NASCAR: Did Toyota’s New Car Give them the Advantage in 2017?

Advantage Toyota?

NASCAR’s perennial challenge is keeping manufacturers’ cars even so that no one has an unfair advantage. There is no denying that Toyota had a great 2017. Some people would say that’s because Martin Truex, Jr. had a great 2017. Others think their new car gave them an unfair advantage that precluded anyone else from getting close.

Keselowski Tweet

“When that car rolled out at Daytona, and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there (were) two reactions: One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it; and two, we were impressed by the design team over there. I don’t think anyone ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved.”  –via NBCSports

Toyota won 16 races in 2017 — including 8 out of the 10 chase races.

A Valid Objection?

Toyota had a new car in 2017, Chevrolet rolls out a new car this year, but Ford will be running the same model they ran in 2017. A new car always offers an opportunity to get ahead; but the possible advantage of a new car is greater right now because of the recent aero-tweaking of the rules.

As Kevin Harvick pointed out, the Fusion body was designed assuming it would carry a big ole spoiler on the back. Any new car design would tbe optimized for the smaller spoiler and decreased downforce of the current rules.

Unlike Keselowksi, Harvick was full of pre-season optimism.

“We could be in a position to where we have some balance issues with the race car, but if we are going to have a problem at SHR and we put it on our aero department, I will put that up against anybody,”  — via ESPN

Keselowski Had a Good 2017

Brad Keselowski is a racer. I suspect the only way he would call 2017 a ‘good’ season would be if he had won the championship.

He finished 4th. Since I’m the one who’s always saying we have to look at things in the context of the long term, let’s chart wins, top 5s, top 10s and poles. I include data since 2010, which was his first full-time season.

There was nothing wildly anomalous about Mr. Keselowski’s 2017 season relative to the year before.

  • One fewer win (3 in 2017 vs 4 in 2016)
  • One fewer top 5 (16 vs 15)
  • One fewer top 10 (22 vs 21)
  • One more pole (2 vs 1)

What about on the other end?

  • One more finish 30th or higher (5 in 2017 vs 4 in 2016)
  • One more finish 20th or higher (7 vs 6)

And a couple more random notes:

  • Failed to complete 5 races in 2017 compared to 3 in 2016.
    • All 5 of the races he didn’t finish in 2017 were due to crashes and all 5 crashes were in non-Chase races
    • 2 of the 3 races he didn’t finish in 2016 were due to crashes and 1 to an engine failure. All three DNFs were during The Chase.
  • Lead lap finished in 28 races in 2017 vs. 30 races in 2016

Despite fewer wins, top 5s and top 10s, he finished 4th in 2017 and 12th in 2016. This is due to the elimination format. He was eliminated early in 2016 because he DNF’ed in 2/3 races in the second set of races. The eliminate format makes comparing final positions a little iffy.

Okay, you say, but isn’t that expected? He’s running the same car in 2017 as he was in 2016.

Was Toyota Just That Much Better in 2017?

Winning

Winning is everything, so let’s start there to see if Toyota’s new car gave them an advantage. I went back 5 years because that’s the first year after Dodge left NASCAR, so we’re comparing only the three current manufacturers. The chart below shows the percentage of races won each year by manufacturer. Chevy is red, Ford is blue and Toyota is yellow.

Percent Wins by Manufacturer

 

Sidebar: What’s With 2014?

2014 is an anomaly because of the fallout from the Richmond debacle of 2013 and Napa’s subsequent withdrawal of their sponsorship.

  • The Richmond Incident led to the decline and ultimate demise of MWR. They won no races that year.
  • Martin Truex, Jr. left MWR and went to Furniture Row Racing, which was a Chevy team at the time.
  • Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin each only won one race that year.

Back to the Story

Ignoring 2014 as an anomaly, we can draw the following generalizations for the last five years of racing:

  • Toyota consistently wins about 40-45% of all the races. (10-16 out of 36)
  • Ford wins between 15 and 30% of races (6-10 out of 36), with the trend being upward
  • Chevy wins between 30 and 45% of races (10-16 out of 36), with the trend being downward.

If we plot the last three years to eliminate the weirdness that was 2014, we can see the trends better.

Manufacturer Winning Trends 2015-2017

Are the Wrong Guys Upset?

Are you seeing what I’m seeing?

Toyota’s had pretty consistent numbers throughout the years. In fact, they won the same number of races in 2016 as they did in 2017, which makes it hard to suggest they have an unfair advantage this year due to the new Camry.

