Race to the Chase: Rating Drivers Via Loop Data DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 31, 2006) -- The battle for the coveted spots in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup is especially intense this year. Drivers are routinely gaining or losing as many as...
Race to the Chase: Rating Drivers Via Loop Data
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (July 31, 2006) -- The battle for the coveted spots in the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup is especially intense this year. Drivers are routinely gaining or losing as many as four spots in the point standings in just one race. Clearly, the pressure is on to perform with six races remaining in the "Race to the Chase."
With that pressure comes some pertinent questions.
Which drivers have the best chance of strong runs over the next half-dozen races?
Which will have to really step it up to qualify for a berth in the Chase?
Which tracks are best-suited to each driver?
Which tracks have historically been sources of frustration?
NASCAR's Loop Data from 2005 and 2006 provides the Driver Rating, an empirical and unbiased measurement of driver performance. It goes far beyond finishing position to give a complete picture of a driver's accomplishments and his run throughout races. Using the cumulative driver rating over the six remaining tracks in the Race to the Chase, here is a ranking of the top 14 drivers in the point standings (the top 10 plus others within 250 points of 10th place) along with tracks that may help or hinder their making the Chase.
No. 1 -- Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 114.6. Top Track: Watkins Glen (150.0). Trouble Track: Michigan (94.3). During the upcoming six-race stretch, Stewart has dominated the loop data over the past season-and-a-half. Even though his emotional win at his hometown track in Indianapolis garnered most of the attention last year, his performance at Watkins Glen was even more impressive, yielding a "perfect" driver rating of 150.0, showing how strong Stewart is at these tracks. His "trouble" track is Michigan, where his driver rating is a still-impressive 94.3, but he will try to rebound from a 41st place finish in June.
No. 2 -- Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Power Tools Ford). Overall Driver Rating: 102.1. Top Track: Bristol (125.9). Trouble Track: Watkins Glen (72.0). With a win and a third-place finish in his past two races at Bristol and the top driver rating at this track, Matt Kenseth is certainly looking forward to rubbing fenders at the intense half-mile concrete oval. But there's a good chance that the 2003 series champion is looking to just make it through Watkins Glen, where he's led just one lap in six career starts.
No. 3 -- Greg Biffle (No. 16 National Guard/Subway Ford). Overall Driver Rating: 101.8. Top Track: Michigan (121.5). Trouble Track: Watkins Glen (63.4). Currently just 44 points out of 10th place in the point standings, Biffle has to be encouraged with his third-place ranking among all drivers in the remaining Race to the Chase races. In fact, Biffle has the top driver rating overall at both Michigan and California, is second at Bristol and fourth at Richmond. Watkins Glen is clearly the biggest challenge for Biffle, where his average finish is 34th.
No. 4 -- Mark Martin (No. 6 AAA Ford). Overall Driver Rating: 97.3. Top Track: California (109.5). Trouble Track: Bristol (79.7) The veteran driver who has raced his way into the Chase the past two years has Watkins Glen and California to look forward to. Martin has three career wins and four consecutive top-10 finishes at The Glen, plus one win and six career top 10s at California Speedway. Martin's "trouble" track is a surprise, considering he has two career wins at Bristol. However, he has just one top-10 finish in his last 11 races at the Tennessee track.
No. 5 -- Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge). Overall Driver Rating: 96.8. Indianapolis (130.4). Trouble Track: Watkins Glen (73.1). Even though Tony Stewart got all the attention at Indianapolis last year, Kahne actually had a higher driver rating (130.4) than Stewart (128.4) and bested him in the average running position category (4.044 to Stewart's 7.075) en route to a second-place finish. At Watkins Glen, Kahne's best finish is 14th and he has never led a lap on a road course.
No. 6 -- Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge). Overall Driver Rating: 95.5. Top Track: Richmond (114.8). Trouble Track: Indianapolis (73.9). The 2004 series champion needs to race hard over the next six races to try to secure a spot in the Chase, and a driver rating higher than 95 on four tracks shows his potential to do this. Richmond and Michigan may be his best chances to make up ground on his competitors. Busch won last year's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond and has the third-best driver rating at the track. He has one win and five top 10s at Michigan and has the third-highest average running position. Although Busch has five wins at Bristol, the loop data (2005 and 2006) shows that his average running position and driver ranking are eighth among all drivers. At Indianapolis, Busch's driver rating was 17th best and his average running position ranked him 16th among all drivers.
