Welcome to our annual ESPN The Magazine NASCAR garage preview. In the spirit of our Analytics Issue (on newsstands 2/22), we're employing NASCAR's ever-increasing mountain of loop data, including the most underappreciated statistic in all of sports: Driver Rating.
Since 2005, the sanctioning body has recorded digital information on each car -- not just at the start-finish line, but also at multiple points around the racetrack. The result has been a strikingly detailed turn-by-turn portrait of the strengths and weaknesses of every team and driver, sometimes going against their most widely accepted racing reputations.
To help us sort through it all, we employed the help of Mike Forde, aka Loop Dogg, NASCAR's loop data guru. He reminds us that when it comes to Driver Rating, the formula may be complicated (see an explanation here), but understanding it is simple.
"A perfect score is 150, and anything over 100 is very solid, whether you're talking about one race or an entire season," Forde explained late last season. "When you get slightly below 100, there were some issues, but there were also some aspects to be proud of. You start getting into the 70s and below, and you didn't have the performance you were looking for."
With those numbers in hand, let's look forward by looking back.
1. HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS
2012: 10 wins, 82 top 10s, 16 DNFs
Jimmie Johnson (109.5 Driver Rating): Five-time led the series in top 10s (24), but also tied for tops in DNFs (6) among the non-start-and-parks.
Kasey Kahne (96.3): What a turnaround. Kahne's Average Running Place during his first six races with HMS was 22.448 -- ranked 24th. In the 10 races of the Chase, it was 8.065 (second-best).
Jeff Gordon (98.0): Four-time Cup winner spent 88 percent of the Chase laps running inside the top 15 -- third-best and 3.2 percent better than defending champion Brad Keselowski.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. (95.9): Loop data reveals Dale Jr. needs to work on closing out races. In the last 10 percent of 2012 races, he lost an anemic 41 positions on the track.
Many -- well, most -- preseason publications and polls have Johnson atop the heap, drawing the ire of the never-small, anti-Jimmie fan base. But a quick thumbing through the Loop Data shows that such speculation isn't a dissing of Keselowski. It merely proves just how close Johnson was to edging BK for the Cup.
Johnson not only led the series in Driver Rating (109.5), he nearly swept the 15 statistical categories that Forde cranks out each week, topping the list in Average Running Position (9.167); Fastest Early in a Run (average rank: 5.103); Fastest Late in a Run (5.207); Fastest Laps Run (1171 or 12.9 percent); Fastest on Restarts (10.194); Green Flag Speed (4.172); Laps in Top 15 (84.4 percent); Laps Led (16.7 percent); Miles Led (2228.21); Percentage of Laps Run on the Lead Lap (92.28 percent); Speed by Quarter (by the way, he also led each quarter overall); and Speed in Traffic.
2. JOE GIBBS RACING
7 wins, 49 top 10s, 11 DNFs
Matt Kenseth (99.9): Mr. Slow-And-Steady-Wins-The-Race ranked a not-so-surprising fourth among drivers who were fastest in the final 25 percent of laps run since a pit stop, when cars are at their worst.
Denny Hamlin (100.9): One of only two Chase drivers to post a 100-plus Driver Rating for the season.
Kyle Busch (101.5): The only driver outside the Chase with a 100-plus Driver Rating and second overall, trailing only Johnson.
Hamlin and Busch both have reps for being strong on restarts and fast early in green flag runs. The Loop Data merely proves that to be correct. The Fastest on Restarts statistic ranks each driver on the speed of their first two laps under green flag conditions. Hamlin and Busch ranked second and third in 2012. Only Johnson was higher. They were also ranked second and third -- Busch leading Hamlin -- in the category of Fastest Drivers Early In A Run, which ranks drivers based on speed in the first 25 percent of laps run following a pit stop. Again, they trailed only Johnson.
3. PENSKE RACING
5 wins, 27 top 10s, 5 DNFs
Brad Keselowski (99.0): His average finishing position for the 26-race regular season was 11.5. During the Chase, it was 6.3.
Joey Logano (79.4): Sliced Bread just isn't fast, finishing 21st in Green Flag Speed, which ranks drivers based on average mph under green throughout each race.
So, if Johnson was such a Loop Data juggernaut, how in the world did Keselowski manage to win the championship? The two categories that Johnson didn't win went to Bad Brad, including the stat that Loop Dogg considers to be one of the most important. Keselowski led the series in Quality Passes, which are passes of cars inside the top 15 during green flag conditions. The Blue Deuce racked up 2,201 Quality Passes, 208 more than any driver.
"This is significant," Forde says. "These are the toughest cars -- with the most talented drivers -- to pass, and Keselowski did it more often than any other driver." Forde points out that considering BK's average starting position (a highly generic 16.2), he had to do it often. In fact, Keselowski is the first champion to fail to win a pole in his championship season since Kenseth in 2003.
4. STEWART-HAAS RACING
4 wins, 30 top 10s, 7 DNFs
Tony Stewart (86.1): Smoke spent only 51.1 percent of the year inside the top 15, dropping to 45.1 during the Chase.
Ryan Newman (82.0): Loop Data says Newman was tops among Closers, improving his position by two spots in the final 10 percent of each race.
Danica Patrick (46.3): Among the 13 drivers who started all 33 Nationwide Series races in '12, her Driver Rating of 79.9 was ninth -- one spot better than her final points position.
