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On Clutch and Fairness

by Sean Wrona

In the break between televised coverage of the Rolex 24 at Daytona, I am going to work on two columns that I have been working on for the past few weeks. I was going to do a preseason predictions column that included nearly every major form of racing but since the 24 Hours of Daytona has started, I view it to already be too late. In the event I change my mind, I will report that my pre-race predictions for the race were the #31 in Prototype, the #54 in Prototype Challenge, the #911 in GT Le Mans, and the #98 in GT Daytona. The #54 is clearly not going to win, but the other three cars still can.

After finally determining the terminal natural leaders for every race (or my guesses for such where data was unavailable) from 1990-2015 in my previous article, there were two more things I wanted to do with these data, and I will address those years. When I originally introduced the concept of cumulative races led, I attempted to use this to calculate the best closers and worst chokers in Formula One, IndyCar, and NASCAR history, but the main problem with this statistic was that it did not distinguish between what the driver did and what the team did. For instance, Bobby Labonte appears as the best closer in NASCAR Sprint Cup history because he had 21 wins despite only 13 cumulative races led. However, this neglects that he was extremely lucky in a greater percentage of his wins than most of, if not all, the Cup drivers who had 20 or more wins. When looking at his total of 14 terminal natural leads, he is still a closer, as his TNL total (which can be loosely regarded as the number of times he was the last driver to put himself into position to win by his own efforts) is greater than his cumulative races led, but it is clear that most of his difference is due to luck, and he is therefore not the best closer in NASCAR history. So first I decided I wanted to rerun this analysis by considering TNL as well. I initially thought I would compare TNL to cumulative races led alone, but instead decided to take an average of TNL and wins and use that to make the comparison instead. While drivers who have both more terminal natural leads and wins than cumulative races led are clearly closers (they put themselves into position and win more often than they should based on the level of their dominance), and those who have fewer terminal natural leads and wins than cumulative races led are clearly chokers (they put themselves into position to win and win less often than they should based on the level of their dominance), this does nothing to sort out the ambiguous cases. There are drivers like Juan Pablo Montoya in Formula One who had more terminal natural leads than cumulative races led (implying that he is a closer) but more cumulative races led than wins (implying that he is a choker), or Michael Schumacher, the exact opposite. By taking an average, I can make the decision based on whichever result is further from cumulative races led, and both Schumacher and Montoya turn out as slight closers. Conversely, in IndyCar, drivers like Bryan Herta and Takuma Sato, who no one on earth would call clutch actually do have more terminal natural leads than cumulative races led, implying an ambiguous result. However, when considering their averages of TNL and wins, they do fall in the choker category where most would say they belong. I think taking an average places nearly all drivers in the correct category in this regard and largely corrects for the bias resulting from luck. Just because a driver is not clutch does not mean that driver is not good or great (Ayrton Senna, Michael Andretti, Paul Tracy, Rusty Wallace, Kyle Busch). Just because a driver is clutch relative to the level of their success does not mean they are great (I'm refraining from making any specific examples here), but I do think it is valuable that I define a way to measure these terms that are commonly used, and I do think most will agree with my conclusions.

