Dr. Diandra: Cup driver experience matters more than age

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Driver experience doesn’t always trump driver age — except when you’re talking data analysis. Age is an obvious choice for a variable. It’s a number, it’s easily calculated, and it’s hard to dispute. But it isn’t always meaningful.

In some cases, age is tightly correlated to experience. Most students in a fifth-grade class will be 10-11 years old and they all learn the same things. A class in a two-year college, however, might have students ranging from 16 to 75 years old. Depending on the topic, the 16-year-old might have more experience than the 75-year old.

NASCAR is much more like a two-year college than fifth grade, at least in terms of how age and experience correlate.

Racecar drivers can compete for much longer than athletes whose bodies are their competition vehicles, like gymnasts. Kids start racing at much earlier ages today. They move up the ladder faster and reach the Cup Series at younger ages than their predecessors. Consider two scions of notable NASCAR families:

A table comparing the ages at which Chase Elliott and Dale Jarrett reached career milestones

And let’s face it. There’s nothing magical about ages ending in zero. If we counted in base 12, we’d focus on ages 12, 24 and 36 instead of 10, 20 and 30.

The last 12 races have been won by under-30 drivers. If we chose age 29 as our cutoff, that group would only have won the last four races in a row, and seven out of the last 12 races because Kyle Larson is over 29.

Races run as a measure of experience

The best way for a driver to get better is seat time. So why not quantify a driver’s experience as the number of races he or she has run? Our six race winners this year span from ages 23 to 29, but they are far more diverse if we consider Cup races run.

A vertical bar chart showing the number of races each of the under-30 winners of the 2022 system has run in their career

Does it really make sense to group Kyle Larson (17 wins) and Alex Bowman (7 wins) with first-time winners Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe?

For that matter, does it make sense to group Cindric and Briscoe with fellow first-time winner Ross Chastain? Chastain has run almost 10 times the number of Cup races Cindric has run and almost three times the number Briscoe has completed.

I’d argue not. Furthermore, as the age profile of drivers changes, using age as a parameter makes it harder to compare today’s driver with drivers of the past.

Experience levels of full-time 2022 drivers

Last week, I examined how the percentage of full-time drivers under age 30 has changed throughout the years. Let’s repeat that analysis, but with number of races run. I chose number of races rather than seasons because some drivers may not run all the races in a season.

Let’s start with full-time drivers in 2022. I’m plotting the number of races run coming into the 2022 season, which is why these numbers are six less than the numbers in the graph above.

A vertical bar chart showing the number of races won by each full-time Cup driver at the start of the 2022 season

As you might expect, this group spans a pretty large range of experiences. Todd Gilliland came into 2022 as a true rookie. Kurt Busch narrowly beat Kevin Harvick for most races run by an active full-time driver with 756 entering this year.

All but seven drivers had at least 72 races under their belts at the start of the 2022 season. In other words, about 80% of full-time drivers entered the 2022 season with the equivalent of at least two years of experience. The graph below shows the percentage of the field having a certain number of equivalent years’ experience.A vertical bar graph showing the percentge of the 2022 field with 1 through 6 years of experience.

 

In 2022, 54.1% of all full-time drivers are under age 30 — but 80% of drivers have two or more years of Cup Series experience.

Is driver experience level unique to 2022?

The percentage of full-time drivers under 30 has changed over the years, as shown in the graph below.

A vertical bar graph showing the percentage of full-time drivers under age 30 from 1980-2022 labeled with percentages

You can see the three waves of younger drivers in the mid 80’s, the mid-2000s and the early 2020s.

Does driver experience follow the same pattern? If so, we would expect peaks in the percentage of drivers with a particular experience level where there are valleys in the age graph. Compare the bumps and dips in the above graph with the graph below. The graph below shows the percentage of Cup drivers coming into each season with at least 72 Cup races run.

Thepercent of full-time cup drivers who ran at least 72 races coming into that year's season.
Each bar shows the percentage of full-time Cup drivers who came into the season having run at least 72 Cup races.

 

We don’t see such a clear trend when we use driver experience as a variable.

  • We do see peaks on the bottom graph when there are a very low percentage of young drivers around 2011-2013.
    • In 2011, the least experienced driver had run 53 races.
    • In 2012, the least experience driver had run 35 races
  • But the percentage of drivers with the equivalent of at least two years of experience has remained pretty steady (between 75%-80%) over the last nine years.

Conclusion

While our current crop of NASCAR winners is younger, they are by no means inexperienced. Consequently, we shouldn’t make a big deal of experienced drivers winning races, even if they are young. Here’s what we should look for:

The median experience level for the 2022 full-time field (as of Daytona) was 181 races. Median means that half of the drivers are above this number and the other half are below. Larson, Bowman, Elliott and Ryan Blaney are in the top half of experienced drivers in the Cup Series field.

If one of these drivers wins Richmond, we shouldn’t release the balloons because the streak of another driver under 30 winning continues. But if Corey LaJoie (age 30) or Daniel Suarez (also 30) win, we should herald the continuation of another streak: drivers with less experience beating out their more experienced peers.