NASCAR’s Youth Movement is Actually Sort of Old

Goin’ Down?

2018 is being hailed as the year of the NASCAR Youth Movement as we bid farewell to older drivers and welcome in a class of youngsters. The average age of  Hendrick’s starting lineup for the Daytona 500 dropped by more than a decade from 2015 to 2018.

But is 2018 really a huge change for NASCAR?

Method (to Madness and Otherwise)

I retrieved drivers’ birthdates from www.racing-reference.info. The ages used here are the drivers’ ages on the date of the Daytona 500.

And yes, I learned some interesting things about how Excel handles dates and the DATEDIF function.

Googling “Average age Daytona 500 2018” will yield a huge number of articles citing an average age of 34.2 years for the 2018 Daytona 500 field. The number apparent came from a NASCAR press release, but I cannot figure out how they got that. Someone suggested to me that this calculation was before the field was finalized, but if I remove Gray Gaulding, I get a number about one year less. I checked my data and my calculations three times and I’m pretty sure both are accurate.

RANDOM STAT: When Jeff Gordon moved from Hendrick to FS1, he brought the average age of the FS1 announcing booth down by eight years. The average age of the 2018 Daytona 500 announce booth was 61.9 years old.  

Average = Not So Useful Number

This year’s Daytona 500 field was trumpeted as having the second youngest average age ever at 32.9 years. The 2017 race had an average of 32.8 years.

One sort of has to wonder how, when Hendrick by themselves decreased by 8 years, the average for 2018 isn’t lower than last year. (Remember, of course, that everyone who ran the race last year is one year older.)

But quite frankly, what this really shows is that an average isn’t that a useful number. Amazon and Yelp (or virtually any site with ratings) tells you an average rating, but they almost always show you the distribution of the ratings.

  • Restaurant A has an average of 2.5 stars, with 100 five star ratings and 100 0-star ratings.
  • Restaurant B has an average of 2.5 stars and has 200 2.5-star ratings.

Same average. Very different stories behind those averages.

A Tale of Three Averages

The average ages for the 1980, 2006 and 2012 seasons are (respectively) 35.6 years, 35.7 years and 35.6 years. Close enough for comparison. But look at how the drivers’ ages are distributed.

IMPORTANT: In Excel histograms, the label is the upper bound. The column labeled “25” contains the number of drivers with ages between 20 and 24.999999. It’s a little confusing until you get used to it. And maybe even after that.

In 2012, most of the drivers were right around average age, with a few younger and a few older. In 2006, there were a lot of 25-30 years olds, but also a lot of 40-50 years olds. You see how the average doesn’t tell you everything?

Daytona 2018: Youngest Field Ever?

Let’s look at the histogram of driver ages for the 2018 Daytona 500 field.

The majority of the drivers are in one part of the graph, but you will notice that I had to go further out on the x-axis to account for the fact that, in the midst of the NASCAR Youth Movement, 2018 also featured the oldest driver to ever run the Daytona 500. (Mark Thompson, age 66 in car 66.)

For those of you who thought (like I initially did) that Morgan Shepherd was the oldest driver in the Daytona 500, Morgan is the oldest driver to attempt to make the Daytona 500 (age 72 in 2014), but he didn’t qualify. James Hylton is the oldest driver to start any NASCAR series race at any track at age 76.

This is what they call in the statistics business ‘an outlier’. He’s an outlier in other areas, too, in that the Daytona 500 is the only NASCAR race he will run this year. (The same is true for Danica Patrick, who turns 36 next month.)

If you exclude Mr. Thompson from the average, it drops by almost a full year to 32.0 years. The huge drop by excluding just one person is because the next-oldest driver in the field is Brendan Gaughan (42.6 years old). Brendan just barely beats out Jimmie Johnson (now the series’ oldest regular driver) and Kevin Harvick.

Let’s not leave before noting that the 66-year old Mr. Thompson (a Vietnam Vet) finished a very respectable 22nd last Sunday, beating both Busch brothers, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson.

Here’s another way of looking at the distribution of the drivers’ age ranges: A pie chart.

Almost 80% of the drivers in the field are under age 40 and 42% (17 drivers) are under age 30. Take a gander back at 1980: The number of drivers under 30 was 22%.