Formula One drivers rated by closing ability

The Formula One closing list has some surprises. While no one will be surprised that drivers like Alain Prost, Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel, and (just barely) Fernando Alonso fall on the closer side (these being five of the six most dominant drivers of the last 30 years), the sixth such driver, Ayrton Senna, did not, and that may be a surprise. Indeed, of all the champions who appeared on the choker side, all of them still had either more wins or terminal natural leads than their number of cumulative races led except for Senna. Senna did have a take-no-prisoners style compared to his more conservative championship contenders which made him more exciting to watch albeit more mistake-prone, so maybe this is not such a surprise. Again, clutch may be a part of greatness, but if you are great in spite of your relative lack of closing ability, it doesn't necessarily matter. Nobody would say Jarno Trulli and Riccardo Patrese are two of the greatest drivers in Formula One history. Indeed, both Trulli and Patrese have fewer wins than their number of cumulative races led but only appear so highly because their terminal natural lead scores are considerably higher, making them rather ambiguous closers when you consider that the driver plays much more of a role in unnatural wins in Formula One races than in NASCAR or IndyCar races. It is even more ambiguous when you consider that one of Trulli's terminal natural leads was the 2005 United States Grand Prix, where he won the pole before failing to start the race along with all the Michelin runners. Many would say that shouldn't count, but there were no lead changes between Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello in the race after the Michelin drivers pitted, so it does still count. Although they won championships, I don't think seeing Häkkinen, Räikkönen, or Mansell on the choker side is much of a surprise either. All of them also had aggressive, hard-charging styles and a lot of breakdowns as a result. Nor should it be a surprise that the #2 drivers who were in general good drivers clearly dominated by superior teammates (Felipe Massa, David Coulthard, Mark Webber, Nico Rosberg, Jenson Button, Rubens Barrichello, Gerhard Berger) all come out as chokers. This may directly imply in every one of those cases that their equipment was better than they were, although I am willing to hear arguments to the contrary about Button (he did have more wins than cumulative races led, which may imply some closing ability, at least relative to those others), and Massa (who had more terminal natural leads than cumulative races led). Juan Pablo Montoya, usually regarded as a choker, actually was not, as he put himself into position to win enough to compensate for his fewer wins. This implies he was a bit unlucky to have fewer wins than he should have, as in his IndyCar career (even though in NASCAR he came out as the worst major choker).

Jarno Trulli2.32355131.291155584
Riccardo Patrese4.69668461.277519908
Alain Prost9.0217111211.51.274704324
Lewis Hamilton40.57464943461.133714196
Jacques Villeneuve9.6826101110.51.084419474
Damon Hill21.2345232222.51.059596412
Juan Pablo Montoya9.7044137101.03046041
Michael Schumacher79.1758709180.51.016724807
Ralf Schumacher6.4008766.51.015498063
Sebastian Vettel44.8876494245.51.013642966
Fernando Alonso28.3981253228.51.003588268
Mika Häkkinen23.5661272023.50.997195124
Kimi Räikkönen19.5644192019.50.996708307
Nigel Mansell17.3271816170.98112772
Felipe Massa14.825181114.50.978077572
Ayrton Senna22.1988222121.50.968520821
David Coulthard14.3603141313.50.940091781
Mark Webber9.2971898.50.914263588
Nico Rosberg16.49151614150.90955947
Jenson Button13.01281511.50.88379957
Rubens Barrichello13.75921111110.799465085
Gerhard Berger5.9824454.50.752206472

NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers rated by closing ability

Kevin Harvick is still nicknamed 'The Closer' but that is not particularly appropriate anymore. Oh, he still comes out on the closer side regardless of whether you use TNL, wins, or an average of the two, but in his Stewart-Haas period he has clearly been a choker, as he has had 14.56 cumulative races led, 13 terminal natural leads, and 8 wins. Subtracting the statistics for the last two seasons he had 14.54 crl (basically equivalent to what he did in the last two years alone), 20 terminal natural leads, and 23 wins making him a much less ambiguous closer. His ratio after 2013 if applied to today's data would put him close to the top of the list, but still in second place. The true greatest closer in the recent era of NASCAR racing is Carl Edwards, who has been much less dominant than any of his current Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, but not all that far off any of them when considering his terminal natural lead and win totals. I guess he is normally not considered a closer or clutch because he has had close misses in championship battles, but he clearly is one of the best. Most of the rest of the top twenty is dominated by most of the champions from the 1990s to the present day. Clearly especially considering how consistency-driven the NASCAR points system is, clutch is a necessary factor in winning a championship (the only champions from this period who fell on the choker side were Alan Kulwicki, Kurt Busch, and Kyle Busch, and neither Busch brother has yet scored the most points in an entire Cup season, ignoring the chase, while Edwards, despite not winning a championship yet, has. It's interesting that this measure of clutch performance considering only wins can be this predictive of championships. Drivers who are usually regarded as chokers based on their aggressive styles such as Geoff Bodine and Ernie Irvan really aren't. Bodine was consistent across the board, while Irvan made up for his fewer wins by putting himself in position to win more, and both are slight closers. Honestly, the only driver who appears as a closer here I really can't agree with is Ryan Newman, and he only just barely made it because his terminal natural lead total is higher than I think it should be based on the nature of some of his wins (his strategic assist wins in 2003 that I chose to count as natural for instance). If we're instead not judging by ratios but judging by raw numbers instead, then Jimmie Johnson is the greatest closer of the period, which makes a lot of sense. His TNL/win average of 74 exceeds his cumulative races led total of about 57 by far more than any other driver, although his boss/mentor Jeff Gordon doesn't do bad in that regard either. Again, this nicely correlates with the sheer number of titles he has won. On the flip side, the bottom ten really don't have a lot of surprises. Juan Pablo Montoya, a closer elsewhere, came out as the worst choker by far among the major drivers, and seeing drivers like Jeremy Mayfield, Martin Truex, Jr. (although far more of the choking was his team's fault than his, judging by the massive gulf between his TNL and win totals), Ken Schrader, Kyle Petty, and Michael Waltrip will not be a surprise. Among the major drivers, the worst are Bill Elliott (his '90s were post-peak), Kyle Busch, and Mark Martin. Busch is generally regarded by most fans as the worst choker, and while he's not, among the championship-caliber drivers, he is, and that is no surprise. Martin should be no surprise either because his style is renowned for being too conservative. Waving faster cars past, which no one else was doing to that degree, limits your potential to maximize results at the end. Since he was, he should not surprisingly come out as one of the worst chokers, and this explains why drivers like Martin, Busch, and Wallace did not score the most points in an entire season from 1990 to the present. I really did not think this would be so predictive in terms of championship results since it is only considering the best races (wins and terminal natural leads) but it seriously does. There's more than luck going on here. I do think the drivers who did not win championships but still come out on the clutch side are more likely to be underrated, although there are exceptions.

