Chase Projections: A Statistical Analysis

CHICAGO, IL- SEPTEMBER 12: (L - R) Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr, Martin Truex Jr, Brad Keselowski, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Clint Boyer, Denny Hamlin, Kaey Kahne and Tony Stewart pose in front of "The Bean" as part of NASCAR Chase Media Day and NASCAR Contenders Live on September 12, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. They are the twelve drivers competing for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images for NASCAR)

It seems that everyone has a prediction to make about how the Chase for the Championship will unfold once cars hit the track this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway. Some analysts make their picks at random while others use their favorite statistical metrics.

NASCAR Ranting and Raving's Shaun Burke used the latter, a formula he'll describe below. Also, don't forget to read SB Nation NASCAR's massive Chase prediction post which can be read here.

Using the last seven races at each Chase track, I have calculated the finishing position of each chase driver. This method is formatted to give the most weight to the most recent race at each track.

This analysis is just that; an analysis. It is not my opinion on how the chase will finish; it is the probable finishing position based on quantitative data. It does not take into consideration "the eyeball test". It also does not necessarily do a good job of rewarding drivers who switched to a better team (Kasey Kahne) or a driver who seems to have magically flipped a switch and started running better (Brad Keselowski).

The complete Chase predictions, for all 12 contenders, can be found after the jump.

Martin Truex, Jr. – For most people, Truex’s 2012 season has been a surprise. Truex did finish 11th in points in 2007; however since joining MWR, he has been stuck in that high teen – low 20s point area. Unfortunately, Truex has not performed well at the tracks in the chase with the exception of Homestead.

Best Track – Homestead is by far Truex’s best track. In six career starts at Homestead, Truex leads all chase drivers with an average finish of 6.83. He has finished in the top 10 in five of his career starts. The one time he didn’t finish in the top 10, he finished 11th.

Worst Track – It’s hard to pick out Truex’s worst track. In seven of the first eight chase races, Truex ranks near the bottom of the chase drivers in terms of average finish. While Truex finished second in the first Kansas race this season, five of his seven starts at Kansas have been in the 20s and up.

Chase Prediction – Truex will finish the Chase in 12th position with 2,279 points.

Kasey Kahne – Kahne is driving for his third team in as many seasons. It is hard to accurately predict how Kahne’s 2012 Chase will go due to this. While he finished his 2011 season out strong with Red Bull Racing, the end of his 2010 season may have been some of the worst results of his career.

Best Track – Kahne won the Coke 600 in the spring and has finished in the top-5 in three of his seven races at Charlotte. He has also led 191 laps at Charlotte which is third most amongst Chase drivers in the 7 analyzed.

Worst Track – Kahne’s average finish of 26.29 at Martinsville is the lowest average finish of any chase driver at any track. He has a best finish of 14th in 2010 but only two other races inside the top 25. There is no way to sugar coat it; Kahne needs to figure out Martinsville if he wants a shot at winning the 2012 championship. If only he has someone he could lean on for advice…

Chase Prediction – Kahne will finish the Chase in 11th position with 2,291 points.

Brad Keselowski – Keselowski took the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup by storm. After merely being "just another driver" in 2010 and the first half of 2011, he lit the series on fire after breaking his ankle mid way through 2011. Because of this, his statistics are a bit skewed. His limited amount of starts (he’s only been racing full time for three seasons) also made for a limited amount of data.

Best Track – Keselowski has two wins at Talladega with an average finish of 13th. He has also led a lap in each of the last seven races. If Brad Keselowski can miss the big wreck, Keselowski should be able to capitalize with a good finish in Alabama.

Worst Track – Keselowski has yet to crack the top 10 at Texas in his past seven attempts. He did lead several laps in 2011 before finishing 18th. Given Keselowski’s recent performance on the mile and a half ovals, I expect Keselowski to finish better at Texas this fall.

Chase Prediction – Keselowski will finish the Chase in 10th position with 2,292 points.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – Earnhardt, Jr. has run well in 2012; however, he has only been able to cap off a good run with a win one time this season. Unfortunately, I expect the Chase to continue this trend.