But Is This A Big Change?

Let’s look at the data for 2017 on the same histogram to make it easier to compare.

 

The only difference between the two distributions are the old guys out at the end. (I say this with respect, falling on the right-hand-side of that chart myself.) That’s why the averages turn out differently. The outlier in 2017 was younger than the outlier in 2018 (by a good 10 years).

We all had the feeling that there were a whole bunch of new young drivers coming in and a whole bunch of old drivers leaving, but that’s not quite accurate.

  • The youngest of the new drivers this year are Gray Gaulding and William Byron, both just over 20 years old.
  • The next three youngest drivers all ran last year (Chase Elliott (22.2), Erik Jones (21.7) and Ryan Blaney (24.1)) ran last year. (I had no idea Ryan Blaney was so old!)
  • Alex Bowman turns 25 in April and Darrell Wallace, Jr. turned 24 last October.

So there really wasn’t a huge influx of new young blood into the series this year. Not really any more than last year.

BONUS POINT: Name the outlier (i.e. old) driver from the 2017 Daytona 500 in light blue in the circle on the graph above. (ANSWER: Michael Waltrip at 53.9 years.)

If we exclude Waltrip, the way we did Thompson in 2918, that brings the average age for 2017 down to 32.3 years, which is higher than 2018 with Thompson excluded.

I read all these articles making a big deal that 17 of the drivers in this year’s Daytona 500 were under 30? So what? It was the same as last year’s Daytona 500.

So the Average Driver Age Isn’t Going Down?

Here the average ages (no one excluded) for the last 5 Daytona 500s.

Don’t be fooled by the fact that I blew it up a lot. The scale only goes from 32 years old to 34 years old. In 2014, the average age was 33.3. This year, it’s 32.9. A few fluctuations inbetween, sure, but it hasn’t really changed that much.

But NASCAR Drivers Sure Seems Much Younger

They are! I thought for a while it was just me. As you get older, more people in the world are younger than you.

If you’re 55 years old, you are older than about 3/4 of the people in the country and 84% of people in the world. Before you get snarky, Jeff Gordon is older than 60% of the people in the country. And even Kyle Busch is older than 54% of people in the country. (No one tell Kyle that. He seems a little sensitive about this age thing lately.)

And it doesn’t help that some of these guys don’t look old enough to have a driver’s license, either.

Let’s look at average ages of Daytona 500 fields for the last nine runnings.

Yes. What I did in showing you just the last five years is what is called cherry-picking the data. I showed you only part of what I knew and gave you a false impression of what was going on. Remember that when anyone tries to use data to support an argument.

There was a 3-year drop in the average age between 2013 and 2014, from 36.3 years to 33.3 years. This seems like a major change, right? But I just showed you that lopping one guy off the average decreased it by a year, so let’s take a deeper dive and look at the Histograms.

In 2014, we:

  • Lost a bunch of drivers over 40, including
    • David Reuitimann (42.9)
    • Jeff Burton (45.6)
    • Joe Nemechek (49.4)
    • Dave Blaney (50.3)
    • Mark Martin (58.1)
  • Gained young drivers, including
    • Cole Whitt (22.7)
    • Trevor Bayne (23.0)
    • Kyle Larson (21.5)
    • Alex Bowman (20.8)

I’d forgotten that Alex has been around awhile!

Here’s a couple interesting trends in terms of driver distribution:

2013 2014 2018
Average Age 36.3 33.3 32.9
% Drivers under 30 23 37 42.5
% Drivers under 35 49 63 57.5
% Drivers over 45 16 7 ZERO

So The Youth Movement Started in 2014?

Actually, no.

Here are the average driver ages going all the way back to 1980. (I started going by 5s when I got back to 2000 because, frankly, I was getting tired.)

The average age of the Daytona 500 field has been going down since 2002 (You could argue 2000 even, taking noise into consideration) — with the exception of an upswing from 2009-2013.

Why the upswing? The career of the older driver had changed.

