NASCAR’s perennial challenge is keeping manufacturers’ cars even so that no one has an unfair advantage. There is no denying that Toyota had a great 2017. Some people would say that’s because Martin Truex, Jr. had a great 2017. Others think their new car gave them an unfair advantage that precluded anyone else from getting close.
“When that car rolled out at Daytona, and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there (were) two reactions: One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it; and two, we were impressed by the design team over there. I don’t think anyone ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved.” –via NBCSports
Toyota won 16 races in 2017 — including 8 out of the 10 chase races.
A Valid Objection?
Toyota had a new car in 2017, Chevrolet rolls out a new car this year, but Ford will be running the same model they ran in 2017. A new car always offers an opportunity to get ahead; but the possible advantage of a new car is greater right now because of the recent aero-tweaking of the rules.
As Kevin Harvick pointed out, the Fusion body was designed assuming it would carry a big ole spoiler on the back. Any new car design would tbe optimized for the smaller spoiler and decreased downforce of the current rules.
Unlike Keselowksi, Harvick was full of pre-season optimism.
“We could be in a position to where we have some balance issues with the race car, but if we are going to have a problem at SHR and we put it on our aero department, I will put that up against anybody,” — via ESPN
Keselowski Had a Good 2017
Brad Keselowski is a racer. I suspect the only way he would call 2017 a ‘good’ season would be if he had won the championship.
He finished 4th. Since I’m the one who’s always saying we have to look at things in the context of the long term, let’s chart wins, top 5s, top 10s and poles. I include data since 2010, which was his first full-time season.
There was nothing wildly anomalous about Mr. Keselowski’s 2017 season relative to the year before.
- One fewer win (3 in 2017 vs 4 in 2016)
- One fewer top 5 (16 vs 15)
- One fewer top 10 (22 vs 21)
- One more pole (2 vs 1)
What about on the other end?
- One more finish 30th or higher (5 in 2017 vs 4 in 2016)
- One more finish 20th or higher (7 vs 6)
And a couple more random notes:
- Failed to complete 5 races in 2017 compared to 3 in 2016.
- All 5 of the races he didn’t finish in 2017 were due to crashes and all 5 crashes were in non-Chase races
- 2 of the 3 races he didn’t finish in 2016 were due to crashes and 1 to an engine failure. All three DNFs were during The Chase.
- Lead lap finished in 28 races in 2017 vs. 30 races in 2016
Despite fewer wins, top 5s and top 10s, he finished 4th in 2017 and 12th in 2016. This is due to the elimination format. He was eliminated early in 2016 because he DNF’ed in 2/3 races in the second set of races. The eliminate format makes comparing final positions a little iffy.
Okay, you say, but isn’t that expected? He’s running the same car in 2017 as he was in 2016.
Was Toyota Just That Much Better in 2017?
Winning is everything, so let’s start there to see if Toyota’s new car gave them an advantage. I went back 5 years because that’s the first year after Dodge left NASCAR, so we’re comparing only the three current manufacturers. The chart below shows the percentage of races won each year by manufacturer. Chevy is red, Ford is blue and Toyota is yellow.
Sidebar: What’s With 2014?
2014 is an anomaly because of the fallout from the Richmond debacle of 2013 and Napa’s subsequent withdrawal of their sponsorship.
- The Richmond Incident led to the decline and ultimate demise of MWR. They won no races that year.
- Martin Truex, Jr. left MWR and went to Furniture Row Racing, which was a Chevy team at the time.
- Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin each only won one race that year.
Back to the Story
Ignoring 2014 as an anomaly, we can draw the following generalizations for the last five years of racing:
- Toyota consistently wins about 40-45% of all the races. (10-16 out of 36)
- Ford wins between 15 and 30% of races (6-10 out of 36), with the trend being upward
- Chevy wins between 30 and 45% of races (10-16 out of 36), with the trend being downward.
If we plot the last three years to eliminate the weirdness that was 2014, we can see the trends better.
Are the Wrong Guys Upset?
Are you seeing what I’m seeing?
Toyota’s had pretty consistent numbers throughout the years. In fact, they won the same number of races in 2016 as they did in 2017, which makes it hard to suggest they have an unfair advantage this year due to the new Camry.
Looks to me like the data suggest it’s Chevy that oughta be worried, not Ford.
Place, Show and More
I also looked at how the manufacturers were distributed in the top 10 drivers standings at the end of the year.
