Saturday, March 8, 2014

New Chase Rules Creating a Spiral of Aggression

Two races down, and two drivers are already in the Chase. Only 24 more chances to get in. The most important lesson to take away from Phoenix is that teams will do whatever they can to win. Gambling on fuel strategy, tires, track position, even just plain old aggressive driving are all in play. This trend will only continue: each week that goes by is one less chance to qualify for the Chase. For the drivers who don't have wins, they will need to gamble increasingly out of desperation to secure a Chase spot. And for drivers who do have wins, like Earnhardt and Harvick, gambling will be the smart way to go to capitalize on their advantage, to earn additional Chase bonus points.

As we discussed last month, the new rules would create much more uncertainty, randomness, and volatility. Certainly that has proven to be true, especially at Phoenix when we saw many drivers try different approaches at getting that win. Harvick was just too strong for them. It’s my prediction that this dynamic will create an increasing spiral of aggression. Teams without wins will do whatever is necessary to get one; and once they do get a win, they can gamble even more because they have nothing to lose.

A few weeks ago, I calculated expected percentages for the drivers that would most likely earn a win. Both our 2014 winners were in the top-16 of most likely winners. And with wins by Dale Jr, and Kevin Harvick, two of our expected 'in-the-Chase' drivers have already been checked off the list.

Winners, Losers, Gamblers, and Helpers

With Daytona specifically behind us, that leaves only four more "wild card" races left before the Chase starts: two road course and two plate races. These are the four best chances for non-Tier 1 drivers to earn a spot in the Chase.

As the year continues, we will be better able to analyze if teams are taking bigger risks – and succeeding. By analyzing loop data like laps led, percentage of laps in top 15, and average running position, we can see if the winners in 2014 are racing with a materially different style than in past years. An increase in gambling frequency and success might reveal itself if we see more winners who perhaps led fewer laps than in the past, or had a worse average running position than historical averages.

Also, we need to pay attention to team orders allowing for even distribution of wins. For example, a few weeks from now, if Harvick is leading a race late, and second place is a winless teammate, will he find a reason to pull over and let the teammate by? Their overall team would be better off if both drivers each had one win, rather than two for Harvick and none for the teammate. It's likely that teams have already planned for this scenario.

Weekend Forecast

Here are the picks for this weekend’s race:

Las Vegas Favorites
Matt Kenseth
Tony Stewart
Jimmie Johnson

According to my models, these three former champions are by far the best-performing drivers at Las Vegas, based on their combination of laps led and consistent finishes. They are in a cluster by themselves, fully separated from everybody else.

Threats for First Las Vegas Win
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Kasey Kahne
Greg Biffle

Here's a good shot for Earnhardt to pick up a second win. Both races this year have been won by Hendrick engines -- a good opportunity for somebody like Kahne to get his first win.