The primary motivation for all the changes to the Chase format was to up the excitement factor – the “game seven moments” as NASCAR brass put it. While the fact of the matter is that you can’t guarantee excitement, all the machinations put in place definitely increased the stakes of the chase races.
I’ve heard a lot of people say that the increased stakes spurred the drivers to be more aggressive and that resulted in better racing. To be sure, we had a couple notable off-track incidents. It’s pretty surprising when Matt Kenseth loses his cool. But what about on-track?
I started thinking about how you would measure that. My first inclination was to look at lead changes. If drivers are being more aggressive, there ought to be more lead changes in Chase races than in other races. Now, comparing this is a little tricky. You can’t compare a Talladega (where the ever-shifting lanes of cars trade the lead, resulting in hundreds of lead changes) to a Martinsville or a Charlotte.
But there are eight tracks in the Chase that have races earlier in the season. What about them? I looked at how many lead changes there were at each track in the Fall, then compared that to the Spring. Kudos, as always to racing-reference.info for putting all this data at my fingertips. I took the difference, so that a negative number means that there were more lead changes in the Spring and a positive number means there were more lead changes in the Fall.
For example, At Loudon, there were 18 lead changes in the Spring race, but only 10 lead changes in the Fall race, so you get a bar going down of magnitude (18-10=) 8. Surprisingly, For all races except Texas, there were the same or MORE lead changes in the Spring race.
This, of course, led me to wondering. Could it be that perhaps drivers were being less aggressive during the Chase? So I looked at tracks with two races but neither one of them in The Chase. I added them (and made the graph 3D because it looks cooler that way). The last five races (the ones on the right) are non-Chase races.
So regardless of the race being in or out of the Chase, the first race at a track routinely (with one exception) has an average of seven more lead changes than their latter-season counterpart races. The only difference (and it’s very minor) is that there are an average of 4.75 fewer lead changes Fall vs. Spring in Chase races and an average of 10.4 fewer lead changes in non-chase races.
Finally, I thought it might be helpful to look at the same data for the year before, where we didn’t have the playoff format.
And it’s pretty much the same story. There are fewer lead changes in fall races than spring races in 2013 as well. Recall that the races where cuts were made were Dover, Talladega and Phoenix, and there’s no big standouts there either.
So if you want to quantify racing quality by lead changes, you can’t really make a case that the new format led to more aggressive or better quality racing to any great extent.
I looked at a couple of other parameters as well. I tallied up the number of accidents in each race, counting true accidents as well as spins, but not debris, competition or drunk-people-sitting-on-catchfence cautions. I then compared those Spring vs. Fall. In chase races, there was an average of one more accident in the Fall than the Spring and in non-chase races, there was an average of just about one more accident in the Spring than the Fall. Over the course of the season it average to just about zero, but remember that these are very small numbers of races, so you can’t read too much into the statistics. There would have to be some overwhelming difference in numbers to be convincing.
Next up – looking at Driver Finishes to see if they’re driving more or less aggressively.