The most puzzling aspect of SHR's 2012 struggles was the severe drop-off the team experienced in the fall, especially when compared to Stewart's historic postseason the year before. After 18 races and his win at Daytona (third of the year), Smoke's Driver Rating was still a somewhat-thin 91.4. He never won again. At the end of the 26-race regular season, his rating was 87.9; during the 10-race Chase it plummeted to 81.5.
As Forde likes to point out, the Loop doesn't lie, even when a team might look good on the surface. "Yeah, the wins kind of masked some bigger issues," Stewart acknowledged. "And Ryan didn't have the usual good fall push he does, either." If that happens again, considering Danica has moved in and Kevin Harvick is about to, Newman might be looking elsewhere for a job.
5. ROUSH FENWAY RACING
5 wins, 53 top 10s, 5 DNFs
Greg Biffle (99.5): He's nothing if not consistent. Average position at midrace and also at race's end was 10.2.
Carl Edwards (84.2): Cuz's new crew chief is Jimmy Fennig, who won races with Bobby Allison. Wonder what he thinks of Loop Data?
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (62.2): Nationwide Series champ also led in Driver Rating with a crazy-good 110.2.
RFR's top two were a study in contrasts in 2012. Biffle posted the biggest Driver Rating improvement among all drivers, jumping a massive 13.6 points over his '11 total, from 85.9 to 99.5. On the flip side, Edwards suffered the biggest drop among drivers who didn't take a step backward employment-wise (David Ragan, Kurt Busch), free-falling 16.8 points, from a huge 101 in '11 to a forgettable 84.2 last season.
6. MICHAEL WALTRIP RACING
3 wins, 58 top 10s, 13 DNFs
Clint Bowyer (96.5): Ranked fourth in Laps in Top 15, at 76.7 percent. Who was fifth?
Martin Truex Jr. (95.6): This guy, at 76.6 percent.
Mark Martin (93.2): Part-timer ranked fifth among Top Driver Early in a Run, sandwiched between Chasers Gordon and Kahne.
Brian Vickers (89.1): Made only eight starts, but still ranked 17th in laps led with 158, 5.6 percent of all laps run.
Bowyer's overall Chase numbers were better than Keselowski's, leading the 10-race postseason in top 5's (4), Average Start (6.7), Average Running Position (7.341) and Laps in Top 15 (94 percent). But then there was that little incident at Phoenix.
7. RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING
1 win, 29 top 10s, 6 DNFs
Kevin Harvick (91.0): We call him The Closer, but in 2012 he ranked 17th in the Closer category, averaging .1 positions improved over the final 10 percent of laps run.
Paul Menard (78.0): Spent 39.2 of laps inside the top 15. That's not good...
Jeff Burton (72.3): But it's way better than Baby Burton's 30.4.
Last August, during the season's second visit to Pocono, I asked Harvick to explain how he'd managed to stay solidly in the top 10 in points all season, despite a highly generic year that hadn't really come close to sniffing a win. His answer: "Hell, man, I have no idea." I should have looked at the Loop Data, which would have told us that he kept hanging around because he kept hanging the lead lap. Despite being ranked 13th in Laps Led and 11th in Laps Spent Inside the Top 15, he finished an impressive fifth in Percentage of Laps Run on Lead Lap, at 88.8 percent.
8. RICHARD PETTY MOTORSPORTS
1 win, 12 top 10s, 7 DNFs
Marcos Ambrose (79.9): Since Driver Rating arrived in '05, he's ranked second all-time at Watkins Glen (120.1) and third at Sonoma (106.8).
Aric Almirola (73.6): Surprisingly strong when it comes to Quality Passes, AA ranked 12th, just behind Johnson.
So, I'm researching this story and I approach The King to talk to him about the strengths and weaknesses of his drivers that we on the outside might not realize. Eventually, he says: "I wonder what it would have been like if we'd had all this stuff when I was racing. Me and [David] Pearson might've made these computers catch fire."
9. EARNHARDT GANASSI RACING
0 wins, 5 top 10s, 9 DNFs
Jamie McMurray (73.0): During his amazing 2010 Daytona 500- and Brickyard 400-winning season, his Driver Rating was 86.5.
Juan Pablo Montoya (67.4): His career rating on the road courses averages out to 104.12. Everywhere else? Not even close.
There are a lot of issues at EGR, but chief among them is qualifying. In 2012, McMurray averaged a starting position of 21.3, Montoya 23.3. They rarely recovered, averaging a 19.9 and 20.6 Midrace Running Position respectively, and Average Finishing Positions of 20.1 and 21.7. And between the two of them, they spent less than a quarter of the season running inside the top 15. Combined, they led a microscopic .4 of the laps run. Finally, nearly half of those laps led came in one race; McMurray's 38 turns up front at Talladega in the fall.
10. FURNITURE ROW RACING
0 wins, 6 top 10s, 3 DNFs
Kurt Busch (71.0): In only six races with FRR, Busch had more top 10s in the No. 78 (three) than he did in 29 races with Phoenix Racing (two).
Furniture Row grabs the final spot in our top 10 because the remaining teams are either part-time (Wood Brothers), park more than race, or are just plain lost (JTG Daugherty). When asked about Busch's late-season move, the Loop Dogg beams. "A happy driver is a successful driver," says Forde. "When Busch announced his move to Furniture Row Racing during the Chase, he exuded calm and joyfulness. The results were immediate."
Busch made huge leaps in Driver Rating (86.6 vs. 67.8); Average Start (17.7 vs. 22.7); Average Finish (14.3 vs. 25.0); Running Position (14.6 vs. 22.2); and Laps in Top 15 (47.8 percent vs. 21.5 percent).