No. 7 -- Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 91.2. Top Track: Richmond (118.5). Trouble Track: Bristol (76.0). The Virginia native has his top driver rating at his home track at Richmond, where he finished second to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in May. Given his brief racing resume, his "trouble" track is Bristol, where he started 33rd and finished 14th in March.
No. 8 -- Kevin Harvick (No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 90.6. Top Track: Richmond (125.5). Trouble Track: Michigan (68.6). Harvick has the best driver rating and average running position (3.855) of all drivers at Richmond, the crucial last stop in the Race to the Chase. At Michigan, Harvick has just one top-10 finish in the last five races.
No. 9 -- Kyle Busch (No. 5 Kellogg's Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 88.8. Top Track: Richmond (108.8). Trouble Track: Watkins Glen (63.9). Busch's top driver rating is at Richmond, where he is seventh- ranked among all drivers and he is tied with Tony Stewart for third among all drivers in the Average Running Position category (6.799). The track that has been the biggest challenge for Busch is Watkins Glen, where he finished 33rd last year.
No. 10 -- Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 86.8. Top Track: Bristol (102.8). Trouble Track: Richmond (65.0). The four-time series champion currently sits in ninth place in the driver point standings, just 50 points ahead of 11th place driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon has his top driver rating at Bristol, where he has five career wins. Richmond has clearly been the challenge for Gordon over the past few years, where he has finished 39th, 30th, and 40th in the previous three races.
No. 11 -- Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford). Overall Driver Rating: 84.9. Top Track: Michigan (113.5). Trouble Track: Bristol (66.9). Even though Edwards has a big challenge in front of him to make the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, he only needs to look to teammate Matt Kenseth for inspiration. Kenseth was 213 points out of 10th place with just six races remaining in last year's Race to the Chase, yet he made an incredible run to qualify for the Chase. Michigan and California appear to offer the biggest hope for Edwards. He is second ranked in both driver rating and average running position at Michigan, and third and fifth in those categories, respectively, at California. Bristol is Edwards' "trouble" track, but his fourth-place finish in March may give him hope to overcome previous finishes of 24th, 26th and 33rd.
No. 12 -- Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 84.2. Top Track: Watkins Glen (117.7). Trouble Track: Richmond (56.9). As Johnson's 12th-place ranking shows, the six tracks remaining in the Race to the Chase may be the opportunity for Johnson's competitors to get within the 400-point margin of the leader, which would gain them assured entry into the Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. Johnson's ranking among all drivers in driver rating at three key tracks reflects past struggles: Indianapolis (26th ranked), Bristol (25th) and Richmond (33rd). However, Watkins Glen may be the place that Johnson should look to gain valuable points. This is where his best driver rating is and where he has two top-five finishes in the past three years.
No. 13 -- Jeff Burton (No. 31 Cingular Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 73.5. Top Track: Richmond (83.8). Trouble Track: Watkins Glen (56.0). Burton has one win and 11 top-10 finishes at Richmond, in addition to finishing in the top 20 in 15 of the last 18 races at the three-quarters-mile oval in his home state. The "trouble" track for Burton is Watkins Glen, where he finished 43rd last year and has not finished in the top 10 in the last three years. Burton can see hope, however, in his three top-seven finishes from 2000 to 2002 at the New York road course.
No. 14 -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet). Overall Driver Rating: 73.3. Top Track: Michigan (91.7). Trouble Track: Indianapolis (27.9). Although Dale Earnhardt Jr. is currently just 15 points out of 10th in the driver standings, the driver rating shows that Earnhardt may need to run better than he ever has over the next six races. His top track is Michigan, where he finished third in June's 3M Performance 400. His struggles over this stretch in the past have focused on Indianapolis and California. At Indy he finished 43rd last year and has yet to finish higher than 10th at the track. At California he has no top 10s in his last five starts.