Fantasy NASCAR: Understanding and utilizing loop data
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, so 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.
A pair of drivers from Hendrick Motorsports really standout for their performances in driver rating from last year. The incoming Kasey Kahne did an admirable job in his lame duck year at Red Bull Racing posting a driver rating of 89.7. That figure places him ninth among all drivers in that statistic, a sharp contrast to Kahne's 14th-place finish in the standings. Over the final six races of the season, he accumulated five top-10s and scored the third most points in that span. In the 10 Chase races, Kahne posted a driver rating better than 93.0 eight times and better than 100.0 six times.
On the flip side, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh in the standings, his best performance since 2006. In driver rating, Earnhardt's 83.3 was only 15th among all drivers. Every other Chase driver finished in the top 10 of driver rating. While the expectations in Junior Nation remain high, the underlining numbers suggest a letdown.
Average running position
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.
Kyle Busch is the only driver to finish in the top three in average running position in each of the last three seasons. Last year, he paced the field with an average running position of 10.4 even though he finished 12th in the standings due to a one-race suspension. Rowdy's 14 top-fives, 18 top-10s and 13.0 average finish are his best results since he won a career-high eight races in 2008.
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 a 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 Tony Stewart won the Sprint Cup Championship, he actually spent nearly 300 fewer laps in the top 15 than his teammate Ryan Newman. Stewart's 59.6 percent of laps in the top 15 was good for just 10th among all drivers. While capturing the trophy makes Stewart a top driver to take in 2012, he won it all by getting red hot at the end of the season as opposed to a season-long run of consistency.
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 obviously can't pass as many people in the top 15. Still, it's a useful statistic, especially when reviewing middle-tier drivers.
With 1,975 quality passes, Paul Menard was fourth in the category. He finished 17th in points, but his average starting position of 12th was tied for third in NASCAR, suggesting a lot of these passes were very legitimate. Now that Richard Childress Racing is downsizing from four cars to three, Menard could be the greatest dark horse for the Chase.
Loop data in practice
Denny Hamlin has been at the top of his game at Pocono Raceway throughout his entire career. However, after winning for the fourth time at Long Pond in the first 2010 race and finishing fifth in the other, Hamlin disappointed last year. Despite strong qualifying results and being the leader at the midway point in each race, Hamlin only managed finishes of 19th and 15th, respectively.
Thanks to loop data we can see there was actually nothing wrong with Hamlin's performance in either of these races. Hamlin held average running positions of sixth and fifth with a driver rating better than 110 in each. As it turns out a brake issue in the June race and a lug nut August kept Hamlin from earning another pair of top-five finishes at Pocono and perhaps even another victory.
Clearly, there is no reason at all to discount Hamlin when it comes to projecting his future performance at Pocono. Owners that study the loop data won't be afraid to start him while those that do not may take a pass because there is an allusion of a decline. The world of fantasy NASCAR is loaded with similar examples. It's up to savvy managers to use their tools to take advantage.
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 became much clearer.
About Eric McClung
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. Follow @EricMcClung
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