Looks to me like the data suggest it’s Chevy that oughta be worried, not Ford.

Place, Show and More

I also looked at how the manufacturers were distributed in the top 10 drivers standings at the end of the year.

On average, over the period 2013-2017

  • Toyota has an average of 3.4 drivers in the top 10 (upward trend)
  • Ford has an average of 2.2 drivers in the top 10
  • Chevy has an average of 4.4 drivers in the top 10

Same thing for the top 20:

 

  • Chevy has an average of 10 drivers in the top 20 (about 50%; upward until this year)
  • Ford has an average of 5.4 drivers in the top 20 (about 26%)
  • Toyota has an average of 4.8 drivers in the top 20 (about 24%; upward trend)

This is sort of interesting in terms of advantage. Even though Chevy has a decline in winning trends, they are (until this year) maintaining their strength in top 10s and top 20 rankings. There are a couple things to take into consideration.

  • Retirements and Rookies
    • Chevy’s lost a number of veteran drivers in the last few years: Stewart, Earnhardt, Jr. and Gordon come to mind.
    • Most new drivers take a few years to start winning consistently. Hendrick is three young ‘uns + Jimmie Johnson this year. (Three really good young ‘uns, mind you.)
    • Toyota lost Edwards
    • Toyota has two new drivers (Jones and Suárez) still coming up to speed
  • Allegiances shift
    • Stewart-Haas switched from Chevy to Ford in 2017
    • Petty shifts from Ford to Chevy in 2018
  • Teams grow and shrink
    • RCR (Chevy) goes from 3 cars to 2
    • Penske (Ford) goes from 2 to 3 cars
    • Furniture Row (Toyota) goes from 2 to 1 car

All Things Being Even… But They’re Not

Why does Chevy dominate the top 10 and top 20 while Toyota dominates wins?

The answer is that there are more Chevys than there are Fords or Toyotas on the track at each race.

I will admit that counting teams is tricky. So, to be counted, the team had to run the full season with a single driver. I made a few exceptions.

  • Kyle Busch didn’t run the whole season in 2015 , but he won the championship, so I’m not going to exclude him.
  • I counted Kenseth in 2015 even though he missed two races
  • I left Aric Almirola in 2017 even though he only ran 29 races. You can argue with me about that one.
  • I counted Tony Stewart in 2016. He finished 15th despite missing races. I counted Hamlin the year he had back problems, too.

So here’s the percentage of all full-time teams by manufacturer for 2013-2017:

The percentage of Chevy teams has been dropping since 2015 from 54.5% to 39.4%.

Now let’s be honest: we’re really only interested in the teams that have a shot at consistently winning races (and I mean races that aren’t Daytona or Talladega). So I re-ran the analysis with only drivers in the top 25 included.

I also looked at the roster for 2018 and made a totally subjective call as to which teams have a chance to end up in the top 25. It’s a guess: I have no clue whether Kasey Kahne will make Levine Family Racing this year’s Furniture Row.

Percent teams by manufacturer 2013-2018

For 2017:

  • 44% of the teams with a chance at winning were Chevy’s
  • 32% were Fords
  • 24% were Toyotas

So you might expect that Chevy should win 44% of the races if everything else were equal. Then:

  • Chevy would win 15-16 races a year
  • Ford would win 11-12 races a year
  • Toyota would win 8-9 races a year

If that was what happened, the the pie charts for the percent of wins and the percent of teams would look the same. Let’s see if they do.

Doesn’t This Prove Toyota Has an Advantage?

Toyota definitely has an advantage.

But: Toyota has been consistently overperforming (again, with the exception of 2014) for the last five years. With the exception of 2014, they win nearly twice the number of races they would be expected to if everything else were equal. I don’t see how you can attribute their performance to the new car. If the car were really that far ahead, we should’ve seen Jones or Suárez win and Hamlin should’ve won more.

Of course, everything isn’t equal. Martin Truex, Jr. had an amazing year and a very clever crew chief who knows cars and strategy. I think their record (including winning 8/10 Chase races) had a lot to do with strategy. I’m in middle of analyzing how important stage points were and will report on that in the near future. I think that’s an important part of the story.

Note that when you have a smaller number of drivers, each driver has a bigger effect on the overall record. Toyota had six teams in the top 25 in 2017: two of those drivers didn’t win a race. Chevy has 11 teams. If one of them has a bad year, there are a lot of others to take up the slack.

