How Does Having Seven Road Courses in 2021 Change the Championship Race?

Once upon a time, road courses were the least popular type of racing among NASCAR fans — and also among many drivers.

But that’s changed.

And it’ll change even more given that there are seven road course races on the 2021 NASCAR schedule.

This post is one in a series on how the 2021 NASCAR schedule may affect the championship race. Today, we’re looking at whether having more road courses could make Chase Elliott impossible to beat.

Who Dominates NASCAR Road Courses?

Chase Elliott has been on a winning streak at road courses. How might that help his chances at repeating a championship run in 2021?

I consider all drivers who ran at least 10 Cup-level road-course races in their careers, and who ran at least one race between 2000 and 2020. I use average finishing position as a measure of how well a driver runs.

You expect to see names like Said, Ambrose, Montoya and Allmendinger at the top of the list of best average finishes. Let’s see if our expectations are right.

A column chart showing the average finish for drivers at road courses
  • With an average finish of 8.7, Marcos Ambrose is the top road-course racer in this cohort.
  • But coming up right behind him is Chase Elliott, with an average finish of 8.9.
  • After that, competition drops off a bit.
    • Dale Earnhardt has a 10.2 average finish
    • Mark Martin is at 10.4
    • Tony Stewart finished on average at 10.9
  • Some of the people we might expect to be higher in the chart aren’t.
    • JP Montoya had an average finishing position of 14.9
    • Allmendinger has an average finishing position of 16.5

Caveat: The Bane of Small Numbers

But here’s a problem: Chase Elliott’s numbers are based on 12 races. Ambrose’s numbers are based on 14 races. We’re comparing them to drivers like Jeff Gordon (47 races), Mark Martin (43 races), and Tony Stewart (34 races).

You know the way driver rankings bounce around wildly at the start of the season because you’re averaging a very small number of races?

It’s the same issue here. The larger the number of races in the dataset, the more you can believe the average truly characterizes how well a driver does at a particular type of track.

Here’s a graphical example. I plotted Denny Hamlin’s average road-course finishes as pink bars. I show his average finishing position with the green dots and line.

A chart showing Denny Hamlin's finishes at road courses, with his average finishing position overlaid showing that averages aren't very trustworthy when based on a a small number of points

If you considered only the 12 races from #9 to #20, you’d get a much higher average than if you considered only the last 12 races. That’s the problem with having a small amount of data: it makes predictions less reliable.

That may also contribute to why Allmendinger and Montoya rank lower than you might expect. Allmendinger has run 21 road races and Montoya 14, so they’re on the low end of the numbers.

Caveat 2: New Tracks = Known Unknowns

Since the point is to predict the impact of having seven road courses on 2021, we’ve got one more problem. We’re not racing more races at the same tracks. We’ve got three brand-new tracks.

None of the drivers have raced at Circuit of the Americas or the Indy road course and few have raced (in XFINITY) at Road America.

There’s no guarantee drivers successful at the road courses on previous schedules will also excel at the new tracks. Road courses have much more variation than any other class of track. You never hear anyone talking about ‘cookie cutter‘ road courses.

Keeping those limitations in mind…

Road-Course Winners

Running well is one thing, but NASCAR’s playoff system requires wins. Below, I show the percentages of wins, P2-P5 finishes and P6-10 finishes, as well as DNFs.

A stacked column chart showing the win percentage for drivers at road courses
  • Chase Elliott tops this chart — by a lot
    • He’s won an astonishing 41.3% of the 12 road course races he’s run so far. But again, we don’t know yet if that’s because he’s one of the best road racers ever in NASCAR, or because we’ve got a small dataset.
  • Marcos Ambrose comes out fourth on this list with a 14% win rate
    • But he’s got a remarkable 71.4% top-ten rate and 57% top-five rate. Here’s a guy who always finished well, but didn’t pull off all the wins he might have.
    • You have to take into account that Ambrose ran mostly for underfunded teams.

The Current Competition

Let’s see who else might challenge Chase Elliott on road courses this year. The graph below only includes drivers who ran in 2020.

I put black stars over the drivers we won’t see on track in 2021. That’s significant because #2 on the list of average finishing position at road courses is Clint Bowyer. I never thought of Bowyer as a great road racer, but the stats say otherwise.

A column graph showing the career average finishes of drivers who drove in 2020
  • Elliott has Harvick beat at road courses by an average of 3.7 spots. Harvick’s won two road course races in his career.
  • Ryan Blaney is only 0.6 positions back from Harvick and 4.7 from Elliott.
  • Truex, Jr. is 4.7 spots back in average finishing position, but he’s won four road-course races in his career.
  • Road courses are a weakness for
    • Kyle Busch
    • Denny Hamlin

Another ‘But’

A.J. Allmendinger is running road courses in Cup this year for Kaulig, but he didn’t run in 2020, so he’s not reflected in the above graph. Not only is Allmendinger always a threat to win at road courses, he isn’t running a full Cup schedule. That means he can be a little more aggressive than a driver worried about points.

