Thursday, February 6, 2014

All of a Sudden, Everything Got a Lot Less Predictable

NASCAR announced last week that the championship would be determined almost entirely on race wins, rather than on accumulated points. With that giant change from the sports past, it will be much more difficult to make predictions. NASCAR Chairman Brian France apparently thinks the enemy was “math”. In a sport with more engineers and numbers-minded participants than any other, where fuel mileage still gets calculated by hand rather than a dashboard gauge, the basic arithmetic required to add points was apparently becoming too much for people to deal with.

"No math. No bonus points. It's as simple as it gets," France said. He goes on to say "The avid fans like it because they don't particularly care for points racing, even though they understand it. The casual fans don't understand points racing ... often, with all the mathematicals, you've got to have a computer next to you to figure out who is in and who is out at a given moment. (This) clears all that off and then emphasizes winning, which everybody understands."

So with that logic, we move forward into 2014, trying to find a smarter way to analyze the best strategies. Looking at data between 2001 and 2013 (every year with 36-race seasons), we see that a driver's end-of-season points ranking was tied most closely to his average finish and the number of top-10 finishes:

 Points rankings had a low correlation with race wins. Drivers could do well in the season without any wins, and conversely they could do poorly despite many wins, because we know the difference between first and second place is often very random. On the contrary, accumulating a high average finish, or many top 10s, is not random over the course of a full season.

Now that everything has changed without "all the mathematicals", and wins become the primary factor, it’s important to see how wins correlate with these same variables:

The chart shows that Laps Led and Top-5s are the two most important places to focus. At the very bottom, Laps Completed and Races at the Finish are the two least relevant factors. This suggests that drivers and teams consider gambling much more often. High risk, high reward bets for track position will be the name of the game in 2014. Consistency doesn’t matter anymore, as the new playoff system invites much more risk-taking.

The eventual champion could be very random and unpredictable. In the chart below, the top row shows that Average Finish and Top 10s were very tightly correlated to points rank. There is a very dense pattern of points along the line, and no outliers. Either of those numbers could have told you almost everything you needed to know about where a driver would finish in the standings.

However, the bottom row shows that wins have little relationship with either Top 10s or Average Finish. The datapoints are scattered all over, including many outliers. The drivers with the most wins are not the ones with the best average finish or top 10s. 

So what do we learn from this? We should expect the upcoming season to be a very interesting year. There will be many unpredictable results. Among the first 26 races, we will have three plate races and two road course races: five high-volatility opportunities for mediocre drivers to gamble their way into the playoffs.