Dr. Diandra: Sciencing Out Phoenix Raceway

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A deep dive into the track and stage points will help you finalize your fantasy lineup and get you ready for today’s race.

Meet the Track

Phoenix Raceway is designed to torture crew chiefs.

A sketch of the shape of Charlotte Motor Speedway, showing its symmetryMost oval and tri-oval tracks are symmetric: One side is the mirror image of the other. If you print out the diagram of Charlotte Motor Speedway and fold it along the red line, the right side of the track overlies the left side.

Crew chiefs love symmetry because it makes their jobs easier. If their car works in Turns 1 & 2 of a symmetric track, it should work well in Turns 3 & 4, too.

Now meet Phoenix Raceway.

Phoenix (along with its big cousin Pocono) is about as far from symmetric as it gets for non-road courses. Just try to find an axis about which you can fold this track and have it line up. (Spoiler: you can’t.)

The track’s shape isn’t its only asymmetry. The progressive banking is 8-9 degrees in Turns 1 & 2, and 10-11 degrees in Turns 3 & 4. While a two- or three-degree difference seems small, it’s enough to prevent crew chiefs from optimizing their cars for both sets of turns. The dogleg is almost a fifth turn, with banking that rises to 11 degrees.

Lower banking and a 1-mile length produce the lowest speeds of any track so far this year. Lower speeds mean less aerodynamic downforce, so the suspension setup becomes even more important. Crew chiefs can either make the car really good in one set of turns and not as good in the other, or choose a compromise setup that makes the car okay at both ends of the track. Then it’s up to the driver to find the line that best suits his driving strengths and style. Phoenix rewards teams that can adapt and improve their car during the race.

Stage Points Under the Microscope

Every season has its own quirks — new drivers, new teams, and drivers with new teams. But this year, there’s also a brand-new car. That doesn’t mean historical data is useless — but it can lead you in the wrong direction if you’re not careful. Here are a few hints on how to use the information we do have to make smart picks.

Don’t Rely Too Much on This Year’s Data – Yet

NASCAR statistics – everything from number of cautions to driver points – vary a lot over the first six to 10 races of a season. Consider Kyle Larson’s 2021 week-by-week ranking, as shown below. I’ve included his finishing position for each race in the lower graph.

Graphs showing the weekly rank and finishing position for Kyle Larson in 2021
Top graph: Kyle Larson’s weekly rank. Bottom graph: Larson’s finish for each race. Clear bars: DNF

When a driver’s only earned 100 points, 10 points represents a 10% change. Later in the season, when the same driver has 500 points, 10 points only represents 2% of the total. That’s why Larson’s rank bounces between 2nd and 12th in the first five races. Each race is 20% of his entire record. Note that, later in the season, finishes out of the top 15 at Road America and Atlanta barely move the needle.

Stage Points and Race Points

As Dustin Long noted, stage and Duel points comprise almost 30 percent of some drivers’ point totals. Points earned in Duels impact the overall standings even more than stage points. For example, Brad Keselowski earned 10 points for winning his Duel at Daytona International Speedway, the most of any driver in the race. At Auto Club Speedway, Tyler Reddick earned 20 stage points, but Kyle Larson earned 52 points for winning.

After three races, a single driver could have earned a maximum of 70 stage points: 20 points for each race, plus 10 points for winning one of the Duels. The graph below shows how they’re doing.

A vertical bar chart showing 2022 stage points for drivers

Kyle Larson and Joey Logano each have 33 stage points, or 47% of the maximum points possible. Martin Truex, Jr. trails in third with 30 stage points.

Now let’s look at stage points (in yellow) relative to race points (in green).

A vertical bar chart showing total points as of week #3 of the 2022 NASCAR season

Kyle Busch, Aric Almirola and Austin Cindric have earned the most race points in the season but not many stage points. The combination of two strong race finishes and 33 stage points has Larson leading the standings. But those stage points are also why Martin Truex, Jr. is in second place despite an average finish of 11.3, and Brad Keselowski is in 12th place with average finish of 20. This anomaly will fade away as they run more races. Early in the season, it’s worth considering stage points and race points separately.

Previous Trends That Continue This Season

You might think previous seasons shouldn’t matter because of the new car, but good drivers will always rise to the top. Since we’re talking stage points, let’s use them as an example.

Out of the 183 races in the stage-racing era (2017-present), a different driver has won each stage and the race 76 times (41.5%). That means a driver who wins stage 1 has a better than 50:50 chance of winning stage 2 and/or the race. Knowing these stats (summarized in the graphic below) can help you tweak your fantasy lineup before you have to finalize it.

A Block graphic showing the percentage of drivers that winning different configurations of stages and wins

Which Drivers Excel at Winning Multiple Stages?

The top drivers for winning more than one stage and/or the race are:

Truex is at the top of the list with 18. Although most of his numbers come from 2017 and 2018, he’s already won two stages in one race in 2022. If Truex wins either stage 1 or stage 2, he would be a good bet for the win.

Harvick is second on the list but the last time he won more than one stage and/or the race was 2020. Keep in mind, though, that Harvick is good at Phoenix. If Harvick wins stages 1 and 2, he’s worth risking a bet for the win.

The two Kyles have asterisks because they achieved their numbers running fewer races than everyone else on the list. Kyle Busch has accomplished the multi-stage/race win feat every year since stages started. Kyle Larson did it 10 times in 2021 alone.

Busch and Larson are two of the three drivers who’ve won Phoenix after winning one stage. The third is Hamlin. Although he’s fifth on this  list, all those races were 2019 and later. Hamlin was the only driver last year not to have a DNF all season and he’s already had two this year. He’s due for some luck.

Newer drivers have fewer races under their belt and thus don’t rank high on this list; however, Alex Bowman won stage 1 and the Las Vegas race last race. My only hesitance with him is that, in the last four races he ran at Phoenix, he has one DNF and an average finish of 13.3.

Diandra Leslie-Pelecky is the author of The Physics of NASCAR. She has undergraduate degrees in physics and philosophy from the University of North Texas and a Ph. D in condensed matter physics from Michigan State University. She spent most of her academic career in the Department of Physics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her analysis will run twice a week throughout the NASCAR season.