Dr. Diandra: For some drivers, Richmond is unique among short tracks

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The NextGen racecar undertakes its first true short track points race today at Richmond Raceway. By ‘true’ short track, I mean oval tracks under 1 mile: Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond. Although these three tracks have different degrees of banking and slightly different lengths, they share an important characteristic: speed.

Or rather, lack of speed. Take a look at the pole speeds from 2019, the last time we had qualifying at short tracks.

A vertical bar chart showing the average pole speed for races at Martinsville, Richmond,Bristol and Dover

Aside from the much-longer road courses (a class unto themselves), the true short tracks are the slowest tracks NASCAR runs. Dover, which my mind wants to make a short track, runs much faster than true short tracks. Because aerodynamic forces depend on speed squared, slower tracks make aerodynamics less significant.

A caveat: When I say Bristol, I mean pavement Bristol, not dirt Bristol. Although Bristol with dirt on it is still a short track, the dirt physics is significantly different than pavement physics. Also, with only one dirt race at Bristol, we don’t have enough data to determine how it compares to pavement Bristol, or to other short tracks.

Who are the best short-track drivers?

Given that the series heads for Martinsville next week, I thought maybe I could kill two races with one calculation by just figuring out which drivers are best on the three true short tracks.

I want to emphasize recent results, but I had to balance that with the fact that we have at most six short-track races a year. As a compromise, I’m using data from 2019-2021.

Let’s start by looking at drivers’ average finishes for short tracks.

A vertical bar chart showing the average finishes of Cup drivers at the three short tracks: Richmond, Martinsville and Bristol.

This looks like a promising start to picking winners: All the usual suspects surface. Kyle Busch has six career wins at Martinsville and eight at Bristol. Martin Truex, Jr. has gone from being the king of the mile-and-a-half tracks to mastering short-track racing. I was a little surprised to see Denny Hamlin so far back, but he’s had a lot of close races lately. My choices for Richmond seem pretty clear.

Then I reminded myself of the dangers of generalizing: it’s easy to find patterns where there are none.

And it’s a good thing for my fantasy team that I didn’t just stop there.

Track-by-track

I decided to examine drivers’ performances at individual tracks, as well as their averages across tracks. It turns out not all the top drivers are uniformly good at short tracks.

In the graph below, I’ve left the overall average — over all three tracks — in red. The average finishes for Richmond are in yellow, Martinsville in green, and Bristol in blue.

A vertical bar graph that compares each driver's averge finish at each of the three tracks to the composite average

This graph paints a slightly different picture than the graph of overall short-track performance.

One thing doesn’t change: Kyle Busch is still a good bet at any short track.

  • Busch earns that title by having average finishes under 10 at all three short tracks.
  • Despite a 18.8% career win rate (six wins in 32 starts), Busch hasn’t won at Richmond since 2018.
  • That makes his average finish even more impressive because the data in the graph above don’t include 2018.

In contrast, Martin Truex, Jr. is strong at some tracks and not so strong at others.

  • Truex earns his second-place short-track racer title by being really, really good at Richmond.
  • His finishing average of 2.0 at Richmond over the last three years compensates for a finishing average of 16.2 at Bristol over the same time.
  • Here’s how good Truex is at Richmond: He won three of the last five Richmond races. When he didn’t win, he still finished in the top five.

If you only depended on overall short track numbers, you might be in for an unwelcome surprise at Bristol if you pick Truex.

Joey Logano (third best in overall short track finishes) and Denny Hamlin (fifth best) both have an average finish of 4.8 at Richmond — better than Kyle Busch’s 6.6 average.

Gibbs is strong at Richmond. Of the three drivers considered (Bell is too new to have enough data), Truex has three top 10s this year and stands seventh in points. He’s a good bet to give Toyota its first win of the year.

If you’re looking for a dark horse pick for a driver to run well at Richmond, check out the ‘A’-list drivers:

This graph also tells you that there are a few drivers you might want to avoid, even though they’re on the graph for having a decent overall short-track finishing average.

  • Despite having an average finish of 11.74 at short tracks, Ryan Blaney‘s performance at Richmond has produced only 16.40 average finish. Perhaps keep him in your garage until next week.
  • Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch and Erik Jones are also drivers whose recent record at Richmond is worse than their overall short-track record suggests.

Laps led

Drivers who lead laps tend to win at Richmond. The graph below shows total laps led at each of the three short tracks. The drivers are arranged with the driver who has led the most total laps at the three tracks combined on the left.

This graph further reinforces the idea that even drivers who run well at short tracks run better at some short tracks than others. From 2019-2021:

  • Truex led 1293 laps between the three tracks, but 95.6% of his laps led were at Richmond or Martinsville.
  • Hamlin, on the other hand, has led at all three tracks, with a total of 1183 laps led.
  • Keselowski’s also been strong at all three short tracks — although with the usual caveat that he’s in different equipment this year.
  • Although Chase Elliott is fourth in laps led, only 60 of those were at Richmond.

What to expect from the track

While we often focus on drivers, understanding the track and the race rhythm can really help your prognostication skills. If the first two stages show that your driver’s car doesn’t get good until 70 laps into a run, you need to know how likely it is that there will be a long green-flag run in stage 3.

I think of short tracks as having lots of cautions, lots of accidents and lots of DNFs. That’s not Richmond these days. Look at the number of accidents and spins in the last 20 years.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing the numbers of accidents and spins at Richmond over time

In the 2000s, two accidents would have been considered abnormally low for a Richmond race. The spring 2003 race managed 12 accidents and two spins in 393 laps.

With a couple exceptions (the spring races in 2011 and 2013, and the fall race in 2016), drivers at Richmond experience many fewer accidents and spins these days. Not only did the fall race in 2020 go accident free, there were no breaks other thaxnn the planned competition and stage-break cautions. It’s possible that the NextGen car’s durability may encourage drivers to be a little more aggressive, but it’s also possible that the durability will allow more bumping without requiring cautions.

Fewer accidents usually means fewer DNFs. But fewer accidents also mean fewer cautions and fewer cautions mean longer green-flag runs.

  • In last year’s fall race, stage 2 was caution free (148  laps), and the race ended with a 146-lap green-flag run.
  • In the 2021 spring race, stage three featured a 134-lap green-flag run.

Long green-flag runs requires crew chiefs to tune the car for more than just the short term. Fewer cautions mean fewer opportunities for crew chiefs to adjust their cars. That, in turn, makes all those computer simulations and tests that help the crew chiefs decide how to adjust the car even more important. If you’re not close to dialed in when you unload, you may not have many chances to get there.

As recently as 2013, it was normal for nine or 10 cars to retires before the end of the race. More recently, only 2-3 cars fail to finish the race. That, in turn, has led to a smaller fraction of cars finishing on the lead lap. In the last five Richmond races, only about one-third of the cars finished on the lead lap.

Qualifying on the pole doesn’t have a big impact at Richmond. In the last 10 races, the polesitter won the race only once, in 2016.

One more tidbit from my analysis: If you’re limiting your choices to drivers who haven’t notched their first win yet, this might not be the track to do it. No drivers has gotten his or her first win at a short track since 2005, when Kasey Kahne accomplished that feat.