ADDENDUM 4pm 1/26: Dustin Long has a nice article on the situation on the NBC Sports Page.

Bonus Chart: A History of Toyota Wins: 2008-2017

I thought it was interesting to look at how drivers’ fortunes change from season to season. For example, Denny Hamlin was the main winner in 2010, then only won one race in 2011. Kenseth won 7 races in 2013, then none the next year. This is a testament to how difficult it is to win. Everything has to come together: Driver, crew chief, pit crew, everyone building the car, even the PR person can impact the driver’s mood and thus his performance.

A History of Toyota Wins: 2008-2017

 

Did Stage Racing Produce More Cautions Because Drivers Raced Harder?

One of the theories behind stage racing is that drivers would race harder to get stage points. That should theoretically be reflected by the number of cautions. Cautions appear to be up in 2017. Are they? And can we attribute the change to stage racing?

Let’s go to the data.

Are Cautions Up?

I’d argue no. A number of writers noted that the absolute number of cautions is up by about 10% over 2016. This is true. There were 296 total cautions in 2017 and 269 in 2016; however, let’s look over a longer range of time. This is data from 2001 to the present day.

On average, a 10% change in cautions from year to year is normal. (If you’re talking 300 cautions, a 10% change is 30 cautions; if you have one additional caution at every race, you’ve made your 10% plus a little more right there.)

The average number of cautions over the last sixteen years is 298. The largest number of cautions was 373 (in 2005), which was a 20% increase from 2004. The Coca Cola 600 had 22 cautions (15 more than in 2004); There were 10 cautions just between laps 115 and 240. Add to that a gain of 7 cautions in the Daytona 500 and 7 cautions in the Fall Bristol race and you’ve got the extra 10% right there. I looked for awhile to try to see if I could find the factors responsible for the big increase, like a lot of rookies (nope), but I failed.

The lowest number of cautions was 216 in 2012. Remember all the hew and cry about how cautions were falling in 2012 and everyone thought the races were boring because they had so few cautions?

In terms of absolute numbers, 2016 was anomalous because the number of cautions in 2016 was down (by about 10%) relative to 2013, 2014 and 2015. So if you look at it in terms of absolute numbers, 2016 is the oddball year and 2017 is right in line with the three years before that.

So you can’t really claim that stage racing had a huge impact on caution numbers.

Or Can You…?

You cannot compare apples to oranges. It is even worse to compare apples to giraffes. The lengths of races and even which tracks are included often change year to year. Laps run are not always the same as the laps scheduled between rain-outs and green-white-checkers finishes.

You’ll notice, for example, that in 2012, we ran 514 miles — a full Daytona 500 — less than we did in 2011. That was the year both Pocono races were shortened by a hundred miles, plus Fontana was rain shortened by 142 miles, plus the second Pocono race was shortened an additional 155 miles because of rain.

Thanks to the good folks at racing-reference.info, we can look at cautions a slightly different way: by calculating the percentage of laps run under caution, which adjusts for the fact that we ran different distances in different years. This is the NASCAR equivalent to inflation-adjusted dollars.

You’ll notice there’s not that much difference when you look at the numbers in terms of percentages.

 

But Even That Doesn’t Fix the Problem

One of the challenges for data geeks like me is that NASCAR keeps changing the rules. I’m not complaining, just noting that this makes the task of understanding the numbers they collect slightly more difficult. I’m going to propose that, going forward, we count cautions differently.

My proposal is based on the principle that all cautions are not equal. I divide them into two types:

  • Cautions NASCAR has control over, like competition cautions and stage breaks.
  • Cautions NASCAR doesn’t have control over: accidents, pieces and fluids leaking from cars, etc.

I will argue that if we want to understand how cautions affect racing, you can’t include the artificial construct of the NASCAR-determined cautions. Specifically, if we want to understand the impact of stage racing, we need to take into account how stage racing changes the meaning of the caution numbers.

So I went back and tabulated the cause of every caution for the last few years. I’ll start by showing you the data from 2017. The figures next to each type of caution are the absolute numbers of that type of caution.

There were 69 stage cautions and 7 competition cautions for a total of 78 NASCAR-determined cautions our of the total 296 cautions. That’s more than a quarter (26.4%) of all cautions for the seasons.

We have no stage-end cautions and an average of 15 competition cautions for the three prior years. Cautions that NASCAR has control over were only about 5% of the total cautions before stage racing.

