Does NextGen Testing Prove NASCAR has Leveled the Playing Field?

NextGen testing provides a slew of information, including candid driver comments and statistics. But without being on the inside, what can we really infer from all this data?

Fastest Laps from Daytona NextGen Test

I’ve graphed the fastest laps from the recent NextGen testing at Daytona below. Some unexpected names top the speed charts. I used the same range on the y-axis so we can compare the sessions, and suppressed the zero to make speed differences more apparent.

  • A vertical bar chart showing the fastest laps by each driver in the NextGen car test of Jan 11, 2022 (1st Session)
  • A vertical bar chart showing the fastest laps by each driver in the NextGen car test of Jan 11, 2022 (2nd Session)
  • A vertical bar chart showing the fastest laps by each driver in the NextGen car test of Jan 12, 2022
  • You can see how the speeds improved from day 1 to day 2
  • Harrison Burton (Wood Brothers) was top of class for the 1st and 3rd sessions, beating out more experienced drivers like Joey Logano, Kurt Busch and even Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
  • Spire Motorsports driver Corey LaJoie was faster than Denny Hamlin.
  • Cup newcomer Austin Cindric was at or near the top of charts all three sessions

Do these NextGen test results prove that smaller, less-well-funded teams and rookie drivers will have an equal chance of winning races in 2022?

Sadly, no.

Here’s why.

There’s No Tech at Testing

It’s a good rule of thumb not to take any NextGen testing data too seriously if the session didn’t include inspection. Were I a crew chief, I’d be making big swings, including running what I know are illegal setups just to get a feel for what this car ‘likes’. Because setting up a car is essentially a huge set of compromises, you want to know which parameters are most sensitive and which aren’t.

And there’s always the possibility that a setup that would have been horrible on a Gen-6 car works well on the NextGen. Testing is the only way teams have to verify the results of their computational models. Given reduced practice lengths, time at the track has to be focused on tuning for that race.

It’s Not a Race

“We were racing like we were coming to the end of the Daytona 500. I don’t know why we do that, but it’s a race. It’s race cars and it’s on a race track, it turns into a race and we race each other.”

Joey Logano

Racecar drivers are so competitive they will bump draft each other on the way to the airport. But there’s nothing at stake here. Add to that concerns about having enough cars ready to get through the first part of the season, and no driver was going to be very aggressive. Also, the field was less than half its normal size, and most of the top drivers sat this testing session out.

Some Gaps are Too Big to Close

One of the stats I started examining last year was lap times. It’s a little tricky because you have to weed out cautions and up-to-speed laps if you want a true reflection of each driver’s performance in a race. I’ve got a reasonably good (but admittedly not perfect) algorithm for that now.

So let’s take a look at the data for last fall’s Las Vegas race. On the graph below:

  • Each drivers’ fastest lap is a red triangle
  • Average lap times are blue dots.
  • The blue lines are drawn so that about 2/3 of all the drivers’ laps fall within those times.

This gives us a picture of each driver’s best performance and his average performance in the race.

Most drivers are remarkably close in times

  • 18 drivers have median lap times between 31.55-32.00 seconds. There’s only 45/100 of a second differentiating the drivers between Denny Hamlin and C. Bell.
  • 30 drivers posted median lap times below 32.3 seconds. That’s 30 drivers within 75 hundredths of each other.

But then we have the last eight drivers, who are way (way) off the pace.

  • The first of these drivers was 4/10 of a second slower than the slowest of the first 30 drivers. That’s just a little less than the difference between the first and the 18th driver ,
  • The slowest driver was almost three seconds per lap slower than the fastest driver, and about two seconds per lap slower than the 30th fastest driver.

The same pattern holds for every track we run. It’s a little more pronounced at some races (Hi, Texas!) and a little less at road courses.

Note on Fall Richmond: Kurt Busch has the best average lap time because he only ran four laps before crashing.

The NextGen will tighten things up even more amongst those top 30 teams, but the teams running in the back in 2021 are going to be running in the back in 2022 barring significant changes.

There’s More to Racing than The Car

During the off-season, I’ve dug into pit stops. Here, I present only the time in the box and not the time getting on or off pit road. Again, this is a tricky stat because some four-tire stops include adjustments and some don’t. To get an idea of each team’s potential best performance, I use the fastest four-tire pit stop. I exclude any stops that incur penalties.

Here’s the data for the championship race last year.

