Which Drivers Improve their Finishing Positions in Doubleheaders?

How has eliminating practices affected finishing positions in NASCAR races? Unfortunately, we can’t create a parallel, COVID-free universe as a control system to answer the question.

However, COVID has forced NASCAR to run four weekends with Cup races on successive days. So, ahead of this weekend’s Dover doubleheader, we can ask which drivers used their experience in race 1 to improve their finishing position in race 2.

Methodology

As usual, all of our data comes from the good folks at racing-reference.info.

The four weekends are:

  • Darlington (races 5 & 6)
  • Charlotte (races 7 & 8)
  • Pocono (races 14 & 15)
  • Michigan (races 21 & 22)

I only included drivers who ran all eight races.

I eliminated pairs of races in which the driver had a DNF because they skew the data. Jimmie Johnson gained 30 positions at Darlington II relative to Darlington I — but only because he crashed out in Darlington I.

Data: Finishing Positions

I averaged total positions gained or lost over the four weekends.

  • A positive number means the driver finished better in the second race
  • A negative number means they finished worse
A column chart showing the average gain or loss in finishing position from race 1 to race 2 of a doubleheader

I divided the drivers into three groups:

  • Drivers in red group had net worse finishes in second races
  • Green bars show drivers who had net better finishes in second races
  • Drivers in the blue group had small changes

Surprisingly, the last group was more interesting than you might think.

The Small Changers

I hadn’t expected to see some of the series leaders (Harvick, Keselowski) in this section. But the guys who almost always run near the front don’t have much room to improve. Harvick won four of the eight races considered here. These guys just consistently run well.

The same goes for drivers on underfunded teams: They consistently run in the same place, too. Thus they have small changes.

Then there are the drivers who are in this group because they had big changes, but in different directions at different tracks.

For example, Kyle Busch came out even. That’s interesting in light of his comments about how lack of practice has affected his performance. He gained 24 positions at Darlington and lost 25 at Charlotte. He crashed in Pocono II and gained one point during the Michigan weekend. I put the crashed weekend stats into the graph below for completeness.

Kyle Busch's finishing positions
The shaded block represents a race in which Kyle crashed. That weekend wasn’t used for calculating the numbers here. I put it in for the same of completeness.

I’ll come back to Kyle’s argument about the lack of practices in the analysis at the end. I don’t think this data necessarily proves he’s wrong. But it may point to something he needs to work on.

The Gainers

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. made the most improvements first race to second race of all drivers. He crashed in Darlington I, so that weekend isn’t included. He made an average improvement of almost 12 positions per race on the other three weekends.

Other drivers making significant gains were:

  • William Byron (+10)
  • Denny Hamlin (+9)
  • Joey Logano (+8.5)
  • Chase Elliott (+6.7)
  • Austin Dillon (+6.3)
  • Ryan Newman (+5.8)
  • Matt DiBenedetto (+5.5)

Corey LaJoie and Jimmie Johnson just snuck into this section. Johnson has an asterisk because he crashed in two races, giving us only two datapoints.

The Losers

Erik Jones lost an average of almost 10 positions from first to second race (with one set of races dropped). He’s followed by:

  • Chris Buscher (-7.3)
  • John Hunter Nemeheck (-6.0)
  • Tyler Reddick (-5.8)
  • Cole Custer (-5.3)
  • Ryan Blaney (-5.0)
  • Matt Kenseth (-4.0)
  • Alex Bowman (-6.3)

These are mostly less experienced drivers (with three rookies and Kenseth, who wasn’t driving last year at all). And being in this section doesn’t mean you’re not having a great year: Blaney finished 3rd in both Charlotte races and is currently ranked 5th.

Does Driver Ranking Matter?

I plotted average position change vs. current driver ranking to see if there were any trends with driver ranking.

A column chart showing average change in finishing positions vs. driver ranking
I used the drivers’ current rankings for this chart.

As I noted above, those drivers who run consistently in the same range of positions (whether that be up front, in the middle, or in the back) have small changes.

But even highly ranked drivers experience big gains (Hamlin, Elliott, and Logano) and significant decreases (Blaney).

Race-by-Race

Another way of looking at improvement is to consider how many races showed finishing position improvement. I plotted the percentage of races improved to account for DNFs.

The percentage of doubleheader races where the driver improved his finishing position

Yellow bars indicate that we had two pair of races, orange bars indicate three and blue means all four weekends were used.

  • Five drivers finished worse in race 2 than race 1 for all the pair of races analyzed.
  • Six drivers showed improvements in every race.
    • Five of those drivers were also in the top gainers in terms of points.
    • Johnson’s data is based on only the two available pairs of races, so take that into account.
  • 13 drivers improved in less than 50% of their races
  • 14 drivers improved in more than 50% of their races
  • 6 drivers were right at the 50/50 mark

Percentage of Top-15 Laps

If one driver finishes higher, another driver must finish lower. I chose to look at percetage of laps run in the top 15 because it’s more a reflection of your performance across the whole race.

Only 7 drivers improved their top-15-lap percentage in 3 of the 4 weekends. Three drivers overlap with our list of top gainers:

  • Logano
  • DiBenedetto
  • Byron

I show the numbers for Matt DiBenedetto below. He went down at Darlington, but increased everywhere else.

Matt DiBenedetto's improvement in the percentage of top 15 laps

Discussion

Clearly, some teams are doing fine without any practice. This analysis shows that other teams are good at improving their car based on what happens during a race. Overall, I’d claim that:

Teams that do well without practice:

  • Come to the track with the car set up well and don’t need to adjust much.
  • Come to the track with an OK set up and are able to fix issues during races
  • Have drivers capable of wheeling even a pretty poorly set-up car.

The first of these (car setup) is the purview of the crew chief and engineering staff. If you come to the track with your setup way off, it’s going to be hard to fix. If you have teammates that are running well, you might be able to use their experiences to improve your car.

The third one is all on the driver, of course. It is possible to set up a car so badly that not even the best driver in the world could put it in the top 15.

The second issue — improving your car during a race — depends on the driver AND the Crew Chief. Giving feedback during practice when teams can A/B changes and being passed doesn’t mean anything is one thing. Trying to provide meaningful feedback on the car while in traffic where losing positions might keep you out of the playoffs is quite another. I mean, I lose my ability to hold a coherent conversation while driving in heavy Beltway traffic.

I conclude the following from this analysis

  • Less-experienced drivers might not be as good as providing feedback during a race as more experienced drivers.
  • More experienced crew chiefs are probably better at making use of feedback during a race than newer crew chiefs.
  • A strong driver/crew-chief pairing, where the crew chief can tell what’s going on from the way the driver responds as well as what words he uses have an advantage.
  • Some drivers who may be expert at providing feedback during practice have their head so much in competition during a race that they can’t provide as much useful feedback.

RANDOM OBSERVATION: It is interesting that Hamlin is the only Toyota whose improved his finishing positions. With only five Toyotas, it’s hard to draw a conclusion.

I’ve argued that there are a lot of good reasons to have at least one practice, one of the biggest being just a chance to shake out the car. But given fiscal realities and the continuing issues with COVID-19, it’s realistic that NASCAR will choose to not go back to three- or even two-practice weekends.

That will make a drivers’ ability to fix a car on the fly even more important. If you’re doing well right now, you probably don’t want practices to return, because there are plenty of drivers struggling without them.

It will also disadvantage new drivers and crew chiefs and probably even new pairings of established drivers and crew chiefs. Decreased practice will make the driver-crew chief relationship even more important than it is already.

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