  • Drivers retire at much earlier ages now. Mark Martin drove his last race at age 54. Bill Elliott ran his last Daytona 500 in 2011 at the age of 55.3. Terry Labonte’s last full-time season was in 2004, but he ran at least two races a year for the next ten years, including a number of Daytona 500s. He was 57 when he ran his last race. Compare that with recently retired drivers. Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton “retired” right into the broadcasting booth. Matt Kenseth (at age 45) couldn’t land a competitive ride and decided he’d rather not run if he couldn’t win. Carl Edwards walked away at age 36.
  • We can’t overlook the fact that many drivers (but by no means all of them) have made enough money by the time they’re in their mid-40s that they can afford to retire. That didn’t used to be the case.
  • The introduction of the four-car-per-team limit meant that teams couldn’t bring back senior drivers to run a one-off the Daytona 500.
  • With the Charter system, there are no more Champion’s Provisionals, so even if you had room, the era of hiring a driver for a one-off guaranteed shot at the Daytona 500 is over.

Let’s compare the distributions for the peak year for averages (2002).   

Now on the same plot as 2018.

You can see the 6-year shift in the distribution. Note specifically the number of drivers in the 45-50 age bracket. There were 7 in 2002 and there are none in 2018. That’s right. The oldest full-time driver this season will turn 43.

So The Youth Movement Started in the Early 2000’s?

Yup. That’s what the data indicates.

Bonus Graph: Trends in the Youngest and Oldest

I was curious about whether there were any trends in the oldest and youngest drivers in the Daytona 500.

Joey Logano was 18.7 years old when he ran the Daytona 500 in 2009, but the youngest driver in the field these days is pretty consistently around 20-21 years old.

The oldest driver (eldest driver?) is more interesting because those are the guys who really mess with the average numbers. Any time you see a straight line that increases by one year each season, it probably means you’re looking at a single individual. Take a look at the line of orange triangles starting in 2003 and ending in 2013.

Any guesses who that is? Or the three dots in a line from 2015 to 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.

 

 

 

 

How Much Difference Does One Position Make in NASCAR Winnings?

Given all the rain at Daytona this weekend, there was plenty of time to think about auxiliary NASCAR issues.  Regular readers know that I’m a huge fan of the racing-reference.info website because they have a trove of data just waiting to be analyzed.  The spouse asked about payouts and whether it really made much of a difference for a team to get back on the track, so I plotted up some data.

I’m showing below for the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series, the winnings as a function of position. The line is not monotonic (decreasing with each point) because of all the contingency plans, sponsor deals, etc, but the data work pretty well in terms of overall trends. I’ve plotted both races in 2014 – July (red) and February (green).

BSPEED_DaytonaWinningsNWide

Two things surprised me here:  first,  how quickly the prize money goes down and second, how small the money is in the first place, especially relative to the Sprint Cup.  You’re talking about $20,000 for finishing in the upper 30s in the July race and $40,000 in the February race. If you consider how expensive it is to just build a racecar, much less hire a driver and people for the track, that’s not a whole lot of money.

If you look at the drop off, it’s huge for the first five places. From 1st to 2nd in February, we’re talking a drop of almost $30,000. When you get out to 21st compared to 22nd, it’s less than a thousand dollars.

I thought the difference in prize money between February and July was interesting as well.  It’s even more pronounced in the Sprint Cup, as shown below.BSPEED_DaytonaWinningsThe first thing to notice is the huge difference in purse from the 500 to the 400.  The money for first place is four times as much for winning in February versus July. From first to second for the Daytona 500, you’re talking $357,000, but for the July race, it’s “only” $134,000.  If you come in dead last in February, you take home $292k, whereas last weekend, poor A.J. Allmendinger went home with a little under $70k for finishing 43rd.

That outlier at position 32 for the 500 is Paul Menard. I double checked the data at my other favorite source of racing information, jayski.com, and they have the same information. (UPDATE: as @nuggie99 points out in the comments, there was that $200,000 bonus for leading at halfway.) I have no explanation for why he’d make $200,000 more than the guys who finished immediately in front of and behind him.

For both series, though, you can see why it makes sense for teams that aren’t running all the races, or teams with limited resources, to disproportionately focus attention on the restrictor plate races. With the wild card nature of the races, getting a top five can make a huge difference in the money you take home – and thus your ability to build a more competitive team.