Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Damn Lies & NASCAR Statistics

NASCAR is a numbers game.

All sports are numbers-driven, really, because numbers are, at the close of a day, a season, a decade or a career — the only quantitative measure of an athlete’s accomplishments.

There’s certainly a lot to be gleaned from numbers. Beyond the titles and the wins, there are things like runner-up finishes and top fives, average start or finish, how many laps a driver led and how many times a driver didn’t finish at all.

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If you really want to look at numbers, you can find all kinds of things like drivers who have won on their birthdays (it’s been done a total of five times by three different drivers) or in their first starts or over the age of 50 or under 20 or just about anything you can think of.

And none of it tells the real story.

You might have heard the saying that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics. It predates NASCAR and was made popular by writer Mark Twain. 

It doesn’t mean that numbers don’t or should not matter, but rather that numbers alone can be misleading. Think things like most lead changes happening during pit cycles but touting all the passing. If a race had long green-flag runs and a lot of pit cycles, there could be several leaders without anyone actually making a pass. A person might argue that the race featured multiple leaders and must have been good. Another might argue that all but one lead change happened during pit cycles and the race was bad.

Both look like valid arguments. The reason they’re not is this: the one green-flag pass happened coming to the checkers after the two drivers bounced off each others’ doors for the last 10 laps.

The first person might be right that the race was a good one, but it was good because of the finish (though you can certainly have a lousy race with a great finish) and not the number of lead changes alone.

The second person is overlooking the finish because the race wasn’t what they wanted to see, but neither one is telling the whole truth in their assessment. Whether a race was good or not is subjective.

Now consider the drivers. Some drivers are better than others, with a small group being truly elite. But rarely does a driver race at NASCAR’s top level without talent.

It’s really, really hard to quantify talent on any tangible level. Fans will argue whether a certain driver has any, but mostly they point to wins and titles to prove or disprove a driver’s worth.

Those things are important, and they are in large part what sets that elite group apart. No driver has won multiple titles with fewer than 20 wins because winning a championship is so very difficult, and doing it more than once is a rarity reserved for very few.

The problem in assessing talent on statistics alone is that while the numbers set apart the elite, they’re not so great at assessing talent for others. 

It’s what the stats don’t tell you that speaks volumes.

“That guy only has one win.” Spoken condescendingly, it’s a negative assessment of a driver’s worth, especially when it’s coupled with “and it was a fuel mileage/weather-shortened race”.

That is until you consider that roughly six percent of drivers who have raced in the NASCAR Cup Series have one. That means 94% of drivers in the series never saw victory lane in that series, even when it rained and even when someone else ran out of gas.

I suppose it’s possible that the more than 2,000 drivers who raced and didn’t win were all talentless oafs and the ones with a single win just got lucky. But probably not.

This column examines a lot of numbers and what they mean. But the truth is that what they don’t mean is also interesting and important.

Consider all the things a driver’s stat line can’t quantify. The biggest thing on that list is equipment. Nowhere on a driver’s career statistics will it tell you if he was driving an underfunded car. You can read between the lines for the great drivers: most of them had great cars because that’s part of success at the top. But for the ones whose win totals don’t look like much, there’s nothing to differentiate between one who drove for a massive multi-car organization with millions in sponsor dollars and the one who ran for the poorest single-car operation in the sport.

That line of numbers won’t tell you the amount of sweat equity a driver put in in his career or the number of tears shed along the way. Even for those elite drivers, there’s no stat that says they were injured or sick and raced anyway or whether they lost their best friend in a crash or celebrated the birth of a baby. Yet these intangibles are the things that make one win different from another, not how much fuel was in the tank.

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Also left out are the ones that got away — wins that evaporated due to a late caution or fuel mileage, weather or mechanical failures. Those things are beyond the drivers’ control but have an effect on the record books just the same. Ask a driver, and he’ll recall as many or more of the races he should have won but didn’t than the ones he did win. And a stroke of bad luck for one driver can mean great luck for another.

Statistics are fun to analyze. Some are important and others are downright weird (the weird ones are usually more interesting). And yes, they do tell us a lot about some drivers. They define greatness. They hint at certain skills. Delving into them is fun and certainly makes for some stories.

Just remember they aren’t the whole story. And what they don’t tell reveals so much more.

About the author

Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.

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Beauty is in the eye of the “real race” fan!

Last edited 24 days ago by DoninAjax
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