- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

Officials from NASCAR and STATS LLC said that new statistical data gathered about drivers and races this season has added an extra layer of intrigue, and have been an accurate tool in determining who the best drivers are.

NASCAR, with the help of STATS, introduced the new statistics at the beginning of this year after determining that it could collect data by tracking the speed of cars as they passed certain points, or “loops” in the raceway. The racing association also began tracking the number of passes in a race, and tracking how well drivers performed in traffic.

NASCAR touted specifically its new “driver rating” number, which gives drivers grades based on their overall performance in a number of statistical categories. Similar to the complex quarterback rating in football, the number seeks to determine who is the most consistently good driver week in and week out.

“It’s been remarkably accurate in predicting strong performance,” NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said. “Based on the results we now see it’s been one of the stats that’s been very telling.”

With two races left in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, the driver with the highest pre-race driver rating has won eight of the 34 races, and has finished in the top five 21 times. More than three-fourths of the time, the winner of a race has entered that race with a driver rating in the top 12.

Current Chase leader Jimmie Johnson, who also led all points leaders before the Chase, has the second-highest driver rating of the season at 101.4, trailing only Matt Kenseth at 102.2. But during the eight Chase races, his driver rating is 108.7, the best on the circuit.

Johnson has maintained a high driver rating by performing consistently in a variety of statistical categories. His average running position is 10.975, which trails only Jeff Gordon. He has had more quality passes on the track than any other driver, and only Gordon and Kenseth have run more laps while in the top 15.

Not surprisingly, Johnson is also second in Nextel Cup wins with five, and leads all drivers in top 10 finishes, with 22.

If NASCAR’s loop data is an accurate guide, Johnson should perform well in tomorrow’s Checker Auto Parts 500 at Phoenix International Raceway. His driver rating at the track is 105.6, best among drivers in the Chase. But the following weekend’s Ford 400 could prove more difficult for Johnson, as he has the second-worst driver rating at Homestead-Miami Speedway. NASCAR officials said that this kind of track information will become even more accurate and useful as more race data is collected year after year.

There are often subtle differences between driver ratings and their rankings in the Chase. That’s because the driver rating statistic generally will not penalize a driver for things beyond their control, like a blown engine, or for crashes late in the race.

STATS LLC officials said this can create interesting debates between fans of certain drivers.

“Dale [Earnhardt] Jr. has a lot of fans, and they can see he’s the second-best driver in the chase even though he’s in third place,” said Stefan Kretschmann, systems manager of commercial products for STATS. “It gives them another thing to talk about.”

The driver rating statistic has also proved useful to members of NASCAR fantasy leagues when they are asked to predict which driver will perform the best each week, Kretschmann said.

NASCAR and STATS officials plan to meet during the offseason to discuss any changes to the “loop data.” Data on the performance of pit crews could be a new addition next year, and NASCAR is examining whether the statistics can be recorded and published in real time.

“We’re really pleased with the loop data overall,” Poston said. “This has been a very good year for us.”

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