Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Why I hate NASCAR's new championship format

Professional sports tend to decide champions more scientifically than the NCAA does, by having a sample size of N > 1. The NHL, NBA, and MLB all have best-of-seven series, which is better at determining who is truly better than a one-and-done system like March Madness. While the NFL is one-and-done, there is a larger playoff system and the teams play more games that generate a larger sample size to make the bracket, so it's still more "accurate" than its college counterpart.

NASCAR used to be similar as cumulative points on the entire season determined the overall champion-- a large body of work. That got boring, so The Chase created some drama by separating the top 10-12 drivers after a large body of work and having them battle it out in points over the last 10 races. That, apparently, got boring enough to change the format yet again to what I consider to be the most unscientific method of all.

NASCAR created a system where a driver who finishes behind someone in 35 consecutive races, but then finishes the best in the 36th race, is crowned "champion."To make it worse, there are "elimination rounds" so that if one driver has a bad couple of races-- out of 36-- in a round he is eliminated and no longer eligible to win. NASCAR said that it wanted to put more importance on actually winning the race.

Perversely, the result is that going into the final two races one of the drivers with the weakest resumes-- and no wins-- just might become champion. Check out the following ranking of NASCAR drivers by Jeff Sagarin, using finishing spot, number of drivers in a race, and how many races driven:

                        RATING  1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th  6-10 11-20 RACES  HI  LO
 1 Jeff Gordon           83.88    4   7   0   1   1     8     7    34   1  39
 2 Brad Keselowski       81.47    6   4   4   1   0     3     7    34   1  39
 3 Joey Logano           81.29    5   0   2   7   3     4     8    34   1  40
 4 Dale Earnhardt Jr.    75.08    4   3   2   0   3     7     8    34   1  43
 5 Kevin Harvick         74.46    3   6   1   1   1     6     9    34   1  42
 6 Jimmie Johnson        70.32    4   1   3   2   2     7     4    34   1  42
 7 Matt Kenseth          66.58    0   2   3   5   2     8     7    34   2  42
 8 Kyle Larson           61.93    0   3   2   1   2    10     9    34   2  43
 9 Kyle Busch            59.63    1   3   3   1   1     6     9    34   1  42
10 Carl Edwards          59.01    2   0   0   1   4     8    12    34   1  41

Now look at NASCAR's Top 8 drivers, the top 4 of which will advance according to results in the next race:
1. Joey Logano
2. Denny Hamlin
3. Ryan Newman
4. Jeff Gordon
5. Matt Kenseth
6. Carl Edwards
7. Brad Keselowski
8. Kevin Harvick

Ryan Newman is 12th on Sagarin's list-- he has just four top 5 finishes on the season, his highest finish in a single race is 3rd place. Yet, he is highly likely to advance to the final championship race. Denny Hamlin is a little more respectable at 11th on Sagarin's list, he has six top 5 finishes and a win.

Yet drivers like Keselowski, Dale Jr., and Jimmie Johnson who have been highly successful (Johnson won yesterday after being eliminated) all season are ineligible for the championship due to two consecutive bad races during a 3-race elimination.

It's amateur hour at NASCAR, and I think it's ridiculous. I suspect NASCAR will have to keep this format for a few years in order to make it seem credible and to save face. I doubt NASCAR consulted any statisticians or economists in re-inventing this year's Chase format, and I suspect it will cost them fans. 

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