Did NASCAR’s Short-Track Package Solve its Short-Track Problem?

Although Sunday’s race at Phoenix was encouraging, one data point is not enough evidence to prove that NASCAR’s short-track package has solved its short-track problem. I guarantee you that the engineers at the NASCAR R&D Center did not take Monday off to celebrate: they were analyzing race data.

Steve O’Donnell was cautiously optimistic.

We’ve got the best engineers in the world, so they’ll go back and study what worked and where maybe they could make a difference. But certainly, I feel like this is a good platform to start off our short track package and what we kind of what wanted to see as we head off and go to Martinsville and Richmond and see what we can do there. But all in all, I thought it was really good.

Steve O’Donnell via Kelly Crandall, Racer.com

The Short-Track Package at Phoenix

I thought the race was exceptional — and the statistics back me up. First the numbers, then we’ll talk about whether ‘exceptional’ is a good thing.

Lots of Lead Changes and Passing

Although we can’t really quantify the bumping and banging that is characteristic of short-track racing, there were definitely a lot of lead changes in the Phoenix race. Here’ I’ve broken them down into yellow flag and green flag.

A stacked column chart comparing green- and yellow-flag lead changes

While there were 20 lead changes with the new short-track package, 10 of those happened under a yellow flag. Still, the 10 green-flag changes is more than we’ve seen since 2011.

Let’s look at the data another way. Here’s all the data we have on Phoenix spring races for total lead change, green-flag lead changes, and green-flag passes per lap. The red arrows indicate the 2020 race.

How to Read Box Plots

  • The red (or yellow) line represents the median (the middle value).
  • Fifty percent of all races fall within the box.
  • The whiskers show you the full range of ‘typical’ values.
  • Values far outside the norm are represented by dots.
  • I’ve put the average (or mean, which is different than the median) in red at the bottom of each box plot.

More on box plots

A box plot showing total lead changes, green-flag lead changes and green-flag passes per lap

In all three cases, the 2020 race with the new short-track package was better-than-average to exceptional.

  • The 20 total lead changes places this race just at the 75th percentile for spring races at Phoenix.
  • There were 10 green-flag lead changes, which places it well above average. Note that I didn’t include the 2011 race with 21 green-flag lead changes because it squished up the rest of the graph.
  • There were 9.2 green flag passes per lap on average, which well above the previous record of 7.3.

Cautions

But there’s another way the Phoenix race was exceptional and that was in terms of cautions.

A box plot of number of cautions, number of caution laps and percentage of the race run under cautions.
  • The 12 cautions we had was the largest ever for a spring race at Phoenix
  • So were the 73 caution laps. The next highest number of cautions was the 2010 race with 53 caution laps — and that’s an exception because that race was 378 laps. Among races scheduled for 312 laps, the record was 57. That was in 2019.
  • This race also set a new record for percentage of race taken up by cautions: 23.1%. The previous record was 18.2%, again in 2019

Finishing

The race was also exceptional in terms of the overall finishes of the field, as shown in the box plot below.

Boxplots showing: percent of cars finishing on the lead lap, percent of cars finishing the race and number of cars one lap down.
  • The 2020 race had the highest percentage of cars finishing on the lead lap: 71%
  • The 2020 race had the lowest percentage of cars finishing the race: 79%. There were nine accidents and eight DNFs. I haven’t gone back yet to count accidents, but just given that this was an exceptional number of cars to DNF, I’m betting that this was a record number of accidents.
  • Interestingly, there were NO cars finishing a lap down. Or two laps down, for that matter. Cars were either on the lead lap, or many laps down.

Short-Track Package Hypotheses

Here are a couple things that could be happening.

  • The new short-track package has solved all of the problems we had last year. That may be true, even though we can’t say for sure after one race. The upcoming races at Martinsville and Richmond (two other tracks that had issues last year) could disprove this theory, but even if they are successful, that may not be enough to prove it.
  • Given that this was the drivers’ first experience with the short-track package, and the large number of accidents, this race might be exceptional because it’s the first step on the learning curve. If this is true (and given how fast NASCAR teams learn), they may have mastered the package by the time they return for the championship. Remember that it’s been a long time since we had a championship race at a track we’ve already visited that year.
  • The 2020 Phoenix race might just have been an exceptional race for reasons that had little or nothing to do with the short-track package. Remember that races range in character due to many factors: PJ1, new tires, even driver moods.

I’ll revisit this question after the next few short-track races, when we have a little more data.

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