NASCAR Numbers 2019: Part 2 — The Drivers

What's on Your Driver's 'To Do' List for 2020

Sixty-four drivers in 46 different car numbers ran for 37 full-schedule and 10 limited-schedule teams in 2019. But how did they do? And how does that compare to 2018? In my last post, I examined the season at the race level. This post, we’ll look at the drivers

Infographic with selected stats for the year

A note, first. I’m not calling out drivers to pick on them, especially those starting out and/or working for struggling teams. This is more of a way to figure out what needs to worked on for 2020. And what I’m showing you here is just the tip of the statistics iceberg each team’s number crunchers are breaking down into manageable ice cubes before next season.

Who Ran Races?

Unsurprisingly, the top-30-ranked drivers ran all 36 races, as did Landon Cassill. Here’s how many races the remaining part-time drivers ran.

Column graph of 2019 Part-time drivers and the number of races they won.
The numbers at the tops of the bars tells you how many different car numbers they ran in those races.

The Life of The Part-Time Driver

  • 11 drivers drove only one race
  • 3 drivers drove two races
  • Most drivers with part-time teams (and some with full-time teams) drove more than one car.

Distinct Winners

I did a whole post on how dominance of the few is nothing new in NASCAR. The average number of distinct winners over the last ten years is 14.1. There were 13 distinct winners in 2019, which is lower than the ten-year average, but equal to the average from the last five years.

Column chart of the numbers of distinct winners from 1990-2019

Free Passes

We had 248 caution flags, but in 20 of those cases, no one was in position to get the free pass. What about the other 228 times?

A column chart for which cars got the most free passes.
  • The Most Free Passes:
    • The 32 car, driven by Corey LaJoie, with 11.
    • Two cars had 10 free passes
      • The 15 (Chastain/Smithley/Houff/Nemechek)
      • The 36 (Tifft/Crafton/JH Nemechek)
  • Most Free Passes out of the Top 16
    • Harvick, Keselowski and Almirola each had 7 free passes
  • The Unlucky Dog: The only full-time driver who didn’t get a free pass in 2019 was Clint Bowyer.

Rankings of Free-Pass-Using Drivers

I plotted free passes against season-ending rank to see how often the top drivers used them compared to those who finished in the bottom half of the standings.

A column chart showing the number of free passes vs the season-ending rankings.
You can look up the final rankings at racing-reference.info to see which driver is which. I couldn’t fit the names of 40 drivers without making them too tiny to read.

The back half of the field uses more free passes than the front, which is perhaps easier to see in a pie chart.

A pie chart that breaks down where the free passes went according to finishing position at the end of the season.
  • 26% of free passes went to drivers who finished between 31st and 40th
  • 31% went to drivers who finished in 21st thought 30th
  • 61% went to drivers who finished in 21st or higher
  • The top 16 drivers (40% of the field) got 29% of all free passes
  • The top 10 (25% of the field) drivers got 17% of all free passes

Laps: Completed, Led and Unfinished

Finishing races is a pre-requisite for winning races, so let’s look and see how the drivers did here.

Laps Completed

No driver ran all 10,255 laps this year, but some came awfully close. For reference, this is five more laps than last year.

A column chart showing the percentage of laps completed for full-time drivers

I circled the lower y-axis label to emphasize that I expanded the scale. Full-time drivers are pretty good about getting their laps.

  • Top Lappers
    • Joey Logano ran the most: 99.67% of the laps (10,221)
      • That’s more than last year’s top lapper: Ryan Newman, who ran 98.3% of all possible laps
    • Paul Menard ran a close second with 99.63% (10,217)
  • No Slackers Here
    • All full-time drivers ran more than 90% of all possible laps.
    • The driver completing the fewest number of laps (Michael McDowell) still ran 91.33% of them

Lead Lap Finishes

There is a correlation between how often you finish on the lead lap and your final ranking, as the graph below shows. I plotted it again as a function of final standing

A graph of the percent of lead-lap finishes vs. final ranking
You can look up final rankings at racing-reference.info. This graph includes only full-time drivers running for points.
  • How the top 16 fared
    • Unsurprisingly, Kyle Busch had the highest percentage of lead lap finishes, with 31 out of 36 races. (86.11%)
    • Sort of surprisingly, Martin Truex, Jr, who finished second in the standings, was only fifth highest in lead lap finishes with 26/36 (72.2%)
    • Harvick and Hamlin tied with 83.3%
    • There is a noticeable gap between these four drivers, who are all 80% or better and the rest (excluding Truex, Jr.) who were all between 60% and 70%
  • After about 15th place, the percentage of lead lap finishes goes down pretty quickly the higher you go

Leading Laps

Here’s a colorful, complicated graph:

A pie chart showing all the drivers who led laps, with those leading 1% or more called out by name.
I called out all the drivers who led at least 1% of the total season laps. 17 additional drivers led less than 1%: Together, they accounted for about 2% of all laps led.
  • Kyle Busch led the most laps with 1582 (15.4%)
  • Truex, Jr. came in second with 1371 laps (13.4%)
  • The top four lap-leading drivers (Ky Busch, Truex, Jr., Keselowski and Harvick) led almost half (48.7%) of all laps
  • The top six lap-leading drivers (the above + Hamlin & Logano) led two-thirds of all laps.
  • 13 drivers led 90% of all laps.

