Accident-prone drivers on road circuits

Whether it’s fantasy racing or behind the wheel, success requires avoiding drivers who rack up a lot of crashes and spins.

But identifying drivers involved in more crashes and spins on tracks is more difficult than on other types of tracks.

A recent cautionary tale

Statisticians usually calculate crashes and spins from the caution list that NASCAR publishes for each race. The sanctioning body classifies the cause of each warning and which cars have been involved.

Precautions have increased in 2022 compared to last year. The chart below summarizes the number and types of crashes across 24 races each season.

This chart shows the number of cautions after 24 races for each season.

I’ve toned down the competition and end-of-stage warning bars to highlight what we’ve called “natural precautions.” Natural cautions include everything except end-of-stage and competition cautions.

History exposes trends. For example, the chart shows debris cautions falling from 36 in 2016 to 16 in 2017, when NASCAR introduced the damaged vehicle policy.

The biggest cause of precautions in any year is accidents. The 2021 season had the fewest accidents (64) since 1986, which is as far as I have reliable caution data. This year we have counted 86 accidents.

The 47 turns we’ve had are more than triple the 15 last year. The increase in revs is because the Next Gen car is harder to drive than the old Gen-6 car. The lack of asymmetry makes the current car much harder to “catch” when it starts to turn.

While accidents are higher in 2022 than in 2021, they are lower than in 2020, when we had 92 at this point in the season.

Is 2022 really high? Or was 2021 abnormally low?

The road tours are unique

I’m all for NASCAR experimenting with everything from format to programming, even though their experiments make my job harder. The less constant the data, the more complex the analysis.

The plot below details this year’s precautions by type and breed.

A stacked vertical bar chart showing the numbers and types of notices for the first 24 races in 2022

The Indianapolis track stats jumped out at me immediately.

I didn’t need to look up any data to know that there was more than one turn in that race. And no doubt more than one accident.

Reviewing the race video convinced me that cautions are not an accurate way to measure crashes and spins on tracks. The road trips are long and extended. Cars can safely exit the track or return to the race after an incident without the need for any precautions.

This does not change the fact that there was an incident.

The incidence count is certainly subjective. I only included incidents that caused a significant loss of position or damaged a car enough to force an unscheduled pit stop.

In addition to the incidents on the official caution list, the 2022 Indianapolis road course had:

  • 10 accidents
  • Nine turns
  • Five off-piste excursions
  • Two different incidents

The one “official” crash, plus the 10 I counted, makes for 11 crashes, more than any other track this year. No track has added nine turns in a race either. And off-piste excursions on a road course would be hitting the wall on oval tracks.

I tallied the incidents at the other three road courses this year, again from video.

Table showing the number of incidents that did not cause caution in 2022

I count 19 more crashes and 24 spins this year than the official totals, making the increase from 2021 even bigger.

Or does it?

Until 2017, the Cup Series visited two road courses each season: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. The uncaptured incidents were not as important for two reasons. First, road runs were two runs of 29 or more, 5.5% to 6.9% of the schedule. Second, the year-to-year variation in the number of the two tracks was probably small.

But in 2021, road courses accounted for 19.4% of the Cup Series schedule.

A table showing how the number of road tracks in the Copa Series has changed in recent years

NASCAR replaced four tracks where cautions capture the most crashes and spins with four tracks where they didn’t.

The huge increase in spins this year is real. We haven’t had more turnovers in a season since 2002.

But crash totals are suspect waiting to go back and count road incidents in 2021. The drop in crashes from 2020 to 2021 may be due (at least in part) to schedule changes rather than drivers .

Implications for Watkins Glen

The number of uncounted incidents probably doesn’t interest fantasy racers as much as knowing which drivers are more likely to have crashes and spins on the tracks.

From my count of incidents at the four road courses contested this year, the drivers involved in the most incidents are Bubba Wallace, Ross Chastain, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and AJ Allmendinger.

Each was involved in at least five incidents. The number of incidents is greater than the number of races because drivers who have spins or accidents often have more than one in the same race.

Todd Gilliland and Michael McDowell managed to avoid incidents entirely on road circuits. Other full-time drivers with minimal involvement in road incidents include: Martin Truex Jr., Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Justin Haley, Chris Buescher, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Corey LaJoie.

Ryan Blaney, who is currently competing with Truex for the last open playoff spot in points, has four on-track incidents this year.

How does all this information affect the picks for Watkins Glen (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, USA Network)?

Of the list of drivers with the most incidents involved, only Chastain has won at a road course this year.

The other three winners are listed with the fewest incidents involved.

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