Blog: If you ain't first...you're last?

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Steve Kim

In the movie Talladega Nights, Reece Bobby said to his son Ricky Bobby (Will Farrell), "if you ain't first, you're last." Later in the movie, Reece denies he ever said it and explains to Ricky "you can be second, third, fourth... hell you can even be fifth."

In reality, most of us view not winning as losing. So there is some truth to the first quote in how we think about races. Here's a quick test: Who finished fifth in this year's Daytona 500? Who was second at Bristol last year? Fourth at Martinsville? Sixth in the Sprint Cup Chase in 2011?

It's crystal clear -- we allocate most of our brain matter to the winners and winning moments.

Jimmie Johnson, Hendricks Motorsports Chevrolet
Jimmie Johnson, Hendricks Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

Unfortunately, winning NASCAR races is extremely difficult. A racer has to beat out the other 42 highly talented racers. For instance, Jimmie Johnson battles not only Tony Stewart, but the other 41 drivers who have chances to beat Johnson and Stewart. In most sports, the neutral probability is 50%. When teams or players are matched up evenly, each side has a 50% chance of winning. Not in racing. When everything is fairly matched in NASCAR, each driver has 1/43 chance of winning or 2.33%. That's a whopping 97.67% losing rate.

This is the key reason why drivers, no matter how great, experience extended winless streaks. Even the elite drivers' chances to win are no more than 7% to at best 10%, which point to a loss rate of 90% or higher. The current example of a talented racer in a winless stretch is Dale Jr, whose winless streak has stretched to 132. I recently posted an analysis on this topic.

Here's another way to look at the difficulty of winning races.

Let's say a driver has 2.33% chance of winning (field average). The case of the driver winning is about similar to that driver losing 160 consecutive races (assuming all are held constant through those 160 races). So for the average driver in NASCAR, winning one race is about as likely as that driver losing 160 in a row, or more than four years of races.

Now pick someone below average. Based on published odds, Gaughan, Labonte, Ragan, Almirola, Vickers and Smith each have 0.7% of winning. I think Danica Patrick, when she's racing Sprint Cup events, belongs in this category, if at all. For these drivers, winning one race is as likely as losing 700 races in a row. Usually drivers cannot go on not winning for that long. At some point sponsors would back out.

Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota
Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

How about the elites? Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch belong in this category, I believe. Let's say they each have 7.5% chance of winning a race. That means winning one race for them is about likely as losing 33 or so races in a row, or one year's worth of racing.

The other drivers are somewhere between the two opposite examples I just mentioned. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Earnhardt Jr. and a bunch of others can win on any Sunday (or Monday if it rains). Their win probability is around 5% or less though I think. At 5 percent, a win is as likely as 58 losses, which is a year and a half of Sprint Cup racing.

So next time your favorite racer wins, cherish. I mean really cherish it. It may not happen again for a while.

Below, I list out the win rate and corresponding number of consecutive losses that is likely as a single win.

Win Rate (Number of Consecutive Losses = 1 Win)
0.70% (700 losses as likely as a single win)
1.00% (455)
2.33% (160)
5.00% (58)
7.50% (33)
10.00% (22)

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Tags danica, featured, johnson, patrick, steve kim, stewart