Dr. Diandra: Next Gen road course masters
Watkins Glen marks the fifth road course race with the Next Gen car. That’s enough data to start separating Next Gen road course masters from those still struggling with the new car. That’s particularly important given the impact of a 16th winner on the playoffs.
Overall average finishing positions
Before delving into road course stats, let’s consider drivers’ overall average finishing positions. They look a lot different than at this point last season.
Some drivers, even those with wins, struggle with the Next Gen car.
- Denny Hamlin’s current average finishing position is 18.7, which is 9.6 positions higher than in 2021.
- Hamlin’s drop is double that of the driver with the next largest change. Brad Keselowski’s average finishing position of 18.8 is 4.8 positions worse relative to 2021.
- William Byron (up 4.7 positions), Kyle Larson (up 4.4 positions) and Kyle Busch (up 3.7 positions) round out the top-five drivers with worse average finishing positions in 2022 than 2021.
Other drivers have found advantages.
- Justin Haley has improved the most, from a mean finish of 25.9 to 18.6. That’s 7.3 positions. (This comparison may be a little unfair. Kaulig Racing had very limited experience with the Gen-6 car.)
- Aric Almirola improved by 4.6 positions.
- Ross Chastain has improved 4.5 positions, and teammate Daniel Suárez has improved 4.4 positions.
Gaining in the middle
Most of 2021’s top-ranked drivers have worse average finishes in 2022. This year’s gainers are predominantly last year’s mid-tier drivers. That’s consistent with the large number of winners.
- In 2021, 21 full-time drivers had average finish positions under 20 after 24 races.
- In 2022, 25 full-time drivers have average finish positions under 20.
Compare those numbers with the numbers of drivers with top-15 average finishes.
- Thirteen drivers had average finishing positions under 15 in 2021.
- Only eight drivers have average finishing positions under 15 in 2022.
That’s numerical confirmation of a more-level playing field.
The drivers with under-15 average finishes in both 2021 and 2022 are Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Larson and Kevin Harvick, winner of the season’s past two races. The two drivers with average finishing positions above 15 in 2021 but under 15 in 2022 are Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell.
But these drivers arrived at their average finishing positions in very different ways.
The best 2022 road racers
The next graph shows average finishing positions for road courses in 2022.
Austin Cindric hasn’t won a Cup Series road course race, but he holds the highest average finish in 2022 road course competitions. Two of Cindric’s four top-five finishes came at road courses. His worst finish at a road course is eighth at Circuit of the Americas.
Cindric beats second-place Elliott by two full positions. A 16th-place finish at the Indianapolis road course pulls Elliott’s average down. He has a 4.7 average finishing position at the other three road course races. Elliott’s 7.5 average finishing position is 1.4 positions higher than his 2021 average.
Michael McDowell ranks third in 2022 with an average finishing position of 8.0 — an 18-position improvement. In 2021, McDowell tied for 20th with Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Toyota’s highest ranking driver on road courses is 10th overall. Christopher Bell has a 15.0 average finishing position. He’s improved 1.6 positions over 2021.
Biggest gains and losses 2021 versus 2022
Let’s compare drivers’ 2021 and 2022 average finishes at road courses directly. The bar length indicates the size of the change. Red arrows indicate poorer performance in 2022 than 2021. Blue arrows indicate improvement.
I arranged the drivers from biggest loss to biggest gain.
Drivers whose performance hasn’t changed very much occupy the graph’s center. In addition to Elliott’s already noted consistency:
- Truex’s average finish dropped from 15.1 to 16.8.
- A.J. Allmendinger’s average finishing position is up one spot relative to 2021.
- Blaney is better in 2022, but only by 0.18 positions.
Comparing changes in road course finishes to overall finishes shows that some drivers are doing much better — or much worse — at road courses than in general.
- Kyle Busch’s average finish at road courses showed the largest drop. But his overall average finish position is only 3.7 positions worse than 2021.
- McDowell has the largest improvement in road course finishes, but his overall average only improved by 1.7.
Those differences prompted me to separate road course data from other track types.
Road course versus non-road course finishes
I compared each driver’s change in average finish at road courses relative to his change in finish at non-road courses on the scatter plot below.
The horizontal axis represents change in finish at road courses. A positive number (i.e., the right side of the graph) means the driver finished better at road courses in 2022. Being on the left side means the opposite.
The vertical axis is the change in non-road course finishes. Being in the top half of the graph means improvement relative to 2021. Being in the lower half means the driver’s performance at non-road courses is worse this year than last.
The best place on this graph is the upper right-hand quadrant. Drivers there improved in road course and non-road course tracks.
The worst place is the bottom-left quadrant. Drivers there have worse performances this year in both categories of tracks.
The upper-left quadrant includes drivers doing worse on road courses, but better on non-road courses. The lower-right quadrant holds drivers doing better on road courses and worse on non-road courses.
- McDowell is in the upper-right quadrant, but close to the horizontal axis. That means his road course improvement is much greater than his improvement on non-road courses.
- Kyle Busch exemplifies the opposite situation. His average finish in non-road course races is worse by just 0.21 positions. But his road course average finish is worse by almost 13 positions.
- Larson’s numbers are smaller but in the same direction as Kyle Busch. His non-road course average is worse by 3.2 positions, but his average road course finish was 12.8 positions worse.
When choosing drivers for Watkins Glen (3 p.m., USA Network), give the drivers on the right-hand side of this graph a second look.
Comparing last year with this year necessarily eliminates rookies. It also neglects this year’s non-Cup Series regulars. Although Cindric’s rookie season has been rocky, road courses have been some of his best races. Don’t overlook him.