Carl Edwards17.08782725261.521553389
Dale Jarrett23.5527353233.51.422342237
Bobby Labonte13.0864142117.51.337266169
Jimmie Johnson56.98397375741.298612415
Terry Labonte9.8856131212.51.264465485
Jamie McMurray6.69781.212121212
Brad Keselowski14.0931717171.206272618
Kasey Kahne15.15711917181.187562265
Tony Stewart43.59135448511.169958226
Harry Gant6.15296871.137674918
Jeff Gordon82.6198993911.101441557
Joey Logano10.451891411.51.100288945
Kevin Harvick29.10183331321.099588342
Dale Earnhardt32.8738343735.51.079887327
Davey Allison10.7678101311.51.067999034
Matt Kenseth33.5852353635.51.057013208
Denny Hamlin24.2468252625.51.051685171
Darrell Waltrip3.81833541.047586622
Geoff Bodine11.233121111.51.023769251
Ernie Irvan18.87682315191.00652653
Ryan Newman15.4431141715.51.003684493
Jeff Burton20.4657202120.51.001675975
Dale Earnhardt, Jr.28.7598312628.50.990966557
Greg Biffle19.92831919190.953418004
Ricky Rudd11.7402913110.93695167
Rusty Wallace43.9996403939.50.897735434
Bobby Hamilton5.0346544.50.893814802
Alan Kulwicki5.0639544.50.888643141
Kurt Busch29.48372527260.881843188
Sterling Marlin14.74281610130.881786364
Clint Bowyer7.98886870.876226717
Mark Martin42.19343936.50.865133918
Kyle Busch36.3125273430.50.839931153
Michael Waltrip6.03756450.82815735
Bill Elliott15.3388131212.50.814926852
Ward Burton5.7575454.50.781589231
Kyle Petty9.35928670.747927173
Ken Schrader5.72554440.698628941
Martin Truex, Jr.8.6296835.50.637341244
Jeremy Mayfield7.86125550.636035211
Juan Pablo Montoya5.12512220.390236288