Best Track – Most people would expect NASCAR’s largest track to be Junior’s best track; however, it’s just the opposite. In the past seven races at Martinsville, Junior has finished outside the top 15 just once. He is also riding a 4 race streak of top 10 finishes. While junior has top 5 finishes in each of the last two spring races, he has finished seventh in the last two fall races. If Earnhardt, Jr. can transfer some of his spring magic to the fall race, he should be able to capitalize.

Worst Track – Even if Earnhardt comes into Homestead challenging for the championship, he will have a huge hurdle to jump as his average finish at Homestead is 25.86. He did finish 11th in last year’s season’s finale, which broke a 4 race streak of sub 25 finishes.

Chase Prediction – Earnhardt, Jr. will finish the Chase in 9th position with 2,294 points.

Jeff Gordon – Most experts predicted Gordon would miss the chase after he sat 22nd in points close to 200 points out of the lead 14 races into the Cup season. In the final 12 races leading up to the chase, Gordon made up 70 points on the points leader on the strength of one win, six top 5s and nine top 10s. While the run to make the chase was nothing short of miraculous, Gordon will likely have trouble continuing the magic during the Chase.

Best Track – Lucky for Gordon, his best track comes early in the Chase. Gordon has an average finish if 6.86 at Loudon in the past seven races, coming home in the top 10 five times. Gordon also let a significant portion of the laps in last year’s Chase race at Loudon before fading to fourth. If Gordon can grab a win early in the chase, it could establish him as a major contender for the championship. It’s a whole lot easier to win a championship when you don’t have to play catch up.

Worst Track – Gordon leads all active drivers with plate wins, but those wins haven’t come lately. Gordon ranks 11th of the chase drivers with an average finish of 21.43. Late race wrecks have significantly hampered Gordon over the past few years at the plate tracks. If Gordon can manage to salvage a top-5 or even a win at Talladega, he could put a serious challenge for the championship.

Chase Prediction – Gordon will finish the Chase in 8th position with 2,315 points.

Tony Stewart – Stewart limped into last year’s chase. Most people though he’d be one of the two drivers in the chase who didn’t even get to go to Las Vegas. He shut those people up by winning half the chase races and the 2011 Sprint Cup Championship. Stewart started the 2012 season strong, winning three races early. If Stewart can rekindle some of that early season magic, he could mount a serious challenge to winning back-to-back championships.

Best Track – Stewart won the first race of the Chase last year and never really looked back. History says the person who wins the first race of the Chase will probably finish in the top-5 in points. Stewart has an average finish of 8.14 at Chicago; highest of all the chase drivers. He has also won two of the last seven races and has only finished outside the top 10 once.

Worst Track – Like Gordon, Stewart has been good at Talladega but doesn’t have the finishes to show for it. Last year, Stewart was able to come home with a top 10 (his only top 10 in the past seven races at Talladega). If Stewart wants to win back-to-back championships, he’ll need to do the same in 2012.

Chase Prediction – Stewart will finish the Chase in 7th position with 2,317 points.

Clint Bowyer – When Clint Bowyer left RCR for MWR last season, I questioned the move. It turns out that Bowyer knew what he was doing all along. He won two races in 2012 and comes into the Chase with tons of momentum after winning at Richmond.

Best Track – Bowyer has been both lucky and good at Talladega in the past. Lucky because he has been able to stay out of trouble. As evident with Gordon and Stewart, Talladega required a good amount of luck to go with your skill. Bowyer had two wins and five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. He has won the last two Chase races at Talladega. If Bowyer wants a shot at winning the championship, he needs to continue his streak of being able to stay out of trouble at Talladega.

Worst Track – Bowyer has never quite found the magic at Phoenix that he has at sister track, Loudon. In his last seven starts, Bowyer has an average finish of just 18.57 and only three top 10s. Bowyer is good at Loudon so if he can finally transfer some of that magic and have a get a good finish, he should finally be able to mount a legitimate challenge for the championship.

Chase Prediction – Bowyer will finish the Chase in 6th position with 2,318 points.

