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.

Helio Castroneves rules out Daytona 500

Helio Castroneves Daytona 500
Robert Scheer/Indy Star/USA TODAY NETWORK
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Helio Castroneves might be at the 2023 Daytona 500, but the four-time Indy 500 winner won’t be in a race car.

During a news conference Thursday at Daytona International Speedway, Castroneves confirmed in response to a question from NBC Sports that he essentially has ruled out attempting to make his NASCAR Cup Series debut in the Feb. 19 season opener.

As recently as last Thursday at Rolex 24 Media Day, Castroneves, 47, said he still was working on trying to piece together a deal.

The Brazilian had been negotiating with the Cup team co-owned by boxer Floyd Mayweather and would have been in an “open” entry that lacked guaranteed entry to the Great American Race. That potentially would leave him in the precarious position of needing to make the race on qualifying speed or a qualifying race finish (as action sports star Travis Pastrana likely might need in his Cup debut).

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“Unfortunately for me, lack of experience, no testing,” Castroneves said. “A lot of things. I believe it would be a little bit tough throwing myself in such a short notice, and to go in a place that you’ve got to race yourself into it. So as of right now, yes, it’s not going to happen.

“But we did have an opportunity. We just got to elaborate a little bit more to give me a little more experience on that. So there is more things to come ahead of us, but as of right now, I want to focus on the IndyCar program as well and (the Rolex 24 at Daytona).”

Castroneves, who has a residence in Key Biscayne, said he still might attend the Daytona 500

“I might just come and see and watch it and continue to take a look and see what’s going to be in the future,” he said.

Castroneves enters Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona having won the event the past two years. He made his signature fence-climb after winning last year with Meyer Shank Racing, which he will be driving for full time in the NTT IndyCar Series this year. He became the fourth four-time Indy 500 winner in history in his 2021 debut with Meyer Shank Racing.

The 2020 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar champion also has indicated an interest in Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 car that aims to place international drivers in a Cup ride (such as Kimi Raikkonen at Watkins Glen International last year). Team co-owner Justin Marks recently tweeted Trackhouse wouldn’t field the Project 91 car at the Daytona 500.

After winning the 2022 Superstar Racing Experience opener, SRX CEO Don Hawk had promised he would help secure a Daytona 500 ride for Castroneves.

Castroneves has been angling for a NASCAR ride for years, dating to when he drove for Team Penske from 2000-20. After winning the Rolex 24 last year, he said he had been lobbying Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart for help with getting in a Cup car.

Though Castroneves is out, Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern reported that Mayweather’s The Money Team Racing still is considering IndyCar driver Conor Daly for its seat.

Fire at Reaume Brothers Racing shop injures three

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A Thursday fire at the Reaume Brothers Racing shop in Mooresville, North Carolina, injured three individuals, according to Mooresville (North Carolina) Fire-Rescue.

Firefighters were dispatched to the shop, which is scheduled to field entries for driver Mason Massey in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series this season, at about 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

The fire department extinguished the blaze quickly. The department stated on its Facebook page that one individual was transported to Lake Norman Regional hospital for smoke inhalation, and another was transported to Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. with burn injuries. A third was treated and released.

The team stated Thursday night on social media that Taylor Collier and Devin Fokin had been treated and released. The team stated that Taylor was treated for smoke inhalation and Fokin was treated “for serious burns.”

The Mooresville Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. The fire department said the shop sustained “significant fire damage.”

In a tweet, the team said it is determining the extent of damage to the building. “More importantly,” it said, “a few of our team members did sustain injuries during the fire and are being transported for medical treatment.”

 

Trackhouse, RFK Racing, Front Row Motorsports sign sponsorship deals

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Trackhouse Racing, RFK Racing and Front Row Motorsports announced sponsorship deals Thursday morning.

Trackhouse said WWEX, a Dallas-based global logistics group, will increase its sponsorship presence with the team this year, serving as the primary sponsor in 21 races for drivers Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez.

WWEX will appear on Chastain’s Chevrolets in 19 races and will sponsor Suarez twice. The organization was a Trackhouse sponsor in 11 events in 2022, which was a breakout season for both Chastain and Suarez.

RFK announced that Solomon Plumbing, which joined the team last season, will expand its presence this season and in future years. The Michigan-based company will serve as the primary sponsor for several races on driver Brad Keselowski‘s No. 6 Ford.

MORE: Chase Briscoe signs contract extension with Stewart-Haas

Solomon specializes in plumbing and fire services for new development and construction. It initially sponsored Keselowski last season in the dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Front Row Motorsports has signed Quincy Compressor, a Bay Minette, Ala.-based compressor manufacturer, as a sponsor for four races.

Quincy will sponsor Todd Gilliland‘s No. 38 team in three events and Michael McDowell‘s No. 34 team in one race.

 

 

Stewart-Haas Racing signs Chase Briscoe to contract extension

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Chase Briscoe has signed a multiyear contract extension to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing, the team announced Thursday.

The length of the deal was not announced.

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Briscoe is entering his third Cup season with the team. He won his first series race last year, taking the checkered flag at Phoenix last March. That victory put him in the playoffs. He finished the season ninth in the standings. 

“It’s huge to have stability, with my team and my partner,” Briscoe said in a statement from the team. “It just gives you more confidence. Stewart-Haas Racing is where I want to be for a long time. It’s the place I’ve known longer than anywhere else in my NASCAR career.

“I remember getting signed by Ford in 2017 and I told people, ‘You know, if I could pick one place to be, it would be Stewart- Haas Racing. And if I could drive one car, it would be the 14 car. That would be the ultimate dream.’ And now, here I am.

“SHR has such a great group of people, from the Xfinity Series to the Cup Series, and they’ve all just guided me in the right direction. From drivers to crew chiefs to crew members, they’ve always had my back, and that’s been a huge help – just having people believe in you.”

The 28-year-old Briscoe has been with SHR since 2018. He split a limited Xfinity schedule that season between what is now RFK Racing and SHR. He ran full time with SHR in the Xfinity Series in 2019 and ’20 before moving to Cup in 2021.

“Chase has made the most of every opportunity and the proof is in the results. Keeping him at SHR was a priority and we’re proud to have him in our racecars for many more years to come,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns SHR with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement from the team. 

Briscoe’s signing comes two weeks after teammate Kevin Harvick announced that this will be his final season in Cup. 

The Cup season begins Feb. 5 with the Busch Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum before going to Daytona for the Feb. 19 Daytona 500.