IndyCar drivers rated by closing ability

This list is not nearly as predictive of championship or Indy 500 performance as the NASCAR list, but there are still some correlations going on. The very bottom of the list should have few surprises. Tomas Scheckter, who was considered the epitome of fast and crash-prone, and Alex Tagliani, who was similar on the CART side but didn't have quite the same reputation, are at the very bottom. Tony Stewart who dominated often but usually failed to win in the early IRL is not far behind, while seeing drivers like the Andrettis, Paul Tracy, Bryan Herta, Ryan Briscoe, and Takuma Sato near the bottom should make sense. If you've looked at how almost every one of the statistics I have come up with have exposed Hélio Castroneves (and I wasn't trying to do this), it should be no surprise he is near the bottom as well. However, there are some drivers who I think were clutch who are a bit surprising: Bobby Rahal, Gil de Ferran, Emerson Fittipaldi, Tony Kanaan, and Dario Franchitti, and some drivers I would say are closer to chokers who actually appear well here (Will Power and Greg Ray especially). This list is not quite as intuitive as the NASCAR list is, but still has value. When you consider the drivers who had top notch equipment in the Indy 500 often, it is perhaps even more predictive of Indy 500 wins, with winners like Cheever, Luyendyk, Villeneuve, Lazier, and Hunter-Reay, even if they didn't have the overall greatest careers, near the top, although most of the top of the list seems to be dominated by split-era drivers (perhaps this is the flip side of how Tony Stewart failed to live up to his dominance, implying almost all his major competitors look better as a result of this, which may have more to do with Stewart giving up wins than the others earning them). I would be most impressed by the drivers who did what they did primarily outside the split years. These would be Villeneuve, Hunter-Reay, Mansell, Unser, Jr., Dixon, and Power. Those drivers (except for Power) would definitely all be considered clutch from an IndyCar perspective, but I fear that the split mucks up much of the rest of the list. Although grouping IRL and Champ Car drivers together creates a big mess, I think we can also highly rate drivers who peaked in the 1996-2002 CART period for clutch performance as well, including Greg Moore, Jimmy Vasser, Kenny Bräck, Cristiano da Matta, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Alex Zanardi, and all of those make sense too. Once again, I remain impressed by the late Justin Wilson, who appears on the clutch side despite having perhaps the worst average level of equipment in his winning period of all the drivers on the positive side (although admittedly few drivers with as bad equipment as he had had five wins in the first place). Championship closing does matter too though, so that still should be considered when evaluating say Gil de Ferran (who appears on the choker side) vs. Kenny Bräck (who appears on the closer side), but a lot of this makes sense regardless.

Eddie Cheever, Jr.3.3031655.51.665102479
Arie Luyendyk3.66335761.637867497
Jacques Villeneuve3.454655.51.592356688
Adrián Fernández5.030551181.590299175
Buddy Lazier4.8522787.51.545690615
Ryan Hunter-Reay8.45711016131.537169952
Greg Moore3.7126655.51.481441577
Scott Sharp5.1462697.51.457386032
Nigel Mansell4.24997561.411797925
A.J. Allmendinger3.63245551.376500385
Jimmy Vasser6.644781091.354462955
Kenny Bräck8.2333139111.336037798
Cristiano da Matta8.70441012111.263728689
Justin Wilson8.1443137101.227852609
Sam Hornish, Jr.16.57012119201.206993319
Scott Goodyear4.2695551.171234481
Sébastien Bourdais26.4834273430.51.151664816
Juan Pablo Montoya15.463211417.51.131733816
Al Unser, Jr.21.52122325241.115179451
Scott Dixon29.76192838331.108800177
Alex Zanardi12.6583121513.51.066493921
Will Power27.7492342529.51.063093711
Dan Wheldon14.44171416151.038658884
Patrick Carpentier4.3688454.51.03003113
Greg Ray5.85417561.024922704
Bruno Junqueira7.8302787.50.95782994
Tony Kanaan20.5563221719.50.948614293
Dario Franchitti30.35742531280.922345128
Paul Tracy35.5343132.50.915492958
Ryan Briscoe9.34461078.50.909616249
Bryan Herta6.1368745.50.896232564
Takuma Sato3.9139613.50.894248703
Emerson Fittipaldi10.78198119.50.881106299
Gil de Ferran16.7941171214.50.863398455
Bobby Rahal6.488655.50.847718866
Michael Andretti38.2353133320.836929515
Hélio Castroneves35.6702222925.50.714882451
Marco Andretti6.0789523.50.575762062
Tony Stewart7.65675340.522418274
Alex Tagliani6.20095130.483800739
Tomas Scheckter7.02934230.426785028

