Did Drivers Drive Differently During the Chase? I: Lead Changes

The primary motivation for all the changes to the Chase format was to up the excitement factor – the “game seven moments” as NASCAR brass put it. While the fact of the matter is that you can’t guarantee excitement, all the machinations put in place definitely increased the stakes of the chase races.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the increased stakes spurred the drivers to be more aggressive and that resulted in better racing.  To be sure, we had a couple notable off-track incidents. It’s pretty surprising when Matt Kenseth loses his cool. But what about on-track?

Lead Changes

I started thinking about how you would measure that.  My first inclination was to look at lead changes. If drivers are being more aggressive, there ought to be more lead changes in Chase races than in other races. Now, comparing this is a little tricky.  You can’t compare a Talladega (where the ever-shifting lanes of cars trade the lead, resulting in hundreds of lead changes) to a Martinsville or a Charlotte.

But there are eight tracks in the Chase that have races earlier in the season.  What about them? I looked at how many lead changes there were at each track in the Fall, then compared that to the Spring. Kudos, as always to racing-reference.info for putting all this data at my fingertips. I took the difference, so that a negative number means that there were more lead changes in the Spring and a positive number means there were more lead changes in the Fall.

For example, At Loudon, there were 18 lead changes in the Spring race, but only 10 lead changes in the Fall race, so you get a bar going down of magnitude (18-10=) 8. Surprisingly, For all races except Texas, there were the same or MORE lead changes in the Spring race.

BSPEED_ChasePlayoffFormat_2014

This, of course, led me to wondering. Could it be that perhaps drivers were being less aggressive during the Chase? So I looked at tracks with two races but neither one of them in The Chase. I added them (and made the graph 3D because it looks cooler that way). The last five races (the ones on the right) are non-Chase races.

BSPEED_ChasePlayoffFormat_SFALL

 

So regardless of the race being in or out of the Chase, the first race at a track routinely (with one exception) has an average of seven more lead changes than their latter-season counterpart races. The only difference (and it’s very minor) is that there are an average of 4.75 fewer lead changes Fall vs. Spring in Chase races and an average of 10.4 fewer lead changes in non-chase races.

Finally, I thought it might be helpful to look at the same data for the year before, where we didn’t have the playoff format.

BSPEED_ChasePlayoffFormat_2013vs2014

And it’s pretty much the same story. There are fewer lead changes in fall races than spring races in 2013 as well.  Recall that the races where cuts were made were Dover, Talladega and Phoenix, and there’s no big standouts there either.

So if you want to quantify racing quality by lead changes, you can’t really make a case that the new format led to more aggressive or better quality racing to any great extent.

I looked at a couple of other parameters as well. I tallied up the number of accidents in each race, counting true accidents as well as spins, but not debris, competition or drunk-people-sitting-on-catchfence cautions. I then compared those Spring vs. Fall. In chase races, there was an average of one more accident in the Fall than the Spring and in non-chase races, there was an average of just about one more accident in the Spring than the Fall. Over the course of the season it average to just about zero, but remember that these are very small numbers of races, so you can’t read too much into the statistics. There would have to be some overwhelming difference in numbers to be convincing.

Next up – looking at Driver Finishes to see if they’re driving more or less aggressively.

5 Comments

  1. I think that driver “behavior” spring vs fall at a given series of tracks (Chase venues in this case) has more to do with the need to be more aggressive prior to race 27 to be sure the results deliver a Top-16 ranking after the first 26. Once the Chase starts, a different mind-set is employed, with the main goal of being above the cut at each elimination point. I’ve felt for a long time that there ought to be some provision in the points calculation (and this could be done for JUST the Chasers) to have a bonus structure for TOTAL LAPS LED (please, Green Flag ONLY) in the final 10 races–this would further intensify the need to fight to get to or be at the front, rather than not taking risks that can otherwise be justified, based on how the rest of the Chase teams perform, week to week, once the Chase starts, and a ranking forms prior to the first “cut”. The heavy media focus on the Chase participants, once it starts, as far as coverage–compared to those NOT in the Chase, is a good argument for this added element in the method(s) to improve and enhance the path to the Cup.

