Friday, February 14, 2014

Who’s Making the Chase This Year?

As we saw last week, the new Chase format is practically win-and-you’re-in: drivers with a win in the first 26 races will have a spot in the 16-driver Chase field. So who’s making the Chase? We can answer that question by figuring out which drivers are most likely to win a race.

We’ll use each driver’s career winning percentage to give an expectation for what’s possible in 26 races. By using each driver’s career total of wins and race starts, we get their career winning percentage. With that number, the binomial distribution tells us how likely it is for each driver to win 1 or more races.

The table above ranks drivers by their career winning percentage. The percentage numbers colored in red highlight the most likely number of wins per driver through 26 races.

The drivers at the top of the list should be expected to win at least one race. But if we look at the data, there are some misleading pieces. For example, Jeff Gordon has recently not won as many races as his career average would suggest, but he shows up in the second spot on the list. In the last few years, he’s won only about 3% of his races – putting him in that Clint Bowyer / Dale Jr area, which may be a more reasonable place for him. Speaking of Dale Jr, he also hasn’t won many races over the past few years, so he’d be even further down the list. That leads us to think about other who don’t win – this list doesn’t contain those drivers who have never won a race (Danica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse, Kyle Larson, Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon).

But overall, the table gives us a sense for what should be expected for most drivers. Kyle Busch, for example, has an 11% chance of winning 4 races, but also a 10% chance of winning no races. Kevin Harvick has a 10% chance of getting 3 wins, but a 27% chance of winning nothing before the Chase starts.

We can summarize the data to see the one thing that matters: will a driver win at least one race or not? By taking the table above and combining the probabilities for any amount of race wins, we get this:

The most interesting names are at the bubble, around the 50% area. Look at contenders like Dale Jr, Clint Bowyer, and Jamie McMurray. Whether they get a win or not is almost a coin flip. These guys don’t win a lot of races historically, so trying to get just 1 win in 26 chances is anything but a guarantee.

Moving further down the list, drivers like Brian Vickers, Marcos Ambrose, and David Ragan have shown success on road courses and restrictor plate tracks, giving them a decent chance at sneaking their way in.

With an expanded range of 16 names, the biggest names in the sport – Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards for example – should have strong odds of getting in. But it’s less certain for those drivers on the cusp.