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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is Nextel Cup really that wide open?

People often claim that Nextel Cup races are more competitive than ever. More teams have a chance at winning any given race. Parity works for the NFL, and it sounds good when you think that 15-25 drivers have a shot to win any given race. But is it really true?

Comparing the seasons back to 2000, the answer appears to be no. In 2001, 19 different drivers won a Cup race. 2006 had 13 different winners, following a downward trend since 2001. It’s a gradual decline in the total number of different drivers, but the numbers show fewer drivers with a greater share of wins.

The other noteworthy trend is the decline in the number of teams that win a race each year. Last year Roush had five drivers win one or more races for a total of 15 wins. This year Hendrick Motorsports four cars won a combined 9 races. The trend makes sense. One organization gains an edge and each driver benefits. Likewise a team that is struggling hurts every driver in the stable.

Five years is a pretty small sample size, but in this case it lines up with a significant development in Nascar: The multi-car team. Sure Hendrick and Roush raced multiple cars as early as the mid-80’s, but the trend truly gathered steam at the beginning of this decade. This is when Childress, Ganassi and Penske began racing multiple teams. Other teams like Gibbs and Evernham have enjoyed greater success with additional cars too (strangely Penske has downsized). Next year DEI, Ginn Motorsports and Michael Waltrip Racing will also have three teams. In half a decade three teams has become the minimum requirement for top flight race teams.

Season

Drivers w wins

Owners w wins

% wins for top 3 Owners

% of top 5’s for winning drivers

2006

13

7

61

70

2005

15

8

83

77

2004

13

8

75

69

2003

17

9

58

82

2002

17

11

58

82

2001

19

13

47

79

2000

14

8

64

80

In the age of multi-car teams, it's probably more relevant to look at the number of teams that scored victories. The last single-car team to win was PPI Racing in 2003. That was the famous Darlington race when Ricky Craven narrowly edged Kurt Busch by .01 seconds. The average number of winning teams per season is 9 in the last seven years. That falls in line with the number of winning drivers in the years preceeding. Again, this makes sense. Ten years ago there were 8-10 winning owners that ran one, maybe two cars. Now there are the same number of winning owners, except the wins are spread across several cars from one team. Where Jeff Gordon won 13 races in 1998, now Hendrick Motorsports has 9 wins among four different drivers.

The third column shows the win share among the top three teams each year. In 2006, Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress had a combined 22 wins. In 2005 Roush, Hendrick and Gibbs scored 30 of the 36 possible wins. So it is not really true that every race is up for grabs among 15 drivers. It is actually limited to drivers on three or four of the strong teams.

The last column shows the percentage of top fives that winning drivers capture. If you consistently run in the top five, the chances for winning improve. It was surprising that this number decreased as well. If there are certain cars winning the majority of the race, it makes sense that these same cars would be in the top five the majority of the time. So while it is harder to win a race, the chances of a non-winner getting a top five appear to be better.

As I mentioned before it is a very small sample size to make a serious conclusion. It does help to debunk the myth that Nextel Cup is wide open. It has always had a few teams that are ahead of everyone else, and still appears that way. At some point I'd like to expand the stats to include more years to see if this really does make sense.

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