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Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reviewing 2006 Driver Ratings

When trying to decide the drivers with the best seasons, the easiest place to look is the final point standings. The problem with basing success off the points system is well, the points system. You can only tell so much by the finishing position, but there is much more going on. It is similar to baseball stats. One player might have 3 singles and seven strikeouts in ten at bats. The other slugger might have three home runs, five walks and seven outs in fifteen plate appearances. Both players are hitting .300, but the second one has a much better line. Obviously baseball is a linear game where individual stats are easily isolated. Nascar has many variables all in play at the same, but the intent of the driver ratings is the same. Provide a better idea of what actually happened during the race.

Many times finishing position and the associated points do not show the whole story. Yes, finishing a race is the ultimate measuring stick, but there is a big difference between finishing 28th because of poor handling and finishing 33rd with a blown engine that occurs after leading most of the race. Nascar's new
Driver Ratings help to tell more of the story. The ratings come from a formula combining Win, Finish, Top-15 Finish, Average Running Position while on Lead Lap, Average Speed Under Green, Fastest Lap, Led Most Laps, Lead-Lap Finish. Unfortunately the actual equation used is hard to find. Maybe it's similar to Nascar's mythical rulebook. Even Ryan Smithson at Nascar.com didn't have any ideas (I really appreciate him checking). Regardless, the ratings help create a fuller picture of what actually happened during a single race or throughout the year.

Jimmie Johnson (101.9) and Matt Kenseth (101.7) finished with nearly identical ratings. On a scale ranging from 1 to 150, a 100 driver rating is the equivalent of finishing in the top ten every week. Nearly everyone can agree these were the two most consistent drivers all season long. Since the Cup season is based on consistency, they also deserve to be called the two best drivers in 2006. After the top two, the numbers begin to show differences.

Based on ratings, Tony Stewart (97.0 5th) and Greg Biffle(94.9 8th) had top ten seasons. Despite missing the Chase it was obvious Stewart had an excellent season, especially with three wins during the Chase. Biffle only had two wins but did lead 993 laps, showing he was up front for the majority of races even when finishes didn't show it. Chase drivers like Mark Martin and Kyle Busch were not rated in the top in driver ratings.

One of the more interesting comparisons is two Chase drivers, Denny Hamlin and Jeff Gordon. Both drivers won 2 races during the year, but had rather different positions in points and driver rating. Hamlin finished third in the points, but his 91.7 driver rating was 10th best. His average running position was 14.1, but averaged a 12.5 finish. When it’s boiled down, Hamlin basically ran races in the middle of the pack and was able to finish higher in the end. This is not necessarily a slight to Hamlin or his team. It is a valuable skill to recover from incidents or maximize your finishes. Use his first win at Pocono as exhibit A of Hamlin's unflappability. Hamlin also had several races where he had a better finish based solely on attrition.

On the other side is Gordon. He finished sixth in the point standings, but was third in driver ratings (98.5). Gordon had several races where late-race problems ruined top ten finishes. His driver rating shows when he was on the track he was fast. His average running position was 11, second only to Johnson. His average finish was 14.9. Some of this discrepancy was due to late-race fades, especially at the start of the year, but also to mechanical failures or crashes out of his hands.

Again, kudos to Hamlin for being in position to capitalize on the situation, but a driver that is consistently running up front is more impressive, whether the finishes show it or not. When Gordon was on the track, he primarily ran up front. This isn't to say that Gordon deserves more credit, or that Hamlin stole his finishes. The races are 400 or 500 miles and finishing is job number one.

This is the first year for the rating system. It will be interesting to see what the numbers show long term, and also what improvements are made. And at some point maybe the formula itself will be revealed, but no one should hold their breath.