Dr. Diandra: Who are the best road course racers running COTA?

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The NASCAR Cup Series has only raced COTA once, and that rain-drenched race ended 14 laps early. Without COTA-specific data, our best bet for making fantasy picks is examining driver performance over all road courses.

In 2021, the number of road courses on the Cup schedule jumped from the pre-pandemic two per year to seven. This year, there are six on the schedule. Road course fans, Chase Elliott, and geeks like me wanting more data on drivers going left and right applauded the change.

Do road course ringers challenge regulars?

Road course ringers — drivers from other series brought in to run road courses — are not so common anymore. The playoff structure requires drivers contending for the championship to run all the races. There’s even a road course in the playoffs now. But some teams are bringing skilled specialists like Boris Said, Loris Hezemans, and Andy Lally to COTA.

From 1980 to now, the top road course winners are Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Chase Elliott. You have to go down to 11th place to find Marcos Ambrose, with two Cup wins. And one can argue he’s not really a ‘ringer’ given that he ran full schedules. The same goes for Juan Pablo Montoya and A.J. Allmendinger (tied at 15th).

Road-course ringers rarely win Cup-level races. We tend to remember unusual events like underdog winners better than we remember expected finishes, but regular Cup drivers win almost all the road course races.

While winning a road course may win a spot in the playoffs, drivers who earn their way into the playoffs on only one superspeedway win or only one road course win are usually eliminated early.

Is Chase Elliott road course royalty?

Let’s start planning our COTA lineup by tallying the career average finish positions at road courses. I limited the graph to drivers with average finishes of 20 or under to keep it readable.

A vertical bar chart showing drivers' average finishes over their careers.

The above graph certainly argues in favor of crowning Chase Elliott as the ‘Current Cup King of Road Courses’. Not only does he have the lowest average finish, his closest challenger, Ryan Blaney, finishes five places behind him on average. The graph below, which details Elliott’s finishes on road courses, also supports awarding Elliott the crown.

showing all of Chase Elliott's finishes on road courses

Elliott entered Cup a strong road course racer and improved with time. He’s got only one career DNF in 19 races and no finish over P21 in the other 18 races. Remarkably, Elliott finishes in the top 10 at road courses almost 70% of the time — higher than any other driver in Sunday’s race.

Blaney shows flashes of strength on road courses, but a significant number of finishes outside the top 15 explains why he lags behind Elliott in average finish.

A vertical bar graph showing all of Ryan Blaney's finishes on road courses

The driver with the third-best finishing average, Kyle Larson, is a case study for how averages often hide important details. Here’s Larson’s history at road courses:

A vertical bar graph showing all of Kyle Larson's finishes on road courses

Although Larson struggled a bit early in his career, he’s been pretty darn good since running in Hendrick Motorsports equipment.

So even if Chase Elliott is the best road course racer, will he be the best at COTA?

History vs. recent history

Comparing drivers’ average finishes for just the last seven races gives us a better gauge of their current capabilities. This analysis shows a slightly different story.

A vertical bar chart showing drivers' average finishes for the last seven road course races.

Elliott is still on top, but his closest pursuer — now Kyle Larson — is behind him by less than half a position.

Which of the two graphs do we believe?

Both of ’em.

Overperforming drivers

Comparing two graphs is tricky, so here’s the shortcut I use to quickly spot drivers finishing above their weights. Each drivers’ finishing average for the last seven races is a red bar, and their career average finish is in yellow.

A double vertical bar graph comparing drivers' career average finishes with their average finishes over the last seven races a

A driver whose red bar is smaller than his yellow bar is doing better than his career average suggests. The bigger the gap between the two bars, the more the driver is overperforming. The converse holds true: Drivers whose red bars are above their yellow bars are doing worse now than they have throughout their whole career.

The first 10 drivers (Elliott to Allmendinger) are all on the correct side of the red/yellow balance.

  • All 10 have average finishes in the top 15 in the last seven road course races.
  • Elliott, Larson and Denny Hamlin have average finishes in the top 10 in the last seven road course races.
  • Kyle Busch hasn’t won much at road courses, but he’s finished in the top 10 almost 60% of his career.
  • Kurt Busch, Ryan Blaney, and Joey Logano finish in the top 10 a little more than 50% of the time over their careers. And, of course, Blaney won the pole.
    • CAVEAT: Kurt Busch is in new equipment this year.
  • If you’re looking for longer odds, consider Chris Buescher, Alex Bowman or Christopher Bell.

This graph also highlights some drivers trending in the wrong direction.

  • Brad Keselowski‘s seven-race numbers reflect his time at Team Penske, where he drove well below his career average. He’s in new (arguably lesser) equipment this year, plus he’s coming off one of the biggest penalties in NASCAR history.
  • Kevin Harvick has an average career finish under 15 at road courses, but last year, his average was over 20.
  • William Byron had an average finish of 23.1 at road courses last year.

Best finishes

The last metric we’ll examine is each drivers’ best career finish at a road course, as shown below.

A vertical bar chart showing drivers' best career finishes on road courses

A driver who’s never finished in the top 10 at a road course isn’t the best bet to win at COTA. But just because a driver has a good finish doesn’t mean he’s a good bet.

For example, Daniel Suarez and Ross Chastain of Trackhouse Racing have best finishes of third and fourth respectively. Both had great finishes last week.

But Atlanta is now a superspeedway, so its results don’t necessarily translate to other tracks. And we have to consider the circumstances of each driver’s best finish, which means going back to the race-by-race record.

showing all of Daniel Suarez's finishes on road coursesSuarez’s only top-five finishes came in 2017 and 2018 while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He hasn’t finished in the top 10 since 2018. Of course, he also hasn’t had the chance to qualify since moving to Trackhouse. He starts Sunday’s race in P2.

Chastain’s road course graph is below. (I’ve done race-by-race summaries for all drivers. If I haven’t mentioned you driver, you can still check them out.)

showing all of Ross Chastain's finishes on road coursesHis best finishes are more recent (2021), but they came in Chip Ganassi Racing cars. Even so, he finished outside the top 20 in the last two road course races of the year.

These are the types of factors you have to weigh as you make your picks — which is what makes choosing winners a game of skill. Of course, once drivers are on the track, you’re subject to the same luck — or lack of luck — they are.

Even math is powerless against car crashes.