These analyses were not the only ones I wanted to undertake after finally obtaining the terminal natural lead data either. Really this should arguably be another column but I am going to shoehorn this information into this column as well. Now that I have determined the terminal natural leads for every year, driver, and track, it is easy to use these data to determine which tracks and years were the "fairest" in terms of properly rewarding performance. I determine fairness here based on which tracks have the highest percentage of races where the winner and the terminal natural leader are the same. The tracks that appear highly on these lists are most likely to reward speed instead of strategy and dumb luck. This doesn't mean that I expect these to be the most popular circuits. Indeed, many fans like unpredictability and seeing the unexpected, so races where the winner ultimately took the lead on speed (especially if the terminal natural lead change was early in the race) are likely to be considered boring, while races with pit strategy shakeups or fuel mileage or unexpected incidents taking out the leaders may be seen as more exciting. I'm not going to argue what excitement is here, because sometimes I agree with both sides here. However, I do believe we can measure fairness by determining which tracks (and years) were most likely to reward or be decided by speed alone. You can argue fairness is desirable or boring (I suspect recent NASCAR and IndyCar officials would regard fairness as boring to their detriment) but I do think it's measurable. Below I provide a list of all race circuits that held five or more races in Formula One, IndyCar, and NASCAR Sprint Cup ordered by the percentage of races where the TNL and the winner were the same. I believe the lists make some sense.

Fairness in Formula One

The obvious interesting outlier here is that the Shanghai International Circuit had the terminal natural leader win the race every single time here, which never happened at any other circuit that held anywhere near that many races in Formula One, IndyCar, or NASCAR. The first thing I checked was whether circuits designed by Hermann Tilke all tended to trend together because he designed so many new tracks in recent years including Shanghai. While several of his circuits dominate the list (Shanghai, Istanbul, Marina Bay, and Bahrain all appear in the top five), Valencia, A1-Ring, Sepang, and Yas Marina appear in the bottom half. However, Valencia is a street circuit and therefore not a stereotypical 'Tilkedrome' and A1-Ring and Sepang were his first two circuits dating from a period before he became a truly dominant force in circuit design. This implies since he became a prolific 'cookie-cutter' circuit designer in 2004 (after his two standalones A1-Ring in 1995 and Sepang in 1999, which were likely more unique as a result) four of his five circuits which had enough races to make the list made the top five, and three of them dated from a single period in 2004-05. Most likely the Tilkedromes, designed to provide minimal opportunities for crashing and massive runoff areas are so safe that there are very few incidental lead changes due to crashes and the like because it is easy to recover from a mistake. If these circuits do permit more passing as some argue it may make more sense that his circuits top the list, although that doesn't really explain why they would consistently have so few races decided in the pits compared to other tracks, since so many F1 races are decided in the pits. Street circuits are all over the place with Marina Bay, Monaco, and Melbourne in the top half in terms of fairness, and Adelaide, Montreal, and Valencia in the bottom half, with Adelaide being the least fair of all circuits. Most of the classic circuits (Interlagos, Suzuka, Monaco, Nuerburgring, Silverstone, Spa, Hockenheim) are somewherein the middle, but Monza is near the bottom. I think the general trend is that the circuits at the bottom tend to be those that are not well loved (except for Monza), implying that there is minimal passing outside the pits, the Tilke-style circuits are mostly at the top and while the racing is completely fair, the relative lack of danger that allows drivers to dominate from start-to-finish makes them dull to many fans, so the circuits in the middle are a happy medium between not being able to pass at all (but the races end up having bizarre results anyway) and not being able to pass at all because mistakes are not penalized.

CircuitNatural winsRacesPercentage
Marina Bay680.75
Yas Marina470.571428571
Indianapolis (road)480.5

