Was Patrick’s Pole a Fluke?

Patrick Carpentier is usually smiling, but his smile was special Friday after he won the pole at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Nanoseconds hadn’t elapsed before commentators started attributing his win to the 1 hour, 45-minute delay that was caused by rain. Clearly the changing track conditions were responsible for one of the ‘go-or-go-homers’ winning the pole.

Or were they? Here’s where I really appreciate jayski.com, who posts all the relevant data in html tables. That format makes it is easy to import the data into Excel or another program so that you can look for trends. Things become much clearer when you make a graph.

This plot shows the qualifying time (on the vertical axis) vs. when the qualifying attempt occurred (horizontal axis). The black squares represent drivers in the top 35. The red circles are go-or-go-homers who made the race and the two blue triangles are the two cars that didn’t make the race. The vertical line is when the delay occurred.

The plot and a couple of simple calculations show some interesting things. The average qualifying time for the first 24 cars was 29.82 seconds. The average qualifying time for cars 25 through 35 was 29.68 seconds, so there was a definite decrease in qualifying times after the rain delay (0.14 seconds) between two groups of cars that, on average, ought to be roughly comparable.

The average time for the go-or-go-homers was 29.84 seconds (29.74 seconds if you remove the times of the two cars that didn’t qualify). So the go-or-go-homers were roughly comparable to the average of the cars that went before the rain delay.

Patrick’s time was significantly faster than that of the next qualifier: He clocked 29.349 seconds, while Bobby Labonte, the second-place qualifier, came in with 29.512 seconds. Patrick beat Bobby by 0.16 seconds, which is slightly better than the average advantage gained by the top 35 cars that qualified after the rain delay. (Labonte qualified after the rain delay as well). Reed Sorenson, who qualified 6th is the highest ranked driver who qualified prior to the rain delay and he ran 29.565 seconds. So there was 0.053 seconds between second and fifth. In fact, no two adjacent qualifiers had such a large difference in times until you get to 45th place.

Was Patrick’s pole a fluke? The rain delay may have helped, but given the large margin of difference in times (especially since the second-place qualifier also had the advantage of the rain delay), I’d say it’s unfair to say that the only reason he won the pole is the rain delay. He deserves more credit than that.


  1. When I received my first accounting/finance degree, what we now know as Excel was just a baby and called ‘Lotus 123’. It was not until Grad school that it was really mentioned, let alone taught. Thanks to great ‘geek’, who BTW ‘retired’ today, I was able to self teach this great program. I can’t tell you how many times I have ‘debunked’ the masses using ‘statistics’ and Excel.

    But maybe your median fro youe premise might be ‘my driver’, Elliott Sadler and his qualifying time verses practice time compare to Patrick. (and driving for the same team, and both qualifying after the rain delay)

    Could be a ‘fluke’, or could be just putting all the slices of the pie together? Who knows? But its a blast to look ‘at the numbers’ isn’t it?!!!!!!!

    (I miss my prob/stat under grad courses and solutions…I really do!!!)

    Keep up the ‘thinking’! We need more of that.

  2. Good stuff … as yet another old geezer from the accounting field I appreciated your excel explanation on the qualifying session.
    Also, great to see a good Canadian boy do well in the Nascar environment, win or lose Patrick is a good person on and off the track.

  3. Welcome Gord! You are right that Patrick is one of the nicest drivers in NASCAR. I’ve heard nothing but nice things about him from fans, other drivers and the people who work with him in the garage. It is good to see a nice guy finishing first!

  4. did’t we used to call that an outlier???
    Simple fact “he has been proving all season that he is a great qualoifier under pressure.”

  5. A team that really wants to qualify well can take a chance and run very light engine oil and a lighter differential oil to reduce rolling drag. Since this is not an impound race they can qualify well, then change oils without being penalized. There’s risk that they have added wear to the engine and/or differential gears and the car won’t make the distance on race day. However, if the number one goal is to get into the race in the first place, it may well be worth the gamble.
    Engine/drive train drag may be as much as 15% of total output shaft horsepower in a street car (most of it in the engine and differential oil viscosity). Reducing these can provide short term increased power delivered to the wheels, as the risk of long term damage to the parts involved.
    Look at the numbers, a 1% boost in power (translated to speed and lower lap time) is HUGE deal. A 1% reduction in lap time would get you from the back of the field (or DNQ’d)to the middle of the field, or the middle to the front row. If you’re in contract negotiations, starting at the front or close to the front may be pivotal. If the engine and/or drive train disintegrates late in a race everyone looks at the engine builders; the only thing people (including sponsors) remember about the driver is that he had the car up front at the beginning of the race.

  6. I think a lot of the success of Patrick and others has to do with the top 35 rule. The top 35 drivers don’t have to concentrate as it only matters in pit selection. If qualifying really mattered for them, the results may be very different.

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