NASCAR’s Youth Movement is Actually Sort of Old

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DaytonaDriversGraphs and ChartsNASCARRacing

Goin’ Down?

2018 is being hailed as the year of the NASCAR Youth Movement as we bid farewell to older drivers and welcome in a class of youngsters. The average age of  Hendrick’s starting lineup for the Daytona 500 dropped by more than a decade from 2015 to 2018.

But is 2018 really a huge change for NASCAR?

Method (to Madness and Otherwise)

I retrieved drivers’ birthdates from www.racing-reference.info. The ages used here are the drivers’ ages on the date of the Daytona 500.

And yes, I learned some interesting things about how Excel handles dates and the DATEDIF function.

Googling “Average age Daytona 500 2018” will yield a huge number of articles citing an average age of 34.2 years for the 2018 Daytona 500 field. The number apparent came from a NASCAR press release, but I cannot figure out how they got that. Someone suggested to me that this calculation was before the field was finalized, but if I remove Gray Gaulding, I get a number about one year less. I checked my data and my calculations three times and I’m pretty sure both are accurate.

RANDOM STAT: When Jeff Gordon moved from Hendrick to FS1, he brought the average age of the FS1 announcing booth down by eight years. The average age of the 2018 Daytona 500 announce booth was 61.9 years old.  

Average = Not So Useful Number

This year’s Daytona 500 field was trumpeted as having the second youngest average age ever at 32.9 years. The 2017 race had an average of 32.8 years.

One sort of has to wonder how, when Hendrick by themselves decreased by 8 years, the average for 2018 isn’t lower than last year. (Remember, of course, that everyone who ran the race last year is one year older.)

But quite frankly, what this really shows is that an average isn’t that a useful number. Amazon and Yelp (or virtually any site with ratings) tells you an average rating, but they almost always show you the distribution of the ratings.

  • Restaurant A has an average of 2.5 stars, with 100 five star ratings and 100 0-star ratings.
  • Restaurant B has an average of 2.5 stars and has 200 2.5-star ratings.

Same average. Very different stories behind those averages.

A Tale of Three Averages

The average ages for the 1980, 2006 and 2012 seasons are (respectively) 35.6 years, 35.7 years and 35.6 years. Close enough for comparison. But look at how the drivers’ ages are distributed.

IMPORTANT: In Excel histograms, the label is the upper bound. The column labeled “25” contains the number of drivers with ages between 20 and 24.999999. It’s a little confusing until you get used to it. And maybe even after that.

In 2012, most of the drivers were right around average age, with a few younger and a few older. In 2006, there were a lot of 25-30 years olds, but also a lot of 40-50 years olds. You see how the average doesn’t tell you everything?

Daytona 2018: Youngest Field Ever?

Let’s look at the histogram of driver ages for the 2018 Daytona 500 field.

The majority of the drivers are in one part of the graph, but you will notice that I had to go further out on the x-axis to account for the fact that, in the midst of the NASCAR Youth Movement, 2018 also featured the oldest driver to ever run the Daytona 500. (Mark Thompson, age 66 in car 66.)

For those of you who thought (like I initially did) that Morgan Shepherd was the oldest driver in the Daytona 500, Morgan is the oldest driver to attempt to make the Daytona 500 (age 72 in 2014), but he didn’t qualify. James Hylton is the oldest driver to start any NASCAR series race at any track at age 76.

This is what they call in the statistics business ‘an outlier’. He’s an outlier in other areas, too, in that the Daytona 500 is the only NASCAR race he will run this year. (The same is true for Danica Patrick, who turns 36 next month.)

If you exclude Mr. Thompson from the average, it drops by almost a full year to 32.0 years. The huge drop by excluding just one person is because the next-oldest driver in the field is Brendan Gaughan (42.6 years old). Brendan just barely beats out Jimmie Johnson (now the series’ oldest regular driver) and Kevin Harvick.

Let’s not leave before noting that the 66-year old Mr. Thompson (a Vietnam Vet) finished a very respectable 22nd last Sunday, beating both Busch brothers, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.

Here’s another way of looking at the distribution of the drivers’ age ranges: A pie chart.

Almost 80% of the drivers in the field are under age 40 and 42% (17 drivers) are under age 30. Take a gander back at 1980: The number of drivers under 30 was 22%.

But Is This A Big Change?

Let’s look at the data for 2017 on the same histogram to make it easier to compare.

 

The only difference between the two distributions are the old guys out at the end. (I say this with respect, falling on the right-hand-side of that chart myself.) That’s why the averages turn out differently. The outlier in 2017 was younger than the outlier in 2018 (by a good 10 years).

We all had the feeling that there were a whole bunch of new young drivers coming in and a whole bunch of old drivers leaving, but that’s not quite accurate.

  • The youngest of the new drivers this year are Gray Gaulding and William Byron, both just over 20 years old.
  • The next three youngest drivers all ran last year (Chase Elliott (22.2), Erik Jones (21.7) and Ryan Blaney (24.1)) ran last year. (I had no idea Ryan Blaney was so old!)
  • Alex Bowman turns 25 in April and Darrell Wallace, Jr. turned 24 last October.

