Garage preview
Ryan McGee [ARCHIVE]
ESPN The Magazine
February 21, 2013
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This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 4 Analytics issue. Subscribe today!

Welcome to our annual ESPN The Magazine NASCAR garage preview. In the spirit of our Analytics Issue (on newsstands 2/22), we're employing NASCAR's ever-increasing mountain of loop data, including the most underappreciated statistic in all of sports: Driver Rating.

Since 2005, the sanctioning body has recorded digital information on each car -- not just at the start-finish line, but also at multiple points around the racetrack. The result has been a strikingly detailed turn-by-turn portrait of the strengths and weaknesses of every team and driver, sometimes going against their most widely accepted racing reputations.

To help us sort through it all, we employed the help of Mike Forde, aka Loop Dogg, NASCAR's loop data guru. He reminds us that when it comes to Driver Rating, the formula may be complicated (see an explanation here), but understanding it is simple.

"A perfect score is 150, and anything over 100 is very solid, whether you're talking about one race or an entire season," Forde explained late last season. "When you get slightly below 100, there were some issues, but there were also some aspects to be proud of. You start getting into the 70s and below, and you didn't have the performance you were looking for."

With those numbers in hand, let's look forward by looking back.


2012: 10 wins, 82 top 10s, 16 DNFs

Jimmie Johnson (109.5 Driver Rating): Five-time led the series in top 10s (24), but also tied for tops in DNFs (6) among the non-start-and-parks.

Kasey Kahne (96.3): What a turnaround. Kahne's Average Running Place during his first six races with HMS was 22.448 -- ranked 24th. In the 10 races of the Chase, it was 8.065 (second-best).

Jeff Gordon (98.0): Four-time Cup winner spent 88 percent of the Chase laps running inside the top 15 -- third-best and 3.2 percent better than defending champion Brad Keselowski.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (95.9): Loop data reveals Dale Jr. needs to work on closing out races. In the last 10 percent of 2012 races, he lost an anemic 41 positions on the track.

Many -- well, most -- preseason publications and polls have Johnson atop the heap, drawing the ire of the never-small, anti-Jimmie fan base. But a quick thumbing through the Loop Data shows that such speculation isn't a dissing of Keselowski. It merely proves just how close Johnson was to edging BK for the Cup.

Johnson not only led the series in Driver Rating (109.5), he nearly swept the 15 statistical categories that Forde cranks out each week, topping the list in Average Running Position (9.167); Fastest Early in a Run (average rank: 5.103); Fastest Late in a Run (5.207); Fastest Laps Run (1171 or 12.9 percent); Fastest on Restarts (10.194); Green Flag Speed (4.172); Laps in Top 15 (84.4 percent); Laps Led (16.7 percent); Miles Led (2228.21); Percentage of Laps Run on the Lead Lap (92.28 percent); Speed by Quarter (by the way, he also led each quarter overall); and Speed in Traffic.


7 wins, 49 top 10s, 11 DNFs

Matt Kenseth (99.9): Mr. Slow-And-Steady-Wins-The-Race ranked a not-so-surprising fourth among drivers who were fastest in the final 25 percent of laps run since a pit stop, when cars are at their worst.

Denny Hamlin (100.9): One of only two Chase drivers to post a 100-plus Driver Rating for the season.

Kyle Busch (101.5): The only driver outside the Chase with a 100-plus Driver Rating and second overall, trailing only Johnson.

Hamlin and Busch both have reps for being strong on restarts and fast early in green flag runs. The Loop Data merely proves that to be correct. The Fastest on Restarts statistic ranks each driver on the speed of their first two laps under green flag conditions. Hamlin and Busch ranked second and third in 2012. Only Johnson was higher. They were also ranked second and third -- Busch leading Hamlin -- in the category of Fastest Drivers Early In A Run, which ranks drivers based on speed in the first 25 percent of laps run following a pit stop. Again, they trailed only Johnson.


5 wins, 27 top 10s, 5 DNFs

Brad Keselowski (99.0): His average finishing position for the 26-race regular season was 11.5. During the Chase, it was 6.3.

Joey Logano (79.4): Sliced Bread just isn't fast, finishing 21st in Green Flag Speed, which ranks drivers based on average mph under green throughout each race.

So, if Johnson was such a Loop Data juggernaut, how in the world did Keselowski manage to win the championship? The two categories that Johnson didn't win went to Bad Brad, including the stat that Loop Dogg considers to be one of the most important. Keselowski led the series in Quality Passes, which are passes of cars inside the top 15 during green flag conditions. The Blue Deuce racked up 2,201 Quality Passes, 208 more than any driver.

"This is significant," Forde says. "These are the toughest cars -- with the most talented drivers -- to pass, and Keselowski did it more often than any other driver." Forde points out that considering BK's average starting position (a highly generic 16.2), he had to do it often. In fact, Keselowski is the first champion to fail to win a pole in his championship season since Kenseth in 2003.


4 wins, 30 top 10s, 7 DNFs

Tony Stewart (86.1): Smoke spent only 51.1 percent of the year inside the top 15, dropping to 45.1 during the Chase.

Ryan Newman (82.0): Loop Data says Newman was tops among Closers, improving his position by two spots in the final 10 percent of each race.

Danica Patrick (46.3): Among the 13 drivers who started all 33 Nationwide Series races in '12, her Driver Rating of 79.9 was ninth -- one spot better than her final points position.

The most puzzling aspect of SHR's 2012 struggles was the severe drop-off the team experienced in the fall, especially when compared to Stewart's historic postseason the year before. After 18 races and his win at Daytona (third of the year), Smoke's Driver Rating was still a somewhat-thin 91.4. He never won again. At the end of the 26-race regular season, his rating was 87.9; during the 10-race Chase it plummeted to 81.5.

As Forde likes to point out, the Loop doesn't lie, even when a team might look good on the surface. "Yeah, the wins kind of masked some bigger issues," Stewart acknowledged. "And Ryan didn't have the usual good fall push he does, either." If that happens again, considering Danica has moved in and Kevin Harvick is about to, Newman might be looking elsewhere for a job.


5 wins, 53 top 10s, 5 DNFs

Greg Biffle (99.5): He's nothing if not consistent. Average position at midrace and...
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