Greg Biffle – Biffle won the regular season. In return, his 12 point lead was wiped away and he now sits six points out of the lead, in fifth. His team has been the model of consistency in 2012. Even when he can’t get a top 10 finish, he manages to bring the car home with a decent finish and has completed all but two laps this season.

Best Track – It’s difficult to choose Biffle’s best track when he has been ridiculously good at two. Biffle has an average finish of 5.41 at Texas and 4.43 at Kansas. He has also finished inside the top 10 in every one of the last seven races. Biffle needs to win at one of these tracks if he wants to contend for the championship and winning at both may all but lock up the championship.

Worst Track – Biffle just hasn’t figured out Martinsville. He hasn’t been plagued with wrecks or bad luck; he just hasn’t been good. If Biffle can finish on the lead lap (which he has done all but two times this year), he should be able to finish in the top-20 and prevent a catastrophic day.

Chase Prediction – Biffle will finish the Chase in 5th position with 2,321 points.

Matt Kenseth – Kenseth announced he was leaving Roush Racing while he was leading the points this summer. After much speculation, it was finally announced he would be driving a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013. Kenseth isn’t likely to get the best equipment nor the best intel due to his leaving at the end of the season. It will take a gallant effort for Kenseth to win the championship.

Best Track – Kenseth has an average finish of 5.29 at Dover, only finishing outside the top-5 once. He should be all but a shoe-in for a top-5 again.

Worst Track – There is beginning to be a common trend. Everyone struggles at Talladega and Kenseth is no different. He finished third in the spring race, but before that, his best finish at Talladega was a 16th place finish.

Chase Prediction – Kenseth will finish the Chase in 4th position with 2,333 points.

Kevin Harvick

Best Track – Harvick saves his best for last. His average finish of 6.86 is 2nd of the all the chase driver; however, his performance as of late is the best. Harvick has finished top three in three of the last four races at Homestead. If Harvick comes into Homestead within a few points of the lead, Harvick fans should be excited.

Worst Track – We are starting to get to the part of this analysis where even a driver’s worst track isn’t really that bad. This holds true for Harvick. Harvick posted a pair of top 5 finishes at Loudon in 2010, but hasn’t cracked the top-5 since. Harvick needs to find some magic so he won’t be sitting in a points hole after just the second race of the chase.

Chase Prediction – Harvick will finish the Chase in 3rd position with 2,339 points.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin thought he had a championship won in 2010. He psyched himself out and ended up finishing second to Jimmie Johnson. Hamlin has learned from those mistakes and will make a serious challenge for the 2012 championship. After winning four races in the regular season, he also sits atop the points standings as the #1 seed for the Championship.

Best Track – Hamlin flat knows how to get around Martinsville. His average finish of 4.00 is tops of all drivers. Hamlin also won three races in a row from 2009-2010. Hamlin needs to capitalize on his recent success at Martinsville and pull off the win. If he does, he will be tough to beat.

Worst Track – It’s a good thing Hamlin is the #1 seed for the chase, because he will probably need those points to make up for Chicago. Hamlin’s average finish of 19.17 is worst of all the chase driver. Hamlin has been fast at most of the intermediate tracks so if he can figure out how to convert some of that success to Chicago, he should be able to improve upon his Chicago results.

Chase Prediction – Hamlin will finish the Chase in 2nd position with 2,347 points.

Jimmie Johnson

Best Track – What track in the Chase is Jimmie Johnson not good at? In the past seven races at each of the ten chase tracks (70 races); Johnson has 11 wins, 33 top-5s and 47 top-10s. He has also won at seven of the 10 tracks in the chase in the past seven events. Johnson has won four of the last seven races at Dover and has an average finish of 3.71 at Kansas.

Worst Track – You don’t win a championship by having a bad track. Johnson has had some bad luck lately at Charlotte; however, he still has two top-5 finishes and a win in his past seven races He has also had a much higher driver rating each race indicating he has run better than he has finished. Johnson is also bit by the Talladega bug that seems to affect all the Hendrick Motorsports drivers.

Chase Prediction – Everyone will try to challenge Johnson but it won’t matter. Johnson will be your 2012 Sprint Cup Champion with 2,349 points.

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