Beyond the standard statistics, like average finish and laps led, more and more fantasy NASCAR owners are digging through loop data statistics for an edge in making driver selections. Sabermetrics changed the way we look at baseball and, in turn, the fantasy game. Just think of loop data as the gasoline-powered equivalent.
Introduced in 2005, NASCAR began using computerized scoring loops to help improve the accuracy and efficiency of in-race scoring. By using electronic wires imbedded in the track and transponders installed on each car, this high-tech system has also benefited fantasy owners a great deal. In order to install loop data into your weekly strategy, you first need to know the best statistics that come under the hood of this powerful package of information.
Like the NFL's passer rating, driver rating is a complex formula that uses a wide spectrum of traditional statistics as well as loop data to compile a final tally. A perfect score is 150.0, but a driver rating in the 90s and above reflects a very solid effort. Consider driver rating to be a good overview of performance, but owners should always look deeper in order to find the keys to a successful rating. For those that want to know exactly how this complicated number is assembled, NASCAR.com has a great article explaining in full detail how driver rating is compiled.
With a driver rating of 90.9 last year, Juan Pablo Montoya ranked 11th, better than two Chase drivers: Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Biffle posted a driver rating of 88.4, one spot behind Montoya. Kenseth, Biffle's teammate, complied an 86.0 driver rating, the lowest score of any driver that made the postseason.
When Montoya was on the track, he typically did very well. It was the eight DNFs that cost him any shot at returning to the Chase. If Montoya can keep his fiery temper in check and avoid trouble, like he did so well in 2009, JPM will be challenging for a postseason berth once again.
Kenseth's numbers are skewed a bit due to a mediocre run during the middle of the season. He ended the season with a driver rating of more than 92.0 in six of the last eight starts. After his rebound Kenseth remains the same safe, vanilla pick in most formats.
Average running position
Where did Hamlin rank in ARP?
Arguably the most useful loop data statistic available, average running position is the sum of the driver's position on each lap divided by the laps run in the race. What makes average running position so valuable is the ability to pinpoint over performers and underperformers each week. For example, a driver that averages a run inside the top five yet finishes in the 20s more than likely ran into trouble late in the race. The opposite is true for a driver that steals a good finish on a late gamble after averaging a midpack run.
Again, Montoya stands out in this area. His average running position of 13.7 was eighth among the field last year. To no one's surprise, the remaining dozen spots in the top 13 were all Chase drivers. Most of the other end of year loop data statistics place Montoya among the leaders, suggesting a potential bounce-back year.
There is an interesting contract between where drivers finished in the points standing versus their average running position. Only Jimmie Johnson's series-leading 9.5 average is good enough to put him inside the top five of both points and average running position. In fact, he was first in each category. Runner-up Denny Hamlin was ninth, with a 14.0 average. Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon, who finished ninth in points, was second with a 10.8 average.
Laps in the top 15
The percentage of laps in the top 15 spent by a driver is a great way to identify how much of the race they were in the competitive mix. However, there a few things that can throw laps in the top 15 and average running position off a bit. For example, a poor starting position will make it tougher for driver to crack the top 15 on most tracks. Also, the restrictor plate races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway can make these two numbers almost irrelevant, depending on a driver's strategy. Some will purposely fade through the field to avoid the hectic action. Also, gaining or losing the draft can alter a driver's running position by a dozen spots, if not more, in a single lap.
Even though he won a pair of races and finished sixth in points, Biffle also had a dozen finishes of 20th or worse. These struggles caused him to end the year 16th in percentage of laps in the top 15 with 52.6 percent.
Martin Truex Jr. is the only driver to finish outside of the top 20 in points and record more than 50 percent of laps in the top 15. A victim of numerous late-race incidents, Truex and his first-year crew also struggled with making adjustments as the race went on. The next four drivers Mark Martin (49.8 percent), Kasey Kahne (46.4), A.J. Allmendinger (43.7) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (38.2) all accumulated more points than Truex despite recording less laps in the top 15, indicating there is plenty of room for growth by the No. 56 team.
Passing a car running in the top 15 while under green flag conditions earns the driver a quality pass. Starting position can play a factor with this one as a driver that's already up front can't pass as many people in the top 15. Still, it's a useful statistic, especially when reviewing middle-tier drivers.
Last year, Jeff Burton led the series with 2,382 quality passes, 198 ahead of Johnson. Many of the usual suspects make up the leaders in this statistic, but the three drivers that round out of the top 10 that are worth noting: Kahne, David Reutimann and Joey Logano.
Each of these three drivers is a very strong option as secondary selections in draft formats. Owners in allocation games with a limited number of starts will certainly want to keep them in mind, particularly on intermediate tracks: the common strength shared by this trio.
Loop data in practice
Now that we've covered the primary loop data statistics, you now know which to focus on and what some of last year's results could mean in 2011. Next we'll see how loop data can be used on a weekly basis. After reviewing the driver's loop data history at the site of this week's race, it's always a good idea to glance at those same numbers on similar tracks. No place is truer than at the three cookie-cutter, 1.5-mile tracks: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.
For this example we'll look at Logano heading into last year's fall race at Texas. In four prior starts, Logano had never finished better than 19th and never held an average running position better than 20th. By limiting your research to just Texas, you probably passed and missed on the great value that was to come.
At Charlotte, Logano held an average finish of 8.5 in four starts. A few weeks prior, he matched a career-best average running position of seventh and spent the entire race running inside the top 15. Bingo! Despite Logano's poor numbers at Texas we've unearthed good finishes at a very similar locale with the loop data to back it up. We'll give him the start knowing most of our rival owners probably aren't looking this deep.
Well, after leading 30 laps in that race at Fort Worth, Logano would finish fourth with an average running position of seventh and 92.5 percent of laps in the top 15. In early September, Logano heads back to Atlanta. Even with an ugly 28.5 average finish in the Dirty South, we know that loop data shows us he's improving on cookie-cutter sites and should be a fine selection.
There are several more loop data statistics. However, most are of little or no value in fantasy games. Many deal with the driver's average speed during the entire race or during various points of the action. By focusing on the ones we've just covered, you'll get the most effective deep driver analysis. Most importantly, the path to Victory Lane just got much clearer.
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts.