Does NASCAR Need Qualifying?

I’ve made the argument that NASCAR needs at least a little practice. But what about qualifying? Does it have a place in post-pandemic NASCAR?

The Problem

Racing with the coronavirus forced NASCAR to cancel everything but the race at most tracks. There are a lot of advantages to this, but also some pretty significant disadvantages.

But without qualifying, how do you assign starting positions fairly?

NASCAR’s Solution

In May, NASCAR announced they would determine starting positions using a semi-random draw. The 36 charter teams are divided into three groups of 12 (terciles) based on owner’s points. Non-charter teams comprise the last tercile.

  • Group I is drivers in positions 1-12 by owner’s points
  • Group II: Ditto for positions 13-24
  • Group III: Same for positions 25-36
  • Non-Charter Teams: Positions 37-40

Within each group, starting positions are drawn at random. If you’re in the first group, you have an equal chance at starting in P1 as you do P12. There’s an asymmetry to this: You might not deserve P1, but you could get it. On the other hand, you might deserve P20 — but you can’t start any lower than P12

For double-header weekends, NASCAR set the starting grid for the second race by some creative inversions of the finishing positions of the first race, but there’s still an arbitrary element.

Given the constraints, I think NASCAR is doing the best they can. I can’t complain because I don’t have a better suggestion. (Well, I do, but it involves integrals and running averages. By the time I explained it, the season would be over.)

Some people suggest that we’re doing just fine with qualifying, so maybe we should just drop it. So let’s examine some of the main arguments for eliminating qualifying.

Good Qualifying = Good Pit Stall — But That’s About It

In some ways, qualifying is a little arbitrary.

It’s one lap, run alone, which is hardly indicative of race conditions. At some tracks, there’s less than a tenth of a second between first and fifth place. We’ve got plenty of examples of qualifying where the difference between P1 and P2 was a few thousandths of a second.

So does getting the pole even matter?

Well, we’ve also go margins of victory that are a few thousandths of a second, so I wondered whether there was really any difference between qualifying P1 and P2.

Qualifying P1 vs. P2

I put the finishes of all polesitters from 2006-2019 into the pie chart below.

A pie chart showing where polesitters finish their races

15% of polesitters won their race, and 41% got a top 5 finish.

I repeated the exercise for the second-place qualifiers for the same races.

A Pie Chart showing how often the second-place qualifier wins the race

Surprisingly, only about 8% of the 2nd-place qualifiers win their races. That’s a little more than half as many who qualify in P1.

Is that difference due to the cars that get the poles just being better cars? Maybe. But it might also have something to do with having that first pit box..

Stage Racing

Since we started stage racing in 2017, 1240 cars have won first-stage points.

A stacked column chart showing the fraction of stage points won by those qualifying int he front of the field vs. the middle third

No one starting outside the 12-24 group has ever won a stage-1 point. That includes the times really good cars got sent to the back and eventually made their way to the front. It takes time to pass cars.

In 2017, 75% of the first-stage points went to those qualifying between 1st and 12th. That figure was down to 68% in 2019. This year, we’re currently at 67%, so not much change from last year, even though we don’t have qualifying.

This data suggests that, if you start in the third or fourth groups, there’s no way you’re getting first-stage points. You could argue that the highest-ranked cars usually end up in the top qualifying positions, so there’s no real penalty here to anyone.

Is that true?

Do The Best Drivers Usually Qualify Well?

Every driver has a bad day now and again, so you might expect that there are the rare occasions when the current points leader blows his qualifying lap and starts toward the rear.

But how often is ‘usually’?

Method

  • Because rankings bounce around at the start of the year, I eliminated data from the first five races.
  • I eliminated races where the driver was unranked, or ranked higher than 40th because that usually meant they were running a partial season or not running for points.
  • I counted up all the combinations of ranking and qualifying position throughout the drivers’ careers.
  • I learned how to make bubble plots.