There are Only Seven Road Courses

Yes. The number of road courses is going way up. But there are still 9 intermediate tracks and 12 short tracks on the schedule.

This next graph is a little busy, but bear with me. I show the 2020 average (not the career average — only how drivers ran in 2020) for each type of track by driver. Drivers are listed in order of overall averaging finishing position from left to right.

A grouped column graph showing leading drivers' average finishes for different types of tracks, based only on 2020 data
As a side note, you can really see what a tough year Kyle Busch at superspeedways and road courses.

Taking Harvick as an example: The graph shows that he does best at the ‘other’ courses (that’s Pocono, Fontana, Indy and Michigan) and that his worst courses last year were road courses and superspeedways.

And note that ‘worst’ for Harvick means average finishing position around 14.

While Elliott has an average finish of 1.0 on road courses in 2020, his record on other types of courses isn’t as good as the first three drivers on the chart. In some cases, it’s significantly worse.

  • Harvick leads at the ‘other’ tracks with a 2.5 average finish.
    • Compare that to Elliott’s average finish of 10. The good news for Chase is that there are only half as many of those tracks this year.
  • Hamlin had a 2.25 average at superspeedways
    • Elliott’s average finish was 15.5. While there’s a huge element of luck at superspeedways, it’s clear that there are some drivers who have developed particular skill at doing well at these tracks.
  • Elliott’s average finish at intermediate tracks is 11.3.
    • Ryan Blaney had a 7.11 average finish at intermediate tracks
    • Martin Truex, Jr. had an average of 7.6.
    • Intermediate tracks make up 25% of the schedule compared with 19.4% for road courses.
  • Elliott had a 12.8 average finish at short tracks, which make up 1/3 of all tracks on the 2021 schedule.
    • Harvick’s average finish was 5.8
    • Next to superspeedways, short tracks are the worst type of track for Elliott. Logano (7.25), Keselowski (8.42), Kyle Busch (8.58) and Hamlin (12.33) all have better finishes at short tracks.

So while there are seven road course races in 2021 and Elliott has been really good at road courses, there are 29 other races on the schedule, including 21 intermediate and short tracks. Elliott’s weaknesses at those tracks are his big challenge for 2021.

‘But playoff points!’ you say? Playoff points help, but they can’t save you from everything. Ask Kevin Harvick.

And there’s only one road course in the playoffs.

Projecting Into an Alternate Reality

Let’s see if we can quantify everything I said above.

I used drivers’ 2020 stats to calculate how much the change in schedule would change their average finishing positions. In the graph below, the actual 2020 average finishing position is shown in dark blue. The light blue bar shows what the average finishing position would be using the 2021 schedule.

I used the drivers’ overall finishing position for the dirt race because I had no better way to model that component.

A projections of average finishes for the track composition of 2021 based on 2020 finishes

If the light blue bar is bigger than the dark-blue bar, it means that the driver would have a worse overall average finishing position. (And vice-versa.)

So: if we assume the driver runs at the same level as in 2020, there are some clear winners from the schedule change.

  • It is true that Elliott benefits the most from the schedule change. His average finish would be 1.5 positions better.
  • But he’s not the only one who has an advantage.
    • Among the likely contenders, Truex, Jr., Logano and Bowman also benefit. And Denny Hamlin a very, very, very little bit.
    • Buescher, Jones and Byron actually benefit even more from the schedule change, although their average finishes were lower.
      • Buescher would have improved 1.75 positions
      • Jones would benefit by 1.7 positions. (He’s in new equipment this year, though)
      • Byron would benefit by 1.52 positions

There are also some clear losers — many of whom are contenders this year

  • Kyle Busch, who had a terrible time with road courses this year, would have been down almost three full positions
  • The next most impacted is Almirola, who would be down a position and a half
  • Harvick is projected to be down 1.2 positions
  • Keselowki would be down 1 position.

One More But:

No one could have predicted that 2019 champion Kyle Busch would have such a disappointing year in 2020. The above requires that drivers drive at about the way they did in 2020.

It’s going to be extremely hard for Elliott to maintain an average finish of ‘1’ over road courses because he’d have to win all seven. Note that Elliott’s average finishing position at Sonoma is 17.5.

His career average at road courses is 8.9. That’s better than any other current driver, but if we use his average instead of his 2020 average, he benefits by only 0.5 positions.

As always, thanks to racing-reference.info for all the stats.

Next: Who’s good at the Intermediate tracks that have become such a major part of the season?

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About Diandra 455 Articles
I'm a recovering academic who writes about the intersection of science and life. I'm interested in AI, advanced prosthetics, robots and anything that goes fast. Author, THE PHYSICS OF NASCAR and Editor, BIOMEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY

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