Making the NASCAR Chase

How NASCAR Drivers Make the Chase

Is your driver good enough to make the Chase? In January the answer is almost always “yes”. Fans, teams, writers and announcers label almost any driver as a Chase prospect. Obviously only 12 will actually make it, so what does it take? The Chase era is entering its fifth season. It’s time to look at the factors that really apply to a driver with Chase dreams and see if there are some basic requirements for a driver.

Top 12 the last four years

The first thing I did was look at the top 12 drivers’ results in each year since 2004. The key was to compare their numbers through the first 26 races, since all we are looking for is how to get in the Chase. Also, because the current rules call for 12 drivers to make the playoffs, I included 12 for each year.

After calculating the average number of wins, top 5’s and top 10’s, I realized that the top drivers are people like Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth that have outstanding seasons and are rarely in danger of missing the Chase. They have much better numbers than the bottom of the list. Realizing they were safely in the Chase, I excluded the top 5 drivers in the Chase to avoid skewing the numbers. This study was about finding how to make the Chase, and the top 5 drivers typically run well every week.

Average’s positions six through twelve

So the next step was taking drivers 6-12 from each of the last 4 years and averaging their numbers. It works out to an average of 1.1 wins, 6.2 top 5’s and 11.8 top 10’s. That’s all it takes to make the Chase. Simple right? Not quite.

A hidden Chase factor?

There are two ingredients that go into the Chase recipe. The obvious one is getting as many good finishes as possible, but it’s also key to minimize bad finishes. 12 top 10’s through 26 races is nice, but the other 14 races count too. Minimizing DNF’s and maximizing the bad runs are just as important. Think about this: A top 5 finish is worth about 150 points (depending on laps led) while a DNF resulting in a bottom five finish is 50 points or less.

The bottom half of the Chasers averaged 123.7 points per race, which rounds out to finishing 13th in every race. Obviously running 13th every week won’t happen, but if the highs smooth out the lows, then it can lead to a successful season. One extreme example of smoothing out the lows was Jeremy Mayfield’s 2005 campaign. Mayfield only had 7 top tens in 2005, but countered mediocre equipment by avoiding trouble. He had one DNF and only four races worse than 20th. While the Dodge teams struggled with the new Charger, Mayfield made the most of the situation. Meanwhile Jeff Gordon won 3 races with 5 top 5’s, but he also had 9 sub-30 finishes. Mayfield made the Chase while Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr (8 sub-30’s) both missed the Chase. With the CoT and its unknown personality, the Mayfield approach could come in to play this year. Some teams simply won’t be able to run up front, but will have to adjust their aim and avoid trouble to rack up points.

Are wins necessary?

One more thing to note. It’s not necessary to win a race, but it sure helps. Only 6 drivers have made the Chase without a win. Four of those winless drivers did however win a race during the Chase. That shows again how important it is to run up front.

So, returning to the original question. Can your favorite driver make the Chase? You need to ask a few more questions before deciding if a driver is Chaseworthy. Can this driver win a race? Does he run up front enough to score 6 top 5’s? Does he have enough strong tracks to bank on a top ten finish 50% of the time? Does he avoid trouble enough to finish races on the lead lap? Now see how many “yes” answers a driver returns.