Joe Posnanski, one of the best sportswriters in the country, recently wrote an interesting piece on his blog entitled Tom and Cherry (Picking), It discusses how stats (which are seemingly based in fact and numbers) can be manipulated by someone to the point where they grossly misrepresent the actual truth. While he was discussing this in the realm of baseball, it can nevertheless be used to point out flaws in any sport, with auto racing being no exception.
Baseball, as many of you well know, is a sport that is being increasingly driven by statistics. These statistics are, for the most part, quite indicative on how each player in performing. Racing, on the other hand, is mostly based on one soldiery stat: the win. Get one, and the race is a success. Don?t have one, and you?re a loser. Yet, in a sport in which more than two participants are active while at the same time having only one winner, I feel it is necessary to delve a bit deeper into evaluating who has more talent than whom.
The problem is that, unlike baseball, there are many, many variables that determine a driver?s results, many of which are out of the driver?s hands. Besides the obvious factor of quality of equipment, there are other outside aspects which can significantly enhance or diminish a driver?s performance in a race. A bad pit stop, a flat tire, an inopportune caution, etc. all contributes to the success factor. For any race fan, that much is obvious.
We then provide ourselves with other stats that can assist in this goal ? from the rudimentary ones (top fives, laps led), to the more complex (driver loop stats). Points are the most basic of ways in which, theoretically, one can track a driver?s consistency. 1st in pints had a nominally better season than 10th place, who in turn had a better year than 30th, etc. Whoever had the most point is the best driver.
But once again, we come to the realization that these stats, which are intended to be the end of discussion, do not take into account the immense number of factors that go in to how a driver finishes. The 2009 NASCAR Sprint Cup provides several great examples of this theory. Let?s look at two drivers who finished near the same spot in points: A.J. Allmendinger and Dale Earnhardt Jr. They were pretty much even in every major category: points, top fives and tens, average finish, etc. Yet, one would state that Allmendinger clearly had the superior season. Allmendinger?s team was assembled about two weeks before the season started, had sponsorship issues throughout the season, swapped crews in the middle of the year, worked for an ?organization? that was in great chaos, and had no manufacturer support. Earnhardt Jr., on the other hand, had $30 million+ in sponsorship money, championship-caliber equipment, a small brain trust assigned to the team in the middle of the year, and five teammates to bounce information off of. I?m not a Junior hater by any means, but to say the 2009 season was anything but an abysmal debacle would be a complete lie.
Even then, so many questions are left unanswered. Do all four Hendrick teams have the same opportunity, for instance? Some would say no, and point to a ?history? of an unequal distribution in performance and results between the various cars. Or is that just because of mediocre drivers? What if Allmendinger ran in the #88?
I suppose my real goal is to figure out if it is even possible to come close to formulating some Bill James-esque number that could provide some accurate measurement of a driver?s performance over a given period of time. If that is possible, where would one start?
Perhaps racing will forever be relegated to the arena of ambiguity. Discussions over who?s better will inevitably go down the ?he?s better cause I said so? barroom quarrel route. Does this perversely add to the ?specialness? of racing? I guess that too is up for debate.
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