A vertical bar chart with a suppressed zero showing the times for the best 4-tire pitstops at the 2021 Fall Phoenix race by team
I suppressed the zero so differences can be distinguished. We’re talking seconds, but we saw in 2021 that a few seconds on pit road can make the difference between winning a championship and not.

We see the same type of time increase here as we did in lap time, albeit more gradually.

  • 2 teams had a four-tire pit stop time of 12 seconds or under
  • 14 teams had a four-tire pit stop time of 13 seconds or under
  • 25 teams had a four-tire pit stop time of 14 seconds or under
  • The teams at the very end were so long I cut them off because it made it harder to see the rest of the data
    • The 66 retired after their first pit stop
    • The 13’s fastest pit stop was 23.76 seconds
    • The 00’s fastest pit stop was 21.25 seconds

Teams that can’t pull off a four-tire pitstop in less than 17 seconds are clearly not going to be competitive. But even if you’re the 99, with a very respectable best performance of 14 seconds, you’re always going to lose positions to the 18 because they’re two seconds faster. Drivers further to the right have more pit road speeding penalties: perhaps because they are trying to compensate for having a slower pit crew.

But That Was Just One Race

Okay. So let’s average the best four-tire pit stops from each race for each team to get the graph below. I cut off the y-axis at 18 second, which leaves the last 9 cars out of the analysis.

A vertical bar chart with suppressed zero showing the average of all the fastest four-tire pit stops over 35 races.
I again suppressed the zero to make the differences more apparent. Apologies to Quin Houff for having only one zero on his car number. There was no way for NASCAR to anticipate computers when they started number cars, but I curse the 00, 07, etc. every time I have to treat car numbers as strings.

Top honors in this metric go to

  • Stewart Haas’s #4 (Harvick) at 13.01 seconds
  • The #9 of Elliott is second with an average of 13.06 seconds
  • Gibbs comes in third and fourth with Truex, Jr. (13.07) and Ky Busch (13.09)

These four top teams are separated by 8 hundredths of a second.

The fifth fastest team (Hendrick’s #5) came in with an average time of 13.31, which shows that the most important quality for a pit crew is to be really really good when it really, really counts.

If you’re Cole Custer or one of the drivers to the right of him, you must overcome a huge disadvantage relative to teams with better pit crews. There’s no indication that the NextGen car is going to make pitstops any less competitive.

By Team

I was surprised to see the Stewart Haas #41 car so far back given that their #4 was had the fastest pit crew and the #10 had the 6th average fastest pitstop. I color coded the chart below by team to look for patterns by team.

A vertical bar chart that uses different colors for different teams
All of the Ford teams are some shade of blue; Chevrolet teams are red and Toyota teams are orange.

If you question why teams sometimes switch pit crews for the playoffs, this graph shows that all pit crews — even ones working for the same owner — are not created equal.

  • Penske is the most consistent, with their pit crews coming in a positions 9, 10 and 11 all within 0.1 second of each other.
  • Hendrick (2, 5, 7 and 12) and Gibbs (3, 4, 8 and 13) have a broader span, but are still have all four teams in the top 13.
  • Stewart Haas has the widest distribution with teams finishing in positions 1 (#4), 6 (#10), 21 (#14) and 32 (#41)
  • Roush Fenway: 15 and 18
  • Richard Childress: 14 and 28
  • Ganassi: 16 and 27

So even the very best companies have have a wide distribution of pit crew quality. There are no signs that the NextGen car will make pit stops any less competitive, which means that the richest teams will put even more money into getting the best pit crew members.

Conclusions

Your hackles* should go up anytime you see the words ‘testing proves’, If there’s no tech, less than a full field, and nothing at stake, the stats may be interesting, but they are likely not meaningful. These exercises are for NASCAR and the teams, not fans and outside analysts.

The NextGen car may level the playing field among top-25 teams, but underfunded teams will still have a hard time competing. Even if you put everyone in identical cars, money buys driver, engineering and pit-crew talent.

The only way to solve the pit crew differential is capping teams’ expenditures. For instance, a salary ceiling might distribute some talent. But the weakest link is the limiting factor in any team. Spending a ton on a jackman, for example, isn’t worth it if you can’t surround him with other crew members of the same caliber.

TIL

*TIL: People don’t have hackles. Hackles are ‘erectile plumage or hair in the neck area of some birds and mammals’.

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