“We’ve been running better than we finish.” We’ve all heard drivers make that claim.
But how many drivers really do run better than they finish? It can’t be all of them. If some drivers run better than they finish, others must finish better than they run.
To answer this question, I compared season-long average running position to average finishing position.
The more I use average running position, the more I like it as a metric for driver performance. Average running position reflects a driver’s entire race, not just an accident, a penalty or an equipment failure.
For example, Kyle Busch had the best average running position at Darlington: 3.99, according to NASCAR’s loop data stats. After an engine failure took him out on lap 345, he finished 30th.
But Darlington was one race. Let’s see how the season-to-date looks.
Drivers running better than they finish
I include in this category all drivers who finished at least one position worse than they ran on average. I only graphed drivers who ran more than 1.5 positions better than they finished.
On the graph below, the top of each bar shows the driver’s running position. The bar extends downward to their finishing position. I made the bars red to remind myself that these drivers finished worse than they ran.
William Byron has the largest difference between average running position and average finishing position, finishing four positions worse than his 13.8 running position.
Byron has six DNFs and has been involved in 12 incidents this season. Five of those incidents caused cautions, while the other seven include accidents and spins at road courses, losing a wheel at Kansas and steering rack troubles at Nashville. Byron was leading the first Darlington race going into Turn 4 of the next-to-last lap, but finished 13th.
I tend to think of Byron and Alex Bowman as having the same issues. Both won early, but their performances fell off later in the regular season.
While Byron finishes four positions worse than he runs, Bowman finishes 0.6 positions better than he runs. Byron’s average running position of 13.77 is almost two-and-a-half positions better than Bowman’s.
I would have expected Bowman to run better than he finishes as well. After all, he has 16 incidents and five DNFs, which is not too different from Byron’s record. But this analysis suggests the two drivers have different problems in need of solving.
Why drivers run better than they finish
Denny Hamlin has the second largest negative difference at –2.84. While his six DNFs definitely contribute to a high running-better-than-finishing score, they’re not the only factor. Ross Chastain has five DNFs, but Ryan Blaney has only three and Martin Truex Jr. two.
One piece of good news for Hamlin is that penalties are self-inflicted and thus avoidable. His team has been better at avoiding penalties in the second half of the regular season relative to the first.
Four additional drivers compiled enough DNFs, penalties and incidents that they ran better than they finished, but didn’t make the graph. They are: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (–1.38), Chase Briscoe (–1.38), Kyle Larson (–1.24) and Kyle Busch (–1.21).
Consistent runners and finishers
I define any driver with a running-better-than-finishing difference (RBF) between -1 and +1 to be running about where they finish.
I listed these drivers in the table below. The last column is the average running position minus the average finish position. Negative means the driver finishes worse than where he runs, while positive means the opposite.
Of course, the RBF doesn’t tell the entire story.
Chase Elliott has the highest finishing and running positions of any Cup Series driver. But the –0.55 difference between them doesn’t mean he runs close to where he finishes every race. The 2020 champion ran better than he finished at 11 tracks, and worse than he finished at the other 16.
Another example of how running position can help distinguish between seemingly similar drivers: Kevin Harvick and Christopher Bell have average finish positions of 14.11 and 14.22 respectively. But Harvick runs a little worse (14.63) than he finishes and Bell a bit better (13.63.)
Daniel Suárez runs closest to how he finishes so far this year. A net 0.23 positions separate his running and finishing positions.
Finishing better than they run
The final group is the drivers whose average finishing positions are at least 1.5 positions better than their average running positions.
Justin Haley has the largest difference in this group, finishing 3.21 positions better than where he runs. Although that’s a significant increase, he starts with an average running position of 22.2. That means Haley runs 8.4 positions worse than Byron, but finishes only 1.2 positions behind.
The two playoff drivers on this graph — Austin Dillon (+2.09) and Austin Cindric (+2.06) — have similar differences between running and finishing positions. Cindric has the slightly better average finish by about one position.
Unsurprisingly, superspeedway races produce the largest differences between running and finishing positions because so many drivers fail to finish these races. But that cuts both ways. Drivers who get caught up in crashes usually finish worse than they run, and the drivers still in the race move up in the running order.
So some drivers do indeed run better than they finish. And the next time one claims he’s been doing that, you know how to figure out if the claim is true.