Beyond the standard statistics, like average finish and laps led, more and more fantasy NASCAR owners are digging through loop data statistics for an edge in making driver selections. Sabermetrics changed the way we look at baseball and, in turn, the fantasy game. Just think of loop data as the gasoline-powered equivalent.
Starting in 2005 NASCAR began using computerized scoring loops to help improve the accuracy and efficiency of in-race scoring. By using electronic wires imbedded in the track and transponders installed on each car, this high-tech system has also benefited fantasy owners a great deal. In order to install loop data into your weekly strategy, you first need to know the best statistics that come under the hood of this powerful package of information.
Like the NFL's passer rating, driver rating is a complex formula that uses a wide spectrum of traditional statistics as well as loop data to compile a final tally. A perfect score is 150.0, but a driver rating in the 90s and above reflects a strong effort. Consider driver rating to be a good overview of performance, but owners should always look deeper in order to find the keys to a successful rating.
Despite failing to qualify for the Chase in 2012, Kyle Busch finished the season with a driver rating of 101.5, second to only Jimmie Johnson's 109.5. In the final two races, Rowdy put together his best driver rating performances of the season. At Phoenix he led a race-high 237 of 319 laps and finished third with an average running position of second. The following week at Homestead, Busch paced 191 of the 267 circuits and finished fourth with an average running position of third. Busch continues to prove he can be a big-time fantasy asset, even if he doesn't make the Chase. The addition of Matt Kenseth and a newly signed contact should improve both Busch's performance and comfort level at Joe Gibbs Racing.
Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne both finished inside the top five of points but were eighth and ninth, respectively, in driver rating. The thing that hurt their ratings was the lack of laps led. Each driver placed outside of the top seven drivers when it came to pacing the field.
Champion Brad Keselowski ended up sixth in driver rating, but exceeded his season average of 99.0 in half of the final 20 races.
Tony Stewart made the Chase on points but would not if things were based on driver rating. Despite winning three races, Smoke's 86.1 rating puts him 13th among all drivers, just ahead of Carl Edwards's 84.2 rating.
Average running position
Arguably the most useful loop data statistic available, average running position is the sum of the driver's position on each lap divided by the laps run in the race. What makes average running position so valuable is the ability to pinpoint overperformers and underperformers each week. For example, a driver that averages a run inside the top five yet finishes in the 20s more than likely ran into trouble late in the race. The opposite is true for a driver that steals a good finish on a late gamble after averaging a midpack run.
Kevin Harvick won a Chase race but was a non-factor every other week of last season. His average running position of 12.9 was good for just 12th among all drivers. While Harvick was able to avoid poor finishes his overall ceiling was low given his previous level of performance.
Just ahead of Harvick with an average running position of 12.6 was Kasey Kahne. The driver of the No. 5 car was hit with four DNFs early in the season, so some of his loop data figures are weighed down a bit. Kahne finished fourth in points. He held an average running position of 10th in both the Texas and Homestead races, yet finished outside of the top 20.
Laps in the top 15
The percentage of laps in the top 15 spent by a driver is a great way to identify how much of the race they were in the competitive mix. However, there a few things that can throw laps in the top 15 and average running position off a bit. For example, a poor starting position will make it tougher for a driver to crack the top 15 on most tracks. Also, the restrictor plate races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway can make these two numbers almost irrelevant, depending on a driver's strategy. Some will purposely fade through the field to avoid the hectic action. Also, gaining or losing the draft can alter a driver's running position by a dozen spots, if not more, in a single lap.
Despite the less than stellar showing in driver rating, Keselowski placed second with 77.2 percent of laps spent in the top 15, well behind Johnson's 84.4 series-best percent. The other drivers to break 75 percent were: Mark Martin (77.1), Jeff Gordon (76.8), Bowyer (76.7), Martin Truex Jr. (76.6) and Kenseth (75.2).
Passing a car running in the top 15 while under green flag conditions earns the driver a quality pass. Starting position can play a factor with this one as a driver that's already upfront obviously can't pass as many people in the top 15. Still, it's a useful statistic, especially when reviewing a driver for his ability to overcome a mediocre starting position.
One word of caution, the yo-yo action and non-stop passing over the course of the four restrictor plate races throws this stat totally out of the whack when looked at over an entire season.
Loop data in practice
Truex didn't record a win during last year's breakout campaign but finished second in both of the races held at Kansas Speedway. Yet from 2006 to 2011 he made seven starts at the site without a single top-10 finish and just one top-15 from '06. Was there anything in loop data that indicated this was about to happen?
Heading into the eighth race of the season at Kansas, Truex was riding a streak of four straight finishes of eighth or better. In the race held a week prior at Texas Motor Speedway, the No. 56 car captured the pole, led 69 laps and finished sixth. The loop data behind it was even better. Truex set season highs with an average running position of fourth, 99.7 percent of laps spent in the top 15 and a driver rating of 114.8. While the tracks at Kansas and Texas aren't a perfect match, they are both 1.5-mile tracks and are next to each other on the schedule.
Indeed, the momentum carried right through to Kansas. Truex had never run worse than 21st at Kansas yet only finished inside the top 20 twice in seven races. In fact, at one point Truex finished worse than his average running position in six straight Kansas starts.
Truex not only reserved that trend, he outright shattered it. He would run and finish second in the April race at Kansas, spending all 267 laps in the top 15, leading 173 of them and posting a driver rating of 142.6. The combination of the hot streak, coupled with respectable historical numbers showed the potential value, which Truex fully capitalized on.
There are several more loop data statistics. However, most are of little or no value in fantasy games. Many deal with the driver's average speed during the entire race or during various points of the action. By focusing on the ones we've just covered, you'll get the most effective driver analysis. The path to victory lane just got a lot clearer.