DNFs

Not finishing a race will certainly hurt your final standing, but there’s no clear correlation between DNFs and season-ending rank. Here’s the numbers, listed in order of final ranking.

A column chart of the number of races not finished for full-time drivers in 2019.
  • Most DNFs
    • Larson and Ragan tie at 8 (22.2% of all races)
      • 7 of Ragan’s DNFs were due to crashes. He only had 2 DNFs last year
      • 7 of Larson’s DNFs were due to crashes, too. He only had 4 DNFs last year
    • Bowyer comes in next at 7
    • Elliott and Preece each have 6 DNFs
      • Elliott had two engine failures this year, which is increasingly rare. He had 4 DNFs last year
  • Among full-time drivers, only Logano and Ty Dillon completed every race.

This is what I mean by using this type of information in planning for next year. If DNFs are due to equipment failures, for example, that suggests one path, while DNFs due to just having a really bad run of luck at superspeedways suggests re-examining race strategy.

Pulling it All Together

Here’s a summary, showing how many lead lap (green), non-lead lap (yellow) and DNFs (red) each full-time driver had this year. This is again in order of final standings.

A column chart dividing all 36 races for all full-time drivers into lead-lap finishes, non-lead-lap finishes and DNFs.

Stages

Stages were introduced in 2017. There were 109 stages in the 2019 season.

Stage Wins

There were 73 stage wins possible (two per race, plus an extra one for the extra stage in the Coca-Cola 600.) Sixteen drivers won stages in 2019.

A column chart showing the 16 drivers who won stages in 2019
  • Kyle Busch won the most stages (12, or 16.4%)
  • Logano was next with 11 stage wins.
  • Only three drivers (Johnson and both Dillons) won stages and did not make the playoffs.
  • Three drivers made the playoffs without winning any stages in 2019.

Playoff Points

A column chart showing the 18 drivers who earned playoff points in 2019.

18 drivers accumulated playoff points: 16 from stage wins and 2 from race wins.

  • Earning the most playoff points isn’t enough to win the championship
  • Earning enough playoff points to carry you through a losing drought is absolutely critical (See: Kyle Busch, Logano, Keselowski)

Accidents

I combined spins and accidents on one graph. Note that this is being involved in an accident: the statistics don’t say who caused the accident. But given that some drivers don’t have a lot of accidents and others do, understanding why your driver is in the latter group is important for 2020.

A column chart showing which drivers had spins and accidents
Blue stars indicate the top 4 drivers.
1* = Tifft/JH Nemecheck
2* = #51: McLeod/Ware/Gaulding/Burton/Currey/Weatherman/Yeley/Suess/Theriault/Bilicki
3* = #77: Smithley/Sorenson/Houff/Kennington/Haley/B Jones/Hill
  • Accident Avoidance Awards
    • The only car number without any accidents (or spins) was the 46 — but it only ran once race.
      • The other two cars that only ran one race managed to be involved in an accident in that race.
    • The full-time driver with the lowest numbers of accidents/spins was Landon Cassill.
      • Ryan Blaney was involved in three accidents and one spin
      • Ryan Newman was involved in four accidents.
  • Most Involved
    • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has the most accidents & spins — 21
      • The next highest drivers are Preece and Larson with 16
    • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has the most accidents — 19
      • Preece and Larson again follow with 15 each
    • Clint Bowyer has the most spins — 4
      • Eric Jones has the second-most spins — 3

There is no correlation between driving experience (i.e. races run) and the number of accidents you get into. The top drivers in all three categories are veterans, and second place in two categories is shared by the 6th place finisher and a rookie.

The Championship Four fall in the middle of the spectrum.

  • Hamlin and Truex, Jr. were each involved in 10 accidents
  • Kyle Busch in 8
  • Harvick in 6.

In-Race Penalties

The last section of our wrap-up is all about penalties. I’ve broken the in-race penalties into driver penalties (e.g. speeding on pit road) and non-driver penalties, which can cover anything from too many men over the wall to loose tires.

A stacked column chart showing penalties for 2017-2019, broken into driver and non-driver penalties
  • There were 378 penalties in 2019, a 4% decrease from last year
    • Non-driver penalties are down by about 12% from 2018 (199 vs 174.
    • Driver penalties are up 5% (194 vs 204)
  • Penalties have been significantly higher the last two years

When Do Penalties Happen?

Penalties late in a race can be much more costly than earlier penalties, which give you time to make up for the mistake. Here’s the breakdown of when penalties were assessed in 2019:

A pie chart showing when (in terms of stages) penalties are assessed.

