase field at 12, we can expect Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin to make their way back in. Tony Stewart returns from injury and should get in as well. Perhaps Ricky Stenhouse will improve over his rookie season to become a contender. Martin Truex Jr might perform well as he takes over Kurt Busch’s Furniture Row ride. We’ll also see talented rookies Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon both have a shot at Chase contention.

Not all of these drivers will get into the Chase, but it’s reasonable to see about 4 of them making it in, displacing 4-5 Chase drivers from 2013 (since last year had a 13th driver).

The approximately four drivers who rotate out of the Chase on an annual basis usually do it by barely missing the Chase. They don’t typically fall far out of the Top-12 in the years they miss. One great example of this is between 2005 and 2006: Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, and Carl Edwards finished 1-2-3 in 2005, but were the three best non-Chase drivers in 2006 (finishing 11-12-13). 

The average finish in the points standings for drivers in the Chase is 6.5, and in the year following it is 10.0. A drop of 3.5 spots on average highlights the fact that if they miss the Chase, it’s because they narrowly missed it.

Their performance doesn’t drop off radically, but just enough for them to get beaten by a few other drivers. For instance, consider 2013 Chasers like Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick, and Kurt Busch – all might have problems integrating with new teams in 2014. And Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have to cope with the eventual departure of his crew chief. If these drivers end up missing the Chase Top 12, you would most likely see them very nearby, in that 13-16 range. 

If NASCAR does in fact expand the Chase to 16 drivers, it might be enough to save everybody from last year’s group, making it possible for every 2013 Chase driver to return. With the exception of missing races due to illness or injury, Chase drivers almost always finish in the top-20 the following year.  With an expanded field of 16, we could probably name all those drivers right now, with 90% accuracy.

By expanding the Chase, NASCAR would actually be diluting the field, and ruining their first 26 races. It’s very predictable who gets in the top 16. The top 12 is less predictable, and the top 10 is even less so. If the Chase only included 10 drivers, you could see half the field change yearly. That would enhance the value of the first part of the season. By expanding to a 16-driver playoff, the value of the first 26 races would be diminished significantly.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Forecasting Austin Dillon’s Rookie Season

With the new season fast approaching, one of the major story lines will be the return of the famed #3 car. Rookie Austin Dillon will have a giant spotlight on him all year: in addition to driving the #3, he has to fill the shoes of outgoing driver Kevin Harvick. Dillon also has to prove himself worthy of his Cup ride, to silence the criticisms that his grandfather and car owner, Richard Childress, paved a smooth road for him in racing. Dillon is coming off a fresh 2013 Nationwide Series title. He did it without any wins, but through strong consistency: 22 top-10 finishes. In this article, we consider Dillon’s chances in Sprint Cup for 2014 and beyond.

Because Dillon has raced only a handful of Cup races, the simplest way to project his Cup performance is by comparing him to other drivers after a similar level of experience in the Nationwide Series. Dillon has competed in 77 career Nationwide races, allowing us to compare the start of his career with other top drivers. We used this approach last year to accurately project Danica Patrick’s rookie performance.

The chart below plots every finish for drivers in their first 77 Nationwide races (or less than 77 if they haven’t raced that many). Dillon is ranked along with every driver who finished Top-30 in Sprint Cup last year. The blue box represents the majority of finishes for each driver. The red line in the middle is each driver’s median finish. The list is sorted by median finish, with the best drivers at the top.

Dillon’s performance puts him in the top echelon of drivers, with a median finish matching that of Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Joey Logano. These are all drivers who annually contend for the Chase, a strong sign suggesting Dillon will be a successful Cup driver over the long haul. 

Another way to project Dillon’s performance is by focusing just on his best races, not his average. By only looking at the top 25% of each driver’s finishes, we can highlight pure talent and upside potential. Winning ability is found early in drivers’ careers, and my past research suggests that upside potential is hard to teach: drivers either have it or they don’t. It’s easy to teach a driver to improve their bad finishes as they develop, but it’s harder to improve their good finishes. By comparing only the top 25% of a driver’s finishes, we can focus on who has the most upside potential.

In the chart below, each driver is sorted by the left-edge of the box, representing their top 25% finishes. Again, Dillon finds himself around top-notch company, like Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer. Both drivers regularly contend for titles, and it would be fair to expect Dillon to do the same in the next decade.

In summary, the prospects for Dillon’s Cup Career look good. He should be at least as good as last year’s rookie of the year, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., who finished 19th in points. We should expect Dillon to do better than 19th in 2014 - in fact, Dillon could reasonably earn a top-15 finish every season. If the data above continues to have accuracy in predicting Cup performance, he might even make the Chase this year as a rookie.