- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

Matt Kenseth won NASCAR’s Auto Club 500 on Sunday because he was faster than anybody during restarts. Jimmie Johnson won the Daytona 500 on Feb. 19 because he was the steadiest driver and held his speed later in green-flag runs.

Race details like this, and more, are part of a new effort by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) to compile dozens of new statistics to give fans, drivers and crew members additional insight into why races finish the way they do.

“Everyone knows who won the race, but why did it play out the way it did?” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. “The team, drivers and crew chiefs have become the most eager consumers of this data.”

To compile the data, NASCAR uses a series of sensors, commonly called “loops,” that are spread throughout all of its 36 tracks. In the past, NASCAR used the sensors to determine the accurate race order during a caution period. But beginning this season, it has partnered with STATS LLC in using the data to publish a comprehensive box score of the race.

Drivers are now rated by a series of new factors, including fastest on a straightaway, fastest on turns and number of consecutive laps without a pass. NASCAR is collecting data about where most of the passes take place on the tracks and also gives drivers a special “driver rating,” similar to the quarterback rating provided by the National Football League. The idea, NASCAR officials said, is to give racing teams and fans a better idea of what truly happened on the track.

“We’re always looking to uncover the ‘why?’ ” said Larry McReynolds, a former crew chief now working as a NASCAR analyst for Fox.

Fans are still learning about the statistics, and NASCAR has been lobbying newspapers and other outlets to publish race box scores and related information. Sports-business analysts generally agree that statistics enthusiasts are often more educated and affluent than the average fan. That translates into more money for the league and the networks broadcasting the sport — an important consideration, given the combined $4.48 billion in rights to be paid to NASCAR over the next eight years.

“As it moves forward, and NASCAR fans are increasingly hungry for any news, statistics and information, it could really help [NASCAR],” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “There’s some sex appeal to these statistics, because it really gives fans an inside look.”

Mr. Poston said the new statistics could easily be used to help fans in NASCAR fantasy leagues, where they can “draft” drivers and earn points based on their race success. He said the new driver-rating statistic will help fans discern who the truly best drivers are. Mr. Carter, meanwhile, said the statistics could play a role if gambling on races increases.

Based on the first two races analyzed, it appears the statistics offer a glimpse of who the best drivers have been, independent of how they finished. For instance, Kurt Busch finished in 38th place at Daytona, despite a driver rating in the top 10. The reason for the discrepancy: Busch was held back because of a crash involving other drivers.

The statistics also appear to show how a car or truck is handling. At the GM Flex Fuel 250, a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series event on Feb. 17, Mark Martin was just the 11th-fastest driver on the front stretch of the raceway and the 18th-fastest on the backstretch. But he won the race, data shows, largely because he was among the fastest drivers in the turns.

Numbers can be deceiving, however. In Martin’s case, he was rated the fastest driver in traffic. But the figure ignores the fact that lagging drivers were willing to yield for him because he was leading most of the race. And users of the data concede that it’s too soon to draw any conclusions from the new statistics.

“It’s going to take time to build up a library of this data,” Mr. McReynolds said. “There’s a little bit of skepticism because it’s new, but I guarantee you a year from now it will be an important part of the broadcasts.”

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