Fact Checking (or Wrecking)

"Yeah that happens more times than not. The car that leads the most laps doesn't win."
That was Jimmie Johnson's conclusion after his heartbreaking finish at Michigan. Johnson of course, dominated Sunday's race at Michigan leading 146 laps only to run out of fuel on the last lap while leading. It's a cliche race fans have heard forever, but is it really true?

Given my lack of interesting hobbies I decided to find out. Looking at the last five years worth of races I counted up the number of winners that also led the most and 2nd most laps on the day (Racing-Reference is amazing).

Year Most Laps+Win Win % 2nd Most+Win Win %
2008 18 50 23 63.8
2007 11 30.5 19 52.7
2006 18 50 25 69.4
2005 17 47.2 27 75
2004 21 58.3 29 80.5

The total win percentage for five years was 47% for the driver leading the most laps and 68% for a driver leading the most or second-most laps in the race. While technically Johnson is right that it happens more often than not, the truth is that if you lead a lot of laps you have a pretty chance of winning a race. In fact Johnson should know quite a bit about dominant cars. In 42 career wins he's been the dominant car (or at least led the most) in 15 races. Add in the times he's led the 2nd-most laps and it's a stout 26 races. While his respective win percentages are slightly lower (35.7%, 61.9%) than the 5 year average, they are pretty close. Further he's had ten races in his career (including 2 this year) with the most laps led that didn't translate into a win.

Through 15 races in 2009, 6 cars have won and led the most laps (40%) and 7 have won while leading the most or second most laps (46%). It's a small sample size and the summer traditionally has had a lot of races dominated by one or two cars. By year end the numbers will likely mimic the last five years.

So what does this mean? It's pretty simple: the best cars usually win. Sure Mark Martin or Brad Keselowski can steal a win by leading only the last lap, but usually the best two cars will win the race.

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