    • Interesting idea, Bill. My only concern about leading laps is that it’s a very different parameter at plate races than at other races. My personal opinion is that it doesn’t reflect driver ability because so much of it is the luck of being in the right line. the other problem is accessibility. NASCAR, in its quest to broaden its fan base, has worked very hard to make the points structure understandable to the casual fan. Devoted fans are willing to dive into complicated scoring schemes if that ensures that the best driver wins. Casual fans are generally not. Hence the (over?)simplifications. Thanks so much for reading and offering your opinion!

  2. I remember years ago, Bob Latford made himself accessible by a newsletter, and whether by mail or a phone conversation, I asked him about some of the decisions made about the point structure that he penciled out for the Winston era. I’m vague on specifics (what I asked and what his response was) but the gist of the conversation was that there needed to be some crumbs left for the teams at the lower end of the points order–it probably was about awarding points for leading during a yellow flag period. The 10-race Chase format does as much or more harm to the lesser teams by putting the focus of each event on fewer and fewer cars/drivers/teams as the Chase advances and the elimination process narrows down “who will be Champion” from 16 to 4 with the possibility to be Champion–at least it creates a situation that ensures the Championship is not decided until the final race. It’s a bit contrived, and (in my opinion) it does NOT afford the 4 drivers/teams with the BEST OVERALL PERFORMANCE for the season the opportunity to go head-to-head in the Championship finale–to me, that would have been 2, 4, 22, and 24–11 and 31 would have been out in the elimination process. I say this based on putting the Chase on it’s own points scale, which has been mentioned as something at least some drivers have indicated they would support, I’m close to being off-topic, but the points system itself has much to do with how drivers approach each event (ie. why does a driver do things differently from a strategic standpoint in the regular season vs Chase), In truth, I would like to eliminate points altogether, and have average finish for the season, plus a mandatory “must win a points race” kicker to identify those eligible for Championship–there remains a shortcoming that allows someone to advance to the finale (and to potentially win the Championship) with no wins–finish 2nd in every race and beat the other 3 in the finale, but still not win. The Chase ought to be for winners, with a 3-race finale rather than one race weekend–best average finish for the Final Four format, but all of the other (12) eliminated drivers fall back into the points format for everyone else once they’re out–2014 brought us a Rookie of the Year who would have finished well above 17th if not for the “gift” the Top-16 points format creates, Nothing against 43, 47, etc, but Larson, though not a winner, kicked those guys and others regularly, and it’s not reflected in the final standings. I know that’s a lot to absorb, and I’m way off the reservation as far as focus on the original topic, but I hope it creates some food for thought in your further analysis.

  3. The Chase (espacially the 2014 Chase) is everything, but understandable. Out of 11 past Chases 6 or 7-times the actual champion scored less points during the whole season (race points added without the reset bulls….) than somebody else behind them in the Chase standings. How can I, as a simple fan understand this? Then this year I take a look at the standings in the Chase, and see the points reset three times. What is this? Auto racing is not football. NO need for play-offs, especially no need for something that isn’t even close to being a real play-off. Funny, the track owners are forced to remove seats, the TV ratings are at an all-time low and NASCAR still not trying to treat the viewers, but drive them away with changes that are not only unpopular, but I would say bad for the sport.

  4. Andy: I’m with you about the points resetting. It worked out this year and everyone was happy. I wonder what would have happened if Newman had won (with no wins) and how much of an outcry there would have been.
    You have two options when dealing with the way the world is changing: try to keep it from changing or go with it. Just like in education we’ve got terrible grade inflation and student come and beg for the next highest grade and justify it by saying that they deserve it because they worked hard, sports are in the position of having to attract viewers by making everything high stakes. Traditionalists are turned off by this approach, but I’m pretty sure we’re in the minority.

    At this point, I just hope they stop changing the format so frequently.

    Thanks for stopping by the blog.

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