Race Weekend Central

The Data Don’t Lie

This past week at World Wide Technology Raceway drivers once again crashed into each other.

If this kind of statement is news to you, then you have never watched a NASCAR Cup Series race featuring the best drivers in the world (or so we’re told). Looking at the incident in greater detail, Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon got together for a meeting of the Austins that did not work out. 

Dillon, fuming, talked to our peeps at Frontstretch and ripped into Cindric and averred that a penalty should be forthcoming. 

From a viewer’s perspective, the incident looked more like one of them ‘racing deals’ then it did any kind of intentional malfeasance on Cindric’s part. Seeing two drivers aiming for the same space is nothing new and is one of the realities of racing. In this instance, it looks like Dillon wound up on the wrong end of the collision and sometimes that is how things go. 

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But Dillon is arguing from a New NASCAR point of view.  If you don’t know what that is, all you need to do is check NASCAR’s review of the Dillon-Cindric incident.

One of the things that Elton Sawyer, Senior VP of Competition, says straight away is that NASCAR did not have SMT data live. The SMT acronym stands for Sports Media Technology, but brings with it a lot of information that teams, the governing body, and media partners can access. Per the SMT website, it’s comprised of “telemetry data (speed, throttle, brakes, gears, and RPM), positioning data and camera data.”

With access to the information, Sawyer and his compatriots determined that Cindric was in the clear and no penalty would be awarded. If this type of response is not New NASCAR thinking, then nothing is. 

But it seems that some of the ‘boys’ from the ‘boys have at it’ era might still be reluctant to progress. The stalwart journalist of NASCAR, Bob Pockrass, tried to make a case for driver data being less of a measure for penalties then it might be evolving into. With a title like – Chase Elliott suspension raises question: Should car data influence penalties? – Pockrass is not only embracing the clickbait asininity argument trope hoping to gain eyes, but also is announcing that his elevator does not reach the top floors. 

I’m not throwing shade at Pockrass but rather pointing out the absurdity of some of the titles that we encounter every day, because the response to this question is as obvious as a circus parade. To think that data should not be part of the equation is to announce a Luddite mentality and believe that leaded gas should never have gone out of style. 

Some of the arguments made in the piece conjure the notion that “things happen so fast” and that the data might not tell the whole story and other attempts at plausible deniability. But really, the data don’t lie. Human perceptions are a tangled web of questionable inputs and decisions and there is every reason to believe that the output will be unreliable.

The SMT data, however, is a little more certain of itself. 

This sport has often tried to sell its down-home ideology, presenting some things with an aww-schucks attitude that belies the reality of the sport. Compared to Formula 1 cars, NASCAR rides seem rather simplistic. Looks, of course, can be deceiving. Even though the engines may not be hybrid-electro-power-regenerating wildness like their F1 counterparts, the level of engineering and scrutiny that goes into them is just as thorough – just like every other aspect of the car (even if some of the parts are single source). 

The sport has been hyper-engineered for decades now and is as much a business as any other. In recognizing this aspect, NASCAR has had to slowly come to terms with the fact that it needs to join the modern age. 

In sticking with the F1 comparison, those open-wheel daredevils have had their data scrutinized over racing incidents for years. The stewards rarely take into account any kind of driver input and when they do, they still rarely alter their decisions. Finally, NASCAR seems to be taking that same approach. 

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When Chase Elliott put Denny Hamlin in the wall a few weeks back he tried to throw out the rather pathetic excuse that once his car hit the wall it was undriveable. The footage seemed to indicate otherwise. A reasonable approach would be to wait, look at the data, and then determine if anything should be done. 

Lo and behold, the SMT data showed Elliott hooking Hamlin. Something Hamlin made sure to tweet.

Other sports have been using technology to adjudicate incidents for a while now. Even baseball, the bastion of staying true to its roots or something like that, has instituted technology in determining pitches. Football has been using replay for ages. Soccer seemed to hold out as long as it could before chipping the ball and using the information to make calls regarding goals. Even tennis has been using the hawkeye system to make in/out calls for nearly two decades. 