We’ll ignore stage *, which is only in the Coca-Cola 600 and only accounts for 2/378 penalties.

  • Penalties increase from Stage 1 (23%) to Stage 2 (32%).
  • Given that stages 1 and 2 tend to be about the same length, you might expect them to have about the same number of penalties.
  • 45% of penalties occur in stage three.
  • Given that stage 3 is about twice as long as stages 1 and 2, you might expect 50% of the penalties to occur in stage 3, but it’s slightly less than that.

Penalties and Flags

Two-thirds of penalties happen under yellow flags — which makes sense because most in-race penalties happen in the pits.

Driver vs. Crew Penalties

Driver penalties are ascribable to the driver — although there are instances when it’s not his fault, like if his instrumentation to tell pit road speed is set up incorrectly, but that’s hard to pull out of the numbers.

In 2019, drivers were responsible for 54% of penalties. The remaining penalties can be broken into crew (38%) and misc (e.g disobeying a NASCAR request, being sent to pit road to repair damage or not maintaining minimum speed), which comprised 8%.

A pie chart showing the frequency of penalties attributable to the driver.
  • Speeding on pit road in some form (entering, exit, or just plain speeding) is the largest source of penalties, accounting for 79% of driver penalties.
  • A driver is just as likely to miss a chicane as drive through more than 3 pit boxes or pit out of the box.

As far as the crew penalties:

A pie chart showing the frequency of penalties attributable to the crew
  • The largest source of crew penalties in 2019 was tire violations with 40%. It’ll be interesting to see if that goes down next year given changes in the loose tire rule.
  • The second-largest crew penalty was too many men over the wall with 35%.
  • Combining too many men over the wall with crew member over the wall too soon accounts for more than half (53%) of crew penalties.

Who Got Caught?

  • On the Naughty List
    • The most-penalized driver for 2019 was Corey LaJoie, with 19 total in-race penalties.
    • He’s followed by Wallace (16) and Truex, Jr (15)
    • Chastain, Hamlin, T. Dillon, McDowell, Hemric and Stenhouse, Jr., each had 13.
  • On the Nice List
    • Chris Buescher only had one penalty in 2019
    • Erik Jones and Matt DiBenedetto each had 3

Drivers: Green vs. Yellow

What flags flew when drivers where penalized, by driver
  • Although LaJoie had the most penalties, only 4 (21%) were under green, well under the 33% average
  • Bubba Wallace has the most penalties under green at 9 (or 56% of total penalties).
  • On the lower end of the scale, we’ve got Buescher, DiBenedetto and Logan, who had no penalties under green.

Driver Error

A column chart breaking down the penalties for each driver into Driver, Crew and Other.

Remembering that the average is 54% of penalties due to the driver, let’s look at some interesting trends.

  • Penske Heads up the ‘Nice Teams’ List
    • Logano and Keselowski had no driver-attributable penalties in 2019
    • Ryan Blaney’s team only got four penalties, but again, all of them were driver-attributable.
    • The three Penske drivers had 12 penalties total. Nine drivers had the same or more penalties than the entire Penske lineup.
  • DiBenedetto and Harvick each had only one driver-attributable penalty.
  • Erik Jones’s team only had three penalties total, but he was responsible for all of them.

Crew Issues

Given that crews were on average responsible for 38% of penalties…

A column chart showing during which stage the penalties were made, by driver.
  • The three Penske pit crews incurred a total of 5 penalties – which seven teams on their own managed to beat.
  • Kevin Harvick’s crew had the largest percentage of penalties at 80% — but the team was only penalized five times total.
  • Denny Hamlin’s crew had the next largest fraction of penalties with 66.7% — and they had 12 penalties total
  • Martin Truex, Jr.’s team again ranked high in crew penalties with 53.3%. (Last year, Truex’s team was near the top in penalties and almost all were crew-attributable. This is likely to be one of MTJ’s new crew chief’s priorities.)

Penalties by Stages

A column chart showing the penalties by stages.
  • Chase Elliott incurred five out of the six penalties of the season in stage 1. He only had one stage-two penalty and no stage 3 penalties.
  • Denny Hamlin had 11/12 of his penalties happening in stages 2 and 3.
  • Many drivers incurred the majority of their penalties in Stage 3
    • Jimmie Johnson: 6/9 total penalties in Stage 3.
    • Martin Truex, Jr.: 9/15
    • Ryan Newman: 9/11
    • Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. : 6/12
    • Austin Dillon: 7/9
    • Kevin Harvick: 5/6
    • Daniel Suárez: 7/11

Late penalties can make a big difference in your race finish, so the above-listed teams are probably reviewing their races to see what types of penalties they’re drawing and how they might minimize them next year.

It’s not too surprising that the top two penalty-getters are also high up on the free-pass list.

Farewell to 2019

So that’s the 2019 season in numbers. Thanks for staying with me this year and we hope to have a couple new surprises for you in 2020.

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