On average, over the period 2013-2017
- Toyota has an average of 3.4 drivers in the top 10 (upward trend)
- Ford has an average of 2.2 drivers in the top 10
- Chevy has an average of 4.4 drivers in the top 10
Same thing for the top 20:
- Chevy has an average of 10 drivers in the top 20 (about 50%; upward until this year)
- Ford has an average of 5.4 drivers in the top 20 (about 26%)
- Toyota has an average of 4.8 drivers in the top 20 (about 24%; upward trend)
This is sort of interesting in terms of advantage. Even though Chevy has a decline in winning trends, they are (until this year) maintaining their strength in top 10s and top 20 rankings. There are a couple things to take into consideration.
- Retirements and Rookies
- Chevy’s lost a number of veteran drivers in the last few years: Stewart, Earnhardt, Jr. and Gordon come to mind.
- Most new drivers take a few years to start winning consistently. Hendrick is three young ‘uns + Jimmie Johnson this year. (Three really good young ‘uns, mind you.)
- Toyota lost Edwards
- Toyota has two new drivers (Jones and Suárez) still coming up to speed
- Allegiances shift
- Stewart-Haas switched from Chevy to Ford in 2017
- Petty shifts from Ford to Chevy in 2018
- Teams grow and shrink
- RCR (Chevy) goes from 3 cars to 2
- Penske (Ford) goes from 2 to 3 cars
- Furniture Row (Toyota) goes from 2 to 1 car
All Things Being Even… But They’re Not
Why does Chevy dominate the top 10 and top 20 while Toyota dominates wins?
The answer is that there are more Chevys than there are Fords or Toyotas on the track at each race.
I will admit that counting teams is tricky. So, to be counted, the team had to run the full season with a single driver. I made a few exceptions.
- Kyle Busch didn’t run the whole season in 2015 , but he won the championship, so I’m not going to exclude him.
- I counted Kenseth in 2015 even though he missed two races
- I left Aric Almirola in 2017 even though he only ran 29 races. You can argue with me about that one.
- I counted Tony Stewart in 2016. He finished 15th despite missing races. I counted Hamlin the year he had back problems, too.
So here’s the percentage of all full-time teams by manufacturer for 2013-2017:
The percentage of Chevy teams has been dropping since 2015 from 54.5% to 39.4%.
Now let’s be honest: we’re really only interested in the teams that have a shot at consistently winning races (and I mean races that aren’t Daytona or Talladega). So I re-ran the analysis with only drivers in the top 25 included.
I also looked at the roster for 2018 and made a totally subjective call as to which teams have a chance to end up in the top 25. It’s a guess: I have no clue whether Kasey Kahne will make Levine Family Racing this year’s Furniture Row.
- 44% of the teams with a chance at winning were Chevy’s
- 32% were Fords
- 24% were Toyotas
So you might expect that Chevy should win 44% of the races if everything else were equal. Then:
- Chevy would win 15-16 races a year
- Ford would win 11-12 races a year
- Toyota would win 8-9 races a year
If that was what happened, the the pie charts for the percent of wins and the percent of teams would look the same. Let’s see if they do.
Doesn’t This Prove Toyota Has an Advantage?
Toyota definitely has an advantage.
But: Toyota has been consistently overperforming (again, with the exception of 2014) for the last five years. With the exception of 2014, they win nearly twice the number of races they would be expected to if everything else were equal. I don’t see how you can attribute their performance to the new car. If the car were really that far ahead, we should’ve seen Jones or Suárez win and Hamlin should’ve won more.
Of course, everything isn’t equal. Martin Truex, Jr. had an amazing year and a very clever crew chief who knows cars and strategy. I think their record (including winning 8/10 Chase races) had a lot to do with strategy. I’m in middle of analyzing how important stage points were and will report on that in the near future. I think that’s an important part of the story.
Note that when you have a smaller number of drivers, each driver has a bigger effect on the overall record. Toyota had six teams in the top 25 in 2017: two of those drivers didn’t win a race. Chevy has 11 teams. If one of them has a bad year, there are a lot of others to take up the slack.
ADDENDUM 4pm 1/26: Dustin Long has a nice article on the situation on the NBC Sports Page.
Bonus Chart: A History of Toyota Wins: 2008-2017
I thought it was interesting to look at how drivers’ fortunes change from season to season. For example, Denny Hamlin was the main winner in 2010, then only won one race in 2011. Kenseth won 7 races in 2013, then none the next year. This is a testament to how difficult it is to win. Everything has to come together: Driver, crew chief, pit crew, everyone building the car, even the PR person can impact the driver’s mood and thus his performance.
Also published on Medium.