One thing that can be said about Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel's domination is that in their dominant seasons, they generally deserved the races they got. The last decade of Formula One has by and large been a very fair period with performance being rewarded, but since that ultimately results in numerous flag-to-flag or nearly flag-to-flag races (especially as there is less overtaking in Formula One lately), that may not be a good thing. When so few teams are dominant (in 2014 and 2015, when only Mercedes was), it is hard for races not to be decided naturally because the fastest cars consistently won. That was not the case in the late '90s/early 2000s when Ferrari, Williams, and McLaren drivers were stealing wins from each other on wild pit strategies all the time. Perhaps one reason the recent period has been so fair relative to the past is that refueling was banned in 2010, meaning it becomes much harder for lead changes to occur in the pits, unlike the strategy-fests of the late '90s. The least fair year of 1999 was largely because Michael Schumacher was injured mid-season and was trying to help his teammate Eddie Irvine win the title; Irvine won all four of his races unnaturally as a result. The other year famous for team orders (2002) came somewhere in the middle. The early 2000s despite being known for Michael Schumacher's dominance were also known for being decided by pit strategy, albeit to a lesser degree than the late '90s. The early '90s were all over the map. Reliability was much more important then than any future period in Formula One so how a season appears in that era on the list largely depends on whether the drivers who led had reliability or not.

YearNatural winsRacesPercentage

Fairness in IndyCar

Once again, the 1990-present period of IndyCar is confusing because of the CART/IRL split. Certain seasons and eras of Champ Car and IndyCar had wildly different percentages of races decided on speed. The intermediate cookie-cutter ovals the IRL held so near and dear to its heart all tended to be decided naturally more often than not. Passing was endless (many would say too endless) but it meant for many years (once the IRL equipment was reliable) that the middle era of IRL IndyCar (around the time the CART drivers were crossing over until CART and IRL merged, which was largely dominated by races on these tracks) the races were likely to be decided on speed, hence the high placements of Chicagoland, Kansas, Homestead, and Texas. Michigan, Milwaukee, and Fontana also reflected speed well regardless of whether the races were CART or IRL. The short one-mile ovals were very split, with Pikes Peak as the fairest, Nazareth as overwhelmingly the most unfair oval, Phoenix near the bottom, and Richmond, Iowa, and Loudon around the middle. Some of the intermediate ovals did not fair well either (Motegi, Nashville, and Las Vegas), but I don't think these tracks were considered to have as exciting IRL races as Chicagoland, Kansas, or Texas did either (although Texas has fallen off with several races decided unnaturally lately). Ovals do predominate on the fairness list as oval racing is more likely to be decided by on-track passing while road course racing is more likely to be decided by passing in the pits (but I don't mean to say by that that passing in the pits is not of value or something that the driver does not play a major role in, because that would be wrong). Watkins Glen, which only held races in the IRL, came out as the fairest road course and most likely to be decided by speed, followed by the Denver street circuit and Laguna Seca (there may have been almost no passing there, but the races were fair). The street races that continuously endured (Cleveland, Toronto, St. Petersburg, and Long Beach) were relatively fair compared to the others. However, the more fly-by-night street circuits were inevitably unfair. Edmonton, Reliant Park, Surfers Paradise, Vancouver, Montreal, and especially Belle Isle were decided half the time or less by speed. In some cases the excitement and unpredictability may have been an asset (Surfers) but in most cases not so much. Montreal was decided naturally in none of the five Champ Car races (much like Formula One, where it also ranked as unfair). The unfairness in F1 is judged as excitement, but is an unnatural win really exciting? Most fans trash Belle Isle and it is a real standout here for not being decided on speed (although I wouldn't have guessed Nazareth would be even worse). However, it's worth noting that the street courses that are still with us except Belle Isle do reward speed and *can* have passing; however, judging by the records of the street courses that tended to have fewer races, and tended to be less fair, maybe the people who say there are way too many street course races do have a point. Indianapolis comes out as relatively fair, although not as fair as it comes out for NASCAR. Many years in the split (particularly in the ugly, boring 2007-10 period) there was minimal passing at all outside of the pits, but that has wildly changed in the last four years with relative non-stop passing in comparison, and all four races decided naturally. Still, Indianapolis is on the top half of the list, but the IRL fans who loved the racing on the cookie cutters do have a point in this regard. The problem is that too many of them conflate excitement for driving talent and argue that the side-by-side battling in the IRL somehow made its drivers better than the CART drivers, which is patently untrue (and judging by the CART Handford device races at Michigan and Fontana, the CART drivers could battle side-by-side even better than the IRL drivers).

