The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Charlotte’s ROVAL this weekend for the second time. It’s the last race in the Round of 16 in the playoffs with a lot on the line. It’s also a bit of a wild card race because there are some unknowns with this track, mainly a reconfigured section that nobody will have driven on before Friday’s first practice.
So, who’s the best road racer in the series? That’s a complicated question. That was supposed to be this week’s column, but the more I looked into it, the more it became clear that there are a lot of numbers to consider when ranking drivers, and they don’t come up with exactly the same results. I used road course numbers for drivers with more than five starts to break down different ways to interpret the numbers and added in last year’s fall race at Charlotte.
The takeaway here is that the same names come up time and again. The order may change slightly, and there are advantages to looking at more than just wins, but the cream rises again and again. But choosing one best based only on the numbers? That gets tricky fast. Here are the numbers to consider and why they don’t always tell the whole truth.
Obviously, at the end of the day, wins are the number everyone notices. Currently, 10 drivers have at least one road course win. The biggest problem with wins alone is that a lot of drivers have at least one. They’re a good indicator over time, but in this case, there are 10 drivers in the top five and a whole lot more not in the top anything.
The top-five breakdown:
1.(Tie) Kyle Busch (4, 31 starts)
1. Martin Truex Jr. (4, 29 starts)
3. (Tie) Kevin Harvick (2, 39 starts)
4. Chase Elliott (2, nine starts)
5. (Tie) One win apiece: Clint Bowyer (29 starts), Denny Hamlin (29 starts), Jimmie Johnson (37 starts), Joey Logano (23 starts), Kurt Busch (39 starts), Ryan Blaney (nine starts)
2. Top fives and top 10s
Like wins, this number can be a little misleading in that the number of starts a driver has can skew perception. More on that later. But while winning is the end goal, top finishes in a competitive field also tells a lot about a driver’s skill and staying power. You start to see more separation here, but there are still a few ties.
The top-five breakdown of top-five finishes:
1. (Tie) Kyle Busch (11)
1. Bowyer (11)
3. Truex (10)
4. Harvick (9)
5. (Tie) Johnson (8)
5. Hamlin (8)
1. (Tie) Kurt Busch (21)
1. Harvick (21)
3. (Tie) Johnson (19)
3. Kyle Busch (19)
3. Average Finish
Average finish is a great tool to a point. A bad finish, or a win, will have a lot more of an effect on a driver with fewer finishes than it will for someone with more, so keep that in mind. Elliott has the edge here, but Bowyer has 20 more starts. Average does allow for drivers without wins to enter the conversation.
Average finish is just that—an average. If anything here, it’s a great indicator of how difficult and unpredictable road racing is. Looking at overall averages for road courses will be a bit different than if it were broken down to individual tracks, as some drivers have a definite difference in performance at a variety of tracks.
Top-five breakdown of average finish:
1. Elliott (11.5)
2. Bowyer (12.0)
3. Erik Jones (12.4, seven races)
4. Harvick (12.7)
5. Blaney (12.8)
4. Winning percentage
This is probably a better overall indicator than wins alone in that it takes the number of races into account. While Kyle Busch and Truex have four wins apiece, Truex has accomplished his in fewer races, though in this case, only two races separate the pair. But Elliott’s two wins in nine starts put him at the top of the list.
This statistic does favor drivers with fewer starts, so that’s something to consider when making comparisons.
Top-five breakdown by winning percentage:
1. Elliott (22.2%)
2. Truex (13.8%)
3. Kyle Busch (12.9%)
4. Blaney (11.1%)
5. Harvick (5.1%)
5. Top 5 percentage and top 10 percentage
Again, there’s more depth here, bringing a few other players to the table, and consistent top finishes reveal a little more about a driver than wins alone. The drawback is the same as winning percent in that the stat favors fewer starts, but it does begin to paint a picture of who is consistently strong, and for drivers with fewer starts, it’s a better predictor of future numbers than any other number alone.
Top five breakdown of top-five percentage:
1. (Tie) Jones (40%)
2. Daniel Suarez (40%)
3. Bowyer (37.9%)
4. Kyle Busch (35.5%)
5. Truex (34.5%)
1. Jones (71.4%)
2. Kyle Busch (61.3%)
3. (Tie) Elliott (55.5%)
3. Blaney (55.5%)
5. Bowyer (55.2)
So, what does all this data really mean? Not much other than what it is on paper. Sunday’s winner could come from somewhere in this group, and it’s a safe bet it will, but it’s also possible that another driver will take the win.
Does it answer the question of who the best road racer is right now? Not really, because well, does Busch’s stellar long-term record trump Elliott’s hot streak right now? Maybe, maybe not. And where does Bowyer fit in, with just one win but stellar numbers across the board? Or Truex, who’s right there with Busch for the most part?
Statistics are a valuable tool, to be sure, but there are plenty to look at, and you need to look at more than one to paint an accurate picture. But there are no statistics for intangibles, and numbers don’t make a driver. They’re just fun to look at and they certainly give us something to talk about during the week.