The Best Drivers

The following charts show driver rank at the time of the race vs. starting position. (I know the NASCAR scheme uses owners points, but for the drivers we’re talking about here, they’re the same thing.)

The size of each bubble tells you how many times that particular combination has happened. The smallest dots represent once.

Jimmie Johnson

When considering ‘best’ drivers, it’s hard not to start with Jimmie Johnson.

A bubble chart showing qualifying vs. rank for Jimmie Johnson

The grey squares show the cases in which the ranking matches the starting position. That is, when ranked 1-12, Johnson qualified 1-12. This graph shows that there are a LOT of times when Jimmie is ranked 1-12, yet qualifies higher than 12th.

  • When Jimmie ranks 1st-12th:
    • 65.3% of the time, he qualifies 1st – 12th
    • 25.5% of the time, he qualifies 13th – 24th
    • 6.8% of the time, he qualifies 25th-36th
    • There was 2.5% of the time where he started 37th or beyond.

So while Jimmie ‘often’ qualified’ in the 1-12 spot, I wouldn’t call 65% of the time ‘usually’.

And it works the other way around, too.

  • When Jimmie ranks 13th – 24th:
    • 41.3% of the time, he qualifies 1st – 12th
    • 49.2% of the time, he qualifies 13th – 24th
    • 7.9% of the time, he qualifies 25th-36th
    • He started 37th or beyond 1.6% of the time

Kyle Busch

Kyle stats look very much like Jimmie’s. Neither one of them spent a large fraction of their career ranked outside the top 15

A bubble chart showing qualifying vs. rank for Kyle Busch
  • When Kyle ranks 1st through 12th
    • He qualifies 1st through 12th 64% of the time.
    • 25.3% of the time he qualifies 13th-24th
  • But when Kyle ranks 13th-24th he is actually more likely to qualify 1st-12th (44.9%) than 13th – 24th (39.1%)

Kyle is more likely to qualify better than his ranking than at his ranking when ranked in the second group.

Most of the top-tier drivers (your Harvicks, Keselowskis, Truex, Jrs., Hamlins, etc.) have similar numbers.

Mid-Tier Drivers

The mid-tier drivers’ records look a little different. Taking Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. as typical of this group, you see a different type of graph.

A bubble chart showing qualifying vs. rank for Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.

Stenhouse, Jr. usually ranks between 13th and 24th.

  • 60% of the time, he qualifies in the middle group
  • 28.5% of the time, he qualifies in the first group.
  • He lands in the third qualifying group 10.1% of the time

What’s different here is that, which both the top and middle groups sometimes qualify below their ranking, the middle group also has the opportunity to qualify above their ranking. With the current scheme, there’s no way for them to do that. If there were qualifying, about 30% of the time, they would.

Non-Charter Teams

The guys who are really out of luck with this set up are the non-charter teams. You can argue that this is a needed benefit for having a charter, but one of the big positives about NASCAR is that a long-shot team can come into a race like Talladega or a road course and qualify well.

But I can’t help feeling a little bad for those drivers. They’re already at a disadvantage being an underfunded team, and being relegated to the back only makes it that much harder.

Conclusion

The best drivers often qualify in the best positions, where ‘often’ means about 65% of the time. The second-tier of drivers qualify in the second tier of positions about 60-65% of the time.

But that’s not ‘usually’, which suggests there is more to qualifying than we’ve been appreciating. I hope, when conditions are safe again, NASCAR will bring qualifying back.

If you’re a fantasy race, you should want qualifying back because it gives you additional data to make your team selections. The data show that there is an advantage to qualifying first over second, and we’ve got the issue of winning first-stage points as well.

If you’re in the 1st to 12th place in owner points (or a fan of those teams), you’re getting an advantage with this system because you’re more likely to score first-stage points. You’re also less likely to find yourself in the back of the field and caught up in a mess like there was last week on pit road at Indy.

If your team is in 13th or higher, you should want qualifying back because your team at least has the opportunity of starting closer to the front and gaining the advantages of that spot.

And if you’re a non-charter team, you really want qualifying back.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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