After 400 laps (plus six for a green-white-checker and yellow flag finish) the NASCAR series heads north into the Pocono region of Pennsylvania for the Pocono 400 presented by Axalta. Pocono is a 2.5-mile trioval that can be best described as Indianapolis Motor Speedway after a child manipulated the second and third corners and back straightaway, much like you could do to Bowser’s face in the original Mario Party game on Nintendo 64. Because of the size of this track, both races (oddly held only weeks apart) are only 160 laps long which is less than half of last week’s race at Dover. Thus, we need to really investigate the distribution of laps led and see how this affects our ratio of lap leaders to place differential drivers.
Before I begin let me clarify that these models (the model still signifies these as Spring and Fall races though) only include 2014 late Spring through 2016 late Spring races (five in total). The Summer 2016 race was rain postponed and fog-shortened to 138 laps. The numbers from that race, Chris Buescher’s first and perhaps only win, skew our numbers to the point of becoming noise.
How do the lap leaders breakdown at Pocono?
Most weeks my standard for a lap leader making the above chart is a driver leading at least 10% of the race. However, 10% of 160 laps only means sixteen laps led, and those sixteen laps only become four measly (16 x .25) laps led points or the same as a driver starting 20th and finishing 16th. If we make 20% our new figure for laps led we jump up to 32 laps, but this is still a rather insignificant number as thirty-two laps led converts to eight points. Thus, I decided to make 30% (48 laps) this week’s cut line for lap leaders which would equal a driver gaining at least twelve spots from start to finish, not to mention it was a threshold each driver met who led the most laps in their race.
As we look at the chart above we see that only one driver led over 30% of the race in those past five Pocono races with three of the five races having a driver lead 95 laps (59%) of the race. Thus, with only one driver leading at least 30% of the race where are the other laps going? In four of those five races, the rest of the laps led were split among nine or more drivers (the late Spring race of 2015 only had five other lap leaders) which mean those small quarter-point bonuses for leading a lap are getting split up so much they nearly become a non-factor when compared to place differential scoring.
Thus, when building lineups the absolute most lap leaders you will need is one surrounded by five drivers who will gain points via place differential and finishing position. The numbers show only one driver is going to lead at least 30% of the race, and whatever drivers lead laps will basically accrue the same amount of points in leading laps as drivers who gain 5-10 spots from where they start to where they finish. Something to note is how last year’s Spring race (first at Pocono with the new low downforce package) saw a reduction in total laps led by the driver who led the most laps falling from an average of eighty-eight to only fifty-one as three drivers led thirty-one or more laps. This may be a trend to compensate for with some of your teams having no lap leaders IF by chance you project no driver leading more than forty laps, and we have a driver qualify far enough back who can actually move up twenty or more spots. Do not forget the impact of two mandatory cautions on top of the cautions we will see from wrecks and car part failures. We may very well see a handful of drivers lead sixteen or more laps with none actually controlling the race.
If the leading driver leads eighty-eight laps you will need them in your lineup for any chance of winning a tournament; however, if that number falls south of fifty-one you could win simply by building the team who gains the most positions from start to finish. The chart on the right shows how laps led converts into points bonuses; if a top tier driver were to fail to make it through tech for qualifying and start in the 30s, with the actual likelihood of finishing near fifth place, a racer would have to lead 100 laps to match in laps led points what that other driver is gaining through place differential. Qualifying will be the great determinate of which direction we begin lineups this weekend.
Where are the lap leaders at Pocono coming from?
With only one driver registering 30% or more of the laps led, following this graph is fairly easy. For four straight races, the leading lap gainer hovered around the fourth starting position before jumping to 13th in the late Spring race of 2016. Interestingly enough in those four races, where the lap leader came from within the starting five, the driver who led the most laps ended up winning the race as well. In last year’s race, Chase Elliott led the most laps (32) but finished fourth as Kurt Busch (who led the second most laps – 32) won the race. Kurt himself started sixth which gives us a fairly good correlation to starting around the fifth spot (give or take a few positions) and being in line to not only lead the most laps but also win the race. Furthermore, when you look at who led the second most laps, the trend goes 12th, 2nd, 5th, 1st, and 9th. If you pick a potential lap leader outside of the starting top ten you’re adding unneeded variance to your teams.
Should we roster the pole sitter as a potential lap leader?
This graph appears different from last week as I decided to add where the pole sitter is finishing besides how many laps they are leading. This addition of information matters because if the lap leader is a fair bet to not finish fifth or better, they had better lead enough laps to make up for the points they’re losing from scoring differential. Nonetheless, we have a pretty alarming trend for the pole sitter at Pocono as they’ve only led laps in two of five races with the zenith being 19/160 (11.8%) laps led. In fact, that race was the only time out of ten instances where the pole sitter led either the most laps or second most laps. With the track being a nearly flat 2.5-mile circuit it makes it way too easy for the lap leader to get passed and just decide to fall in line instead of charging back to the front. The long straightaways put a premium on horsepower and if the leader doesn’t have it they will be passed.
The late Summer race of 2015 was the only race, out of our five race data set, where the pole sitter failed to finish on the lead lap. In those other four races, the pole sitter finished at 5th place (5.75 to be exact) on average meaning they weren’t negatively impacting teams in large, yet still, they’re not leading any laps while also losing points for place differential. Your best bet is to not blindly roster the pole sitter especially if they post bad single lap speeds in practice. In last year’s fog-shortened race, Martin Truex Jr. appeared ready to buck this trend but left early with a mechanical issue after leading the first sixteen laps. Dependent on who wins the pole, you may decide to increase your shares of them, but for the most part let the majority of your teams center around drivers starting second to tenth.