Fantasy NASCAR: Understanding and utilizing loop data

by Eric McClung on February 11, 2014 @ 17:30:27 PDT

 


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. Think of loop data as the gasoline-powered equivalent for stock cars.

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.

Driver rating

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 continue to look deeper to find the keys to a successful rating.

Of the 13 drivers who participated in the 2013 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, only two finished outside of the top 13 in driver rating. The top-five drivers in the final points standings all finished sixth or better in driver rating, illustrating how telling the formula is.

Greg Biffle sneaked into the Chase despite just three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in the first 26 races prior to the 10-race postseason. Over the final seven races, he would fail to record a driver rating of at least 85 five times. He finished the season ninth in points but 14th with a driver rating of 83.0.

Ryan Newman was 16th in driver rating with a mark of 81.8 but entered the Chase after Michael Waltrip Racing teams were all penalized points for manipulating the outcome of the regular-season finale at Richard International Raceway. That penalty booted Martin Truex Jr., 12th in driver rating, from making the postseason field.

Despite finishing the season ranked seventh in driver rating, Brad Keselowski missed the Chase and was unable to defend his championship. The Blue Deuce recorded a driver rating better than 102.0 in 17 of the 36 races.

However, seven came after failing to qualify for the postseason. All seven performances resulted in finishes of 11th or better, including Keselowski's lone victory of the season. With such an impressive finish to the season, and the eight total wins from 2011 and 2012, it's hard to imagine Keselowski missing the Chase for the second straight season.

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 who 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 who steals a good finish on a late gamble after sending all day running in the middle of the pack.

Among drivers that ran all 36 races, Jamie McMurray's average running position of 16.2 rated 14th. He bested a pair of Chase drivers -- Biffle and Newman -- in ARP while putting together more top-five and top-10 finishes than his 2011 and 2012 seasons combined. Helping Jamie Mac's cause was being one of only three drivers who avoided a DNF in addition to leading the series in both green flag passes and total laps run.

Laps in the top 15

Denny Hamlin

The percentage of laps running in the top 15 is a great way to identify how much of the race a driver spent 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 early in the race on most tracks.

Despite missing four races with a compression fracture in his lower back and eight DNFs, Denny Hamlin was 12th in percentage of laps spent running in the top 15 at nearly 65 percent. In fact, despite all those issues he managed nearly 600 more laps in the top 15 than Newman and close to 700 more than Biffle, two Chase drivers who were in every race. Hamlin ended a nightmarish 2013 with optimism for 2014 thanks to four top-10s in the final six contests, including a victory in the series finale.

Quality passes

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 who is 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 restrictor plate races at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway are rarely friendly for loop data followers, depending on the driver's strategy. Some will purposely fade back through the field to avoid the hectic action and wait to make a charge late in the race. Also, gaining or losing the draft can alter a driver's running position by a dozen spots, if not more, in a single lap.

Case in point, Truex led the series with 2,021 quality passes but scored nearly 40 percent of them in the two Talladega races.

Loop data in practice

Atlanta Motor Speedway used to be a house of horrors for Truex. In his first six starts at the site, he suffered an engine failure and crashed three times, once after leading 135 laps. All told, from 2004-11 Truex managed an average finish of only 22.8 with just two top-10 finishes. However, over the last two years Truex finished inside the top five in both races.

Those results didn't happen by luck; it was a long time coming. In the previous 10 AMS races, Truex never held an average running position worse than 15th and ran more than 83 percent of those races in the top 15 on eight occasions.

Just because a driver hasn't put together a string of top-10 finishes at a particular track, it does not mean they haven't quietly run well during that stretch. Loop data can reveal this and allow fantasy managers to flag potential sleeper candidates.

Closing

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. The stats just explained can yield highly effective driver analysis and make the path to victory lane a lot clearer.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts.

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