TrackNatural winsRacesPercentage
Pikes Peak9100.9
Watkins Glen560.833333333
Walt Disney450.8
Laguna Seca11150.733333333
St. Petersburg7120.583333333
Long Beach14260.538461538
Nashville (IRL)480.5
Reliant Park360.5
Mexico City360.5
Surfers Paradise8170.470588235
Las Vegas370.428571429
Road America7170.411764706
Rio de Janeiro250.4
Belle Isle7190.368421053

As discussed above, the middle years of the IRL (the last all-oval years) before the series merged with Champ Car again stick out in general as particularly fair. Several of the recent IndyCar years aren't that bad either ('09, '11, '13, and '14), but the recently-completed season was one of the most patently unfair in IndyCar history, and that's even counting Graham Rahal's win at Fontana where he was not penalized for dragging a fuel tank on the track as natural (although I did not count Sébastien Bourdais's Milwaukee win as natural because he was penalized, so I guess that evens out). Race after race was decided in the pits, not on track, while too many IndyCar fans took pride in IndyCar's integrity while making fun of NASCAR's lack of such. However, the recent IndyCar period hasn't been all that bad discounting last year (particularly the debacle that was Mid-Ohio). The CART years at the start of the interval were by contrast very fair. Similar to Formula One, there were only a handful of teams (usually two or three) that could be competitive and they had such an advantage that they either dominated from start-to-finish or easily passed whichever slower cars made pit stop gambles. Again, fairness can be a double-edged sword, as it does seem to be negatively correlated with excitement sometimes. However, the years leading up to and immediately following the split in CART were patently unfair and dominate the bottom of the list. While one can say the 1995-2002 period was in a sense more competitive as theoretically anyone could win to a much greater degree than previous periods, far more races were decided in the pits than before or since. As the field got closer and closer together, road races (especially at Laguna Seca, although that track ended up turning out as one of the fairest road courses; Mid-Ohio and Road America would be better examples since those tracks came out as unfair), ended up inevitably being decided in the pits since the differences in speed between cars were so minute. In that sense, lack of fairness could be considered a good thing, although I don't believe you can say that it wasn't there. When the CART teams started leaving for the IRL, the loss of competitive depth was also associated with generally increased fairness in the races (except for 2005). Perhaps there truly is an inverse relationship between competitive depth and fairness the way I am defining it. Few will say those 1999, 2001, and 2002 IRL seasons were all that deep.

YearNatural winsRacesPercentage
1999 IRL9100.9
2002 IRL13150.866666667
2001 IRL11130.846153846
2004 IRL13160.8125
2004 CCWS11140.785714286
2011 IndyCar13170.764705882
1990 CART12160.75
2013 IndyCar14190.736842105
2003 CCWS13180.722222222
2007 CCWS10140.714285714
2005 IRL12170.705882353
2009 IndyCar12170.705882353
1992 CART11160.6875
1996 IRL230.666666667
2000 IRL690.666666667
2014 IndyCar12180.666666667
1991 CART11170.647058824
2006 IRL9140.642857143
2006 CCWS9140.642857143
1998 IndyCar7110.636363636
1998 CART12190.631578947
1993 CART10160.625
2001 CART12200.6
2007 IRL10170.588235294
2003 IRL9160.5625
1996 CART9160.5625
2005 CCWS7130.538461538
2012 IndyCar8150.533333333
2010 IndyCar9170.529411765
1995 CART9170.529411765
1997 IRL5100.5
2008 IndyCar9180.5
1994 CART8160.5
1999 CART8200.4
2002 CART7190.368421053
1997 CART6170.352941176
2015 IndyCar5160.3125
2000 CART6200.3

