The model turned out to just scrape by with accurate guesses at Phoenix. We had predicted Kyle Busch and Joey Logano as our two best bets to fill the last two spots, but we said it was a really close call.
And that’s exactly what happened. They made it, but man it was really a close call.
So here we are: four drivers for the title. The last two drivers who made it are actually the heavier favorites than Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards, who were locked in before Phoenix.
“I’d say it’s a toss-up,” said Josh Browne, a former Sprint Cup crew chief and now co-founder at Pit Rho. “Edwards won at Texas, but Logano led the most laps.”
Kyle Busch won this race last year to win the title. Our forecast likes him a little bit more than everybody else, but it’s very tough to declare a clear favorite. Johnson has recent momentum, but Busch has been strong all year. Logano has also been consistent all season, but just not as good as Busch. And Carl Edwards, probably the least likely winner, still has a decent shot of taking this in the unique one-race format.
This is the problem with calling a winner. It’s just one race, not an entire season. There’s no chance to “average things out” or “balance the ups and downs” – one mistake and that’s it.
Something else to watch out for, Busch’s ability late in the race to catch up. “Of these four, he’s the best driver at squeezing a good finish from a less-than-perfect car,” Browne said. “When it comes time to perform, there is no better driver at finishing strong.”
The data backs that up too. Busch has gained an average of 0.81 positions in the final 20 percent of a race, according to Pit Rho’s lap-by-lap data. That beats Edwards (+0.71) and Johnson (+0.63). And it certainly beats Logano, who loses 0.58 spots in that final chunk of the race. Think Homestead 2014.
PS: Matt Kenseth has a 73 percent chance of finishing fifth in the standings, the best of the rest. Kasey Kahne has a 95 percent chance of finishing 17th – the best non-chaser.
HOW THE PREDICTIONS WORK
With the help of Andrew Maness from racing analytics firm Pit Rho, we ran the numbers to show every driver’s shot of moving through each round of the Chase. The mathematical model was designed by both Maness and me, using past driver performance to predict future results. By running 100,000 simulations of how the rest of the season might play out, we see the most likely outcomes.
Eric Chemi runs data journalism for our sister network CNBC, including a heavy dose of sports analytics. Prior to that, his NASCAR forecasts have been on Sprint Cup television broadcasts, and he has consulted for Sprint Cup teams on strategy, statistics, data, and analytics. He graduated with an engineering degree from MIT.