I would argue we shouldn’t include NASCAR-determined cautions in the total caution count. They are (almost all) about in advance and there are a lot of them. Look at the percentage of cautions the different types made up in 2016 and 2017

There were more stage-end cautions in 2017 than there were debris cautions in 2016 (and almost as many as debris cautions in 2015).

I claim that there were fewer cautions in 2017 in 2016. Counting only cautions out of NASCAR’s control, they are down from 255 in 2016 to 220 in 2017.

So What Impact Did Stage Racing Have?

The reason we care about cautions is that we’re trying to determine whether stage racing made a difference. So let’s look at what I argue are the actual cautions. I grouped infield fires, police pulling drunk people down from fences, uncontrolled tires, etc. as ‘Other’. The group ‘stalled’ includes both stalled and slow cars.


I just lectured you about only comparing two years and here I am doing it. So let’s look at the last four years. Here are the number of cautions for each type of accident.

Accidents & Spins

The biggest contributor to cautions is (unsurprisingly) accidents. In absolute terms, we had almost the same number of accidents this year as last: 168 in 2017 and 163 in 2016. That’s only a 3% increase. The number of accidents has been trending upward.

The number of spins is fairly small, but they were the same in 2016 and 2017 at 20 spins each.

If you count spins + accidents as a measure of the intensity of racing (are drivers taking chances and/or driving aggressively?), the results are interesting in that there isn’t much change. The increase from 183 to 188 (2.7%) isn’t significant. This number has remained in the 180-190 range for the last four years. I’d like to argue that you could say that drivers are getting better and there are fewer single-car accidents (i.e. spins); however, it might also just be that drivers are getting better at taking other cars with them when they mess up.

I argue that tells us that stage racing didn’t cause more accidents. The probability of drivers being more aggressive to get stage points is offset by the need to not wreck — especially knowing that even a fairly soft wreck might end up with your car being retired.

Debris

Here’s the other interesting thing from this graph: Debris cautions are down by 62% from 2016 to 2017 — and that’s with the number of accidents (the most likely origin of debris) increasing by less than 3%. In 2016, there were only four races at which there were no debris cautions. In 2017, Jacques Debris missed 21 races.

2016 races that had debris cautionsI’ve put a full summary of the debris cautions in a very large graph at the bottom, but here I compare the frequency of debris cautions for 2014 and 2017. This is a histogram, which gives you the frequency of occurrence of an event. For example, there were 21 races with no cautions in 2017 (the large orange bar at left) compared to 5 races with no cautions in 2014.

 

Total debris cautions are down 75% from 2014; however, the drop from 2016-2017 was much larger than previous year-to-year drops. This doesn’t tell us anything about the drivers; however it does suggest that the damaged vehicle policy implemented in 2018 is having an impact.

Stage racing may contribute in that the time between stages gives NASCAR a breather that allows them to do some track grooming (like Zamboni breaks at ice hockey games) and do a once-over of the track to get anything questionable out of the way before racing resumes.

Conclusion

  • We should stop counting stage-end cautions in the running caution count because it’s misleading. They will likely make up 20-25% of cautions as long as we stick with the current format.
  • The argument that stage racing is responsible for increasing the number of cautions in 2017 is
    • true only insofar as there were 69 stage-end cautions, which upped the total by 10%.
    • false if you omit stage-end and competition cautions. That results in a 13% decrease in cautions.
  • Accidents
    • They are a rough measure of how hard and how many chances a driver takes during a race. Alternately, if you’re the one taken out, they are a measure of how boneheaded your competitors are.
    • They are the largest contributor to the total number of cautions at 50% – 65%
    • They vary by about 8% a year over 2014-2017 (average: 156; min 144; max 168)
    • The data don’t support the argument that stage racing has made drivers race harder. Drivers have to balance aggressive racing with being around for the subsequent stages and the end of the race.
  • Debris
    • Debris cautions are way down in 2017 relative to 2016 (43%).
    • Debris cautions are down by 75% since 2014.
    • The most likely cause for the significant decrease in debris cautions is the damaged vehicle policy, with the ability to scan for debris during stage-end cautions also potentially contributing
  • The Future
    • Martin Truex, Jr. has called on NASCAR to raise the minimum speed to keep slower cars from getting in the way.

Bonus Big Graph

This was large enough that I didn’t want to stick it in the main text, but here’s the debris cautions plotted on the same vertical scale. In 2014, there were 7 debris cautions at a single race. In 2017, the race with the most cautions had only 4.