Fairness in NASCAR

NASCAR fans may hate the Brickyard and find the Indianapolis Motor Speedway a truly boring track for stock cars, but it is at least the fairest track in terms of races being decided naturally and not being decided by pit stops. Perhaps there is a reason it proved to be one of the best predictors for which driver would win the championship for a number of years, despite ugly results like the 2008 race (which Jimmie Johnson still won naturally) or the 2011 race (which Paul Menard won by strategic assist). The only Indianapolis NASCAR races which weren't natural were 1995, 1997, and 2013. That's a pretty good record, even if the track is so boring. Maybe it is actually too easy to pass there (much like Fontana, Michigan, and Pocono, which don't appear badly), which strikes fans as boring relative to tracks where extended battles are more common. Because of the nature of restrictor plate racing, both Daytona and Talladega are high on the list of races being decided by on-track passing, and whether you like them or not depends on whether you consider the nature of the racing to be natural or artificial. Short tracks by and large were fair (with North Wilkesboro, Bristol, and Martinsville all doing well, though they'd probably do less well if I continued to not count bump-and-run passes), but Richmond was a surprise counterexample. Gritty one-mile ovals were more likely to be decided in the pits or due to on-track incidents (Dover, Loudon, and Darlington did badly, but Rockingham and Phoenix did do well). The 1.5-mile cookie cutters except for Homestead (which is more significantly different from the Bruton Smith track stereotype) all tended to be on the unfair end and it makes sense those tracks are not popular with fans (although Atlanta and Charlotte are still more popular than the others probably primarily due to their history, or Atlanta having significant tire wear now). While there are some oddities here (Richmond appearing as by far the least fair when it seems to be the easiest of the four short tracks to pass on), Sonoma being in the top five while Watkins Glen is in the bottom five, fan favorite Darlington appearing rather unfair, the list still makes some sense in determining why fans like some tracks and not others (maybe the geographic locations aren't the only reason why people love Martinsville and are cold to Loudon, which I have always found to be very similar, although I do still prefer Martinsville myself).

TrackNatural winsRacesPercentage
North Wilkesboro12140.857142857
Las Vegas13180.722222222
Watkins Glen17260.653846154

Interestingly, for all NASCAR's experimentation with gimmickry in the Brian France/chase era, the fairest seasons in NASCAR were the ones immediately after France became the head of NASCAR. The early 1990s weren't very fair as reliability still played a pivotal role in a lot of the races, and in that period, the short track races were I believe more likely to be decided on pit stop exchanges than they are presently (actually, it seems that while cautions have skyrocketed on the intermediate tracks, which may be the reason so many of them come out as unfair, they have likely become a bit less frequent on the short tracks than they once were, as there seem to be way fewer wrecks on them in recent years than there used to be and the debris cautions don't quite make up for that). If there is a negative correlation between competitive depth and races being decided naturally, as I speculated in both the F1 and IndyCar sections, there are a couple good years to prove it. 2002 I previously judged to be the season with the greatest competitive depth in NASCAR history and it came up as overwhelmingly the most unfair season. Ward Burton, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Newman did not win any of their races naturally in that season, while only Robby Gordon had a terminal natural lead without winning a race, implying that there should not have been nearly the massive number of winners there were that year. 2001 and 2003, which had similar competitive depth, appear a lot better by this metric. That period of great competitive depth ended but the races (despite things like debris cautions) were still fair (2005 may be explained by its impound rule). The COT era got steadily worse from 2011-13, and this year, just as in IndyCar, was actually one of the worst years ever in terms of races being fair, even though the year before in 2014 was a significant outlier. You could plot a graph of this data and it would have some meaning, as there are clusters of years of fairness and lack thereof, but there are some surprising outliers as well.

YearNatural winsRacesPercentage

This about sums up most of what I wanted to discuss with regard to terminal natural leaders. By grouping terminal natural leads and wins together and comparing to cumulative races led, we can better determine which drivers were clutch and which were not, and I think the results come very close to matching the common perspective on most drivers. When evaluating which series, races, tracks, and years were fairest, I was not as successful, although I did observe several trends in the data, although there were still some significant outliers that made such trends less clear. Regardless, neither of these topics were ever covered in such a rigorous way and I believe they were essential outgrowths of my previous research on terminal natural leaders. For my next column (which probably won't be tonight after all as I spent significantly longer on this column than I expected to), I will produce average speed charts for a variety of different series, data I used to help me rank my top 100 drivers early this month.

Sean Wrona is the Managing Editor of racermetrics.com, the Webmaster of race-database.com, the winner of the 2010 Ultimate Typing Championship at the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin, and the ratings compiler and statistician for the Mensa Scrabble-by-Mail SIG. He earned a master's in applied statistics from Cornell University in 2008 and previously digitized several seasons of NBA box scores on basketball-reference.com. You may contact him at sean@racermetrics.com.