NASCAR’s slow evolution to embrace, show, utilize, and even understand its own data has been a long-time coming. Aside from wondering what took it so long (hint, probably some prattle about costs), the new questions should focus on how the sport is going to use it. The fact that there might be some kind of question in putting it to its best use is counterproductive and stifling and feeds back into the idea that the sport is backwards and contrived. 

Suspending Chase Elliott may be the best thing that has happened to the sport in terms of analytics. The governing body suspended one of its superstars with the cold, calculating decision-making of what a professional league should do when said star steps out and tries to injure a competitor intentionally. It may not seem like a watershed moment, but it is one that highlights a shift from the governing body and one that should be the harbinger for incidents moving forward. 

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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17 Comments
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kb

Wow!!!! Oh dear. Kinda like the new STRAIGHT TALK commercial. SHADE IS REAL in this article. Come on now……And I loathe the NASCAR’s most prolific arsonist reporter (IMO)to put pen to paper, BOB POCKRASS. BOB (it seems to me) is always looking for a controversy that doesn’t exist, or is looking to create one, or over hyping a non-story. Clicks, clicks, clicks. But this isn’t one of those times. IMO.

Last edited 11 months ago by kb
Kurt Smith

Years ago Pockrass was writing for a site whose name I don’t remember, and he made sure to post a Dale Jr. or Danica article every single day. I see he hasn’t changed.

Shayne

NASCAR made the right call to suspend Elliott. Hopefully, Mr. Elliott has been placed on double-secret probation for the remainder of the season. I’d end his season if intentionally wrecks or hinders another driver going forward.

NASCAR made the right call NOT to suspend Cindric.

Racing is dangerous enough. It’s not a video game with a reset button.

I support using the data collected to determine intent. I’m tired of watching demolition derby racing.

WJW Motorsports

You’d end his season for “hindering” another driver? That’s the best one I’ve heard in awhile – you have a job waiting for you in Daytona displaying that kind of logic. This weekend, Sheldon Creed declared on the radio he would “destroy” the other car when he got back to him. He then went ahead and attempted it. Is he suspended or no? How about if things went wrong and he killed JHN – after declaring his intent?

Shayne

Yes, I’d end Elliott’s season if he intentionally slowed another driver. He already has a history of attempting to manipulate the outcome of races.

As far as Creed and JHN. Drivers get caught up in the heat of the moment. They say things all the time. Creed’s statement should have warranted a word of caution from his team and NASCAR.

The rest is subjective and whether or not NASCAR can be consistent with evidence based judgment calls. Obviously, they’ve got some work to do.

WJW Motorsports

Fair enough, although the Denny escapade must have made your head explode in terms of “hindering”…. Still confused though – Chase’s incident looked very much like the heat of the moment, whereas Sheldon declared his intent to the world – and then made good on it. So Chase gets a suspension and Sheldon a warning?

Shayne

Elliott’s actions clearly were a heat of the moment situation. Whether or not he intentionally wrecked Hamlin wasn’t decided by his own words. Elliott’s actions were deemed intentional by NASCAR using the objective data collected.

WJW Motorsports

Perfect! So next time, Chase just needs to tell his team over the radio he will wreck Denny, then go do it, and all good! No need to check data or anything.

DoninAjax

What does the data from Dillon’s car show?

Shayne

Lol. He shouldn’t have moved up.

Bill B

From Xfinity to Cup?

DoninAjax

That’s a rhetorical question, right?

DoninAjax

I thought when it happened that Dillon moved up into Cindric. Didn’t his spotter tell him about Cindric or did Dillon ignore him?

Bill B

Gee if it’s that easy to look at data to make a determination, they should just turn it over to AI and let the machine make the call, that way fans can’t claim bias.

Carl D.

Nice article, Ms. Ladner. When it comes to penalties, the the most important key is consistency. That’s something NASCAR has a history of missing the mark on. Anything to improve on that will help.

dmitch323

Ya’ll must have been watching a different race than me? It clearly looked like Mr. Cindric pulled the PIT maneuver on Mr. Dillon IMO

Last edited 11 months ago by dmitch323
DoninAjax

What it looks like and what actually happens are two different things, especially at 170 mph going into a corner and preparing to turn left. If a car turns right going into a left turn there is something wrong.

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