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Dr. Diandra: Fact-checking Kyle Busch’s statement about late-season rank changes

Kim Coon, Dustin Long and Dale Jarrett react to Alex Bowman's injury that will keep him out for three-to-four weeks with a fractured vertebrae.

After taking the checkered flag at Talladega last week, Kyle Busch shared a piece of NASCAR oral wisdom regarding the nature of late-season driver rank changes.

“Somebody told me this a long time ago,” Busch said. “That any time you get to Charlotte, Coke 600, from there to the end of the season, points fluctuation, one or two spots barring something stupid happening. Three blown up motors in a row will hurt that. Other than that, the cycle of racing naturally, you’ll end up about the same spot.”

My mission: Find out if this hypothesis is true.

Defining the problem

First, let’s make it clear that I’m fact-checking Busch’s statement, not Busch himself. He’s repeating a piece of received knowledge.

There is some uncertainty in the hypothesis because the Charlotte race was 10th on the schedule in 1990. When Kyle ran his first full season, in 2005, the Coca-Cola 600 was the 12th race of the season. This year, it’s the 14th points-paying race. Regardless, we’re entering that time frame.

Because points reset after the regular season, I’ll limit the data to the first 26 races. Rank doesn’t have the same meaning once the playoffs start.

I’m using graphs — and I know that panics some people. But if you really want to understand NASCAR — for fantasy leagues, betting, or your own enjoyment — graphs are your best friends. Just as drivers rely on SMT data (also graphs), you will understand racing much faster with graphs than with tables of numbers.

Arguments for the statement

Let me walk you through two graphs summarizing Chase Elliott’s 2022 regular season. The top graph shows Elliott’s rank each week. Better rankings are toward the top of the graph. The bottom graph shows how many points Elliott earned in each race. Clear bars indicate a DNF.

Two graphs showing weekly ranking and points earned by Chase Elliott in 2022 as part of a study to see how late-season rankings change

Elliott finished 10th at the Daytona 500 and 26th at Fontana, putting him in 19th place after two races. But rankings can fluctuate wildly in the first few weeks of the season because point totals are so low.

Two top-10 and one 11th-place finish moved Elliott from 19th to the top spot by the fifth race. Strong runs (and wins) kept him in first for the rest of the regular season, despite his midpoint Kansas-Charlotte-Gateway stumbles.

By the time he reached Daytona, Elliott had built up enough of a points lead that even DNF-ing the final race of the regular season didn’t knock him out of first place.

Elliott is far from unique. Many drivers stay at about the same ranking in the second half of the regular season. After 10 to 15 races, most drivers have established their average performance level. Large changes in rank require improvement to the car or a series of mechanical failures, for example.

When ‘something stupid’ happens

Although many drivers don’t change rank much after Charlotte, that doesn’t guarantee that they can’t change positions. As Busch said, “something stupid” can always happen. His graph for 2022 shows what that looks like.

Two graphs showing weekly ranking and points earned by Kyle Busch in 2022 as part of a study to see how late-season rankings change

Busch ranked third at Charlotte in 2022 — although he was sixth just two races before. Rapid changes in rankings tells you that the points were very close.

After Charlotte, Busch was disqualified at Pocono and crashed at Michigan. His finishes at Road America and Sonoma were disappointing. His ranking fell from a high of second to eighth at regular season’s end.

Incidentally, Busch’s two engine failures last year both happened in the playoffs. That contributed to his finishing the season in 13th place.

The counterexample

Although many drivers do obey our hypothesis, Kyle Larson is one of a number who don’t.

Two graphs showing weekly ranking and points earned by Kyle Larsonin 2022 as part of a study to see how late-season rankings change

Larson’s season was up and down from the start. His rank reflected that, oscillating throughout the season.

Larson was ninth coming out of the Coca Cola 600 in 2022 but rose all the way to second by the penultimate regular-season race. If he hadn’t wrecked at the last race of the regular season, he might have finished the regular season in second place.

That would have been a rise of seven positions, but even ninth to fifth is an appreciable change in rank from Charlotte to the end of the regular season.

What can we infer about this year?

A driver’s rank depends not only on his own performance, but also on other drivers’ performances, too. Larson’s rise was facilitated in part by Busch’s struggles.

How quickly rank changes depends on how close the points are. Last year, the gap between first and 10th place was 103 points after 10 races. This year, it’s 61 points. Only 21 points separate sixth through 12th place.

Kyle Busch sits in eighth place as of Talladega, 52 points out of first. Last year at the same time, Busch was in fourth place, 56 points out of first.

Changing ranks is harder later in the season because each race counts for an increasingly smaller part of the average. Sixty points is 50% of 120 points, but only 0.5% of 800 points.

Busch is right that, more often than not, rankings do tend to find their level after the first dozen or so races. Some drivers don’t move more than one or two places after that. But some do. Because “stupid stuff” does happen.

So does good stuff.