So there really wasn’t a huge influx of new young blood into the series this year. Not really any more than last year.

BONUS POINT: Name the outlier (i.e. old) driver from the 2017 Daytona 500 in light blue in the circle on the graph above. (ANSWER: Michael Waltrip at 53.9 years.)

If we exclude Waltrip, the way we did Thompson in 2918, that brings the average age for 2017 down to 32.3 years, which is higher than 2018 with Thompson excluded.

I read all these articles making a big deal that 17 of the drivers in this year’s Daytona 500 were under 30? So what? It was the same as last year’s Daytona 500.

So the Average Driver Age Isn’t Going Down?

Here the average ages (no one excluded) for the last 5 Daytona 500s.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that I blew it up a lot. The scale only goes from 32 years old to 34 years old. In 2014, the average age was 33.3. This year, it’s 32.9. A few fluctuations inbetween, sure, but it hasn’t really changed that much.

But NASCAR Drivers Sure Seems Much Younger

They are! I thought for a while it was just me. As you get older, more people in the world are younger than you.

If you’re 55 years old, you are older than about 3/4 of the people in the country and 84% of people in the world. Before you get snarky, Jeff Gordon is older than 60% of the people in the country. And even Kyle Busch is older than 54% of people in the country. (No one tell Kyle that. He seems a little sensitive about this age thing lately.)

And it doesn’t help that some of these guys don’t look old enough to have a driver’s license, either.

Let’s look at average ages of Daytona 500 fields for the last nine runnings.

Yes. What I did in showing you just the last five years is what is called cherry-picking the data. I showed you only part of what I knew and gave you a false impression of what was going on. Remember that when anyone tries to use data to support an argument.

There was a 3-year drop in the average age between 2013 and 2014, from 36.3 years to 33.3 years. This seems like a major change, right? But I just showed you that lopping one guy off the average decreased it by a year, so let’s take a deeper dive and look at the Histograms.

In 2014, we:

  • Lost a bunch of drivers over 40, including
    • David Reuitimann (42.9)
    • Jeff Burton (45.6)
    • Joe Nemechek (49.4)
    • Dave Blaney (50.3)
    • Mark Martin (58.1)
  • Gained young drivers, including
    • Cole Whitt (22.7)
    • Trevor Bayne (23.0)
    • Kyle Larson (21.5)
    • Alex Bowman (20.8)

I’d forgotten that Alex has been around awhile!

Here’s a couple interesting trends in terms of driver distribution:

2013 2014 2018
Average Age 36.3 33.3 32.9
% Drivers under 30 23 37 42.5
% Drivers under 35 49 63 57.5
% Drivers over 45 16 7 ZERO

So The Youth Movement Started in 2014?

Actually, no.

Here are the average driver ages going all the way back to 1980. (I started going by 5s when I got back to 2000 because, frankly, I was getting tired.)

The average age of the Daytona 500 field has been going down since 2002 (You could argue 2000 even, taking noise into consideration) — with the exception of an upswing from 2009-2013.

Why the upswing? The career of the older driver had changed.

  • Drivers retire at much earlier ages now. Mark Martin drove his last race at age 54. Bill Elliott ran his last Daytona 500 in 2011 at the age of 55.3. Terry Labonte’s last full-time season was in 2004, but he ran at least two races a year for the next ten years, including a number of Daytona 500s. He was 57 when he ran his last race. Compare that with recently retired drivers. Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton “retired” right into the broadcasting booth. Matt Kenseth (at age 45) couldn’t land a competitive ride and decided he’d rather not run if he couldn’t win. Carl Edwards walked away at age 36.
  • We can’t overlook the fact that many drivers (but by no means all of them) have made enough money by the time they’re in their mid-40s that they can afford to retire. That didn’t used to be the case.
  • The introduction of the four-car-per-team limit meant that teams couldn’t bring back senior drivers to run a one-off the Daytona 500.
  • With the Charter system, there are no more Champion’s Provisionals, so even if you had room, the era of hiring a driver for a one-off guaranteed shot at the Daytona 500 is over.

Let’s compare the distributions for the peak year for averages (2002).   

Now on the same plot as 2018.

You can see the 6-year shift in the distribution. Note specifically the number of drivers in the 45-50 age bracket. There were 7 in 2002 and there are none in 2018. That’s right. The oldest full-time driver this season will turn 43.

So The Youth Movement Started in the Early 2000’s?

Yup. That’s what the data indicates.

Bonus Graph: Trends in the Youngest and Oldest

I was curious about whether there were any trends in the oldest and youngest drivers in the Daytona 500.

Joey Logano was 18.7 years old when he ran the Daytona 500 in 2009, but the youngest driver in the field these days is pretty consistently around 20-21 years old.

The oldest driver (eldest driver?) is more interesting because those are the guys who really mess with the average numbers. Any time you see a straight line that increases by one year each season, it probably means you’re looking at a single individual. Take a look at the line of orange triangles starting in 2003 and ending in 2013.

Any guesses who that is? Or the three dots in a line from 2015 to 2017?

 

 

 


Also published on Medium.

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