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Spotter’s Stand: 2016 IndyCar Champion’s Points

Prior to the start of the 2015 season, I created two methods to predict how many points the 2015 IndyCar champion would score. One predicted that the champion would score 545.5 points, and the other predicted a score of 567 points. In reality, Scott Dixon scored 556 points in 2015, which was between the point totals predicted by both methods.

The first method, the Champion Points/Race Method, estimated the number of points the 2015 champion would score based on the number of points per race each IndyCar champion scored between 2012 and 2014. From 2005 to 2014, the IndyCar champion collected between 38.0 and 30.2 points on average per race. Between 2012 and 2014, with the DW12 chassis, the range was even narrower, between 30.2 and 30.4 points per race.  

download (21)Between 2012 and 2014, the  champion scored an average of 30.3 points per race. I suspected that the trend would continue in the 2015 season. The calendar for 2015 had 16 races, with two  awarding double points, so it should be considered to have 18 races. This suggested that the 2015 IndyCar champion would score 545.4 total points (30.3 points/race x 18 races = 545.5 points).

Since the Champion Points/Race method revealed that champions average a consistent number of points per race from year to year, I wondered if the champion’s individual race results were also consistent from year to year. The second method, the Finishing Group Method, estimated how many times the 2015 champion would finish in each of the following finishing groups (FGs), and complete other tasks that earn championship points.

  • Finish 1st
  • Finish 2nd or 3rd
  • Finish 4th or 5th
  • Finish between 6th and 8th, inclusive
  • Finish between 9th and 12th, inclusive
  • Finish between 13th and 17th, inclusive
  • Finish between 18th and 24th, inclusive
  • Finish 25th or worse
  • Win pole
  • Lead most laps in a race
  • Lead a lap in a race without winning

The projections of the 2015 champion’s performance were based on the performance of champions from 2012 to 2014. For example, between 2012 and 2014, the champion won an average of 21% of the races each year, suggesting that the 2015 IndyCar champion would win four races (21% x 18 effective races = 3.7 wins, which rounds to 4 wins). I performed a similar calculation for each of the point scoring tasks listed above.

After identifying how many times the 2016 champion would complete each points paying task and determining the average point value of each of those tasks, the FG Method estimated that the 2015 champion would have the ‘Predicted Results’ shown below, worth 567 points. In addition to accurately predicting the champion’s total points in 2015, the FG method also did an excellent job of predicting the champion’s 2015 results, which are compared to the preseason projections below.

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After the conclusion of the 2015 season, I updated the methods to include data from 2015 so that the methods could be used to make projections for the 2016 season. The Champion Points/Race Method predicts that the 2016 champion will score 548 points, while the Finishing Groups Method predicts that the 2016 champion will score 561 points. This total excludes Indianapolis 500 qualifying points because there seems to be no relationship between where  drivers qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and where they finish in the championship standings.

This points and FG analysis is useful because it provides a much more clear picture of the results required to win the championship, more so than  saying ‘the champion will score 548 points.’ A fifth place finish in a race pays 30 points, so the Champion Points/Race Method shows that, in terms of points, the 2016 champion will likely average slightly better than a fifth place finish.

The Finishing Group Method separates legitimate championship contenders from those who will have to deliver a better-than-normal performance to win a championship. For example, Helio Castroneves has finished in the top-five in the final championship standings for seven of the last eight seasons. On the surface, it seems like Castroneves is ‘due’ to be champion, and has simply been unlucky to never have won an IndyCar championship. In reality, Castroneves doesn’t win enough races to win a championship. In his eight most recent seasons, Castroneves has only won three or more races in a season one time. Missing out on wins not only costs Castroneves points, but also allows his competitors to collect more points than they would have had Castroneves won more races. Based on the Finishing Group Method, it would be surprising if Castroneves won the 2016 IndyCar championship.

Although it may seem disappointing for a particular driver to realize that he doesn’t have a realistic chance at the 2016 championship, this realization should free him/her from the burden of points racing. Teams and drivers are overly conservative with the decisions that they make during race weekends, more concerned with avoiding bad results than they are with winning races. This phenomenon is called loss aversion.

To a driver who isn’t racing for points, there isn’t much difference between a fourth place finish and a 20th place finish. I would argue that for a non-championship contender, a 20th place finish and a win is preferable to a pair of fourth place finishes. For a driver with a small team, a single win can change the entire season from mediocre to a huge success. A pair of wins will do the same for a mid-pack team.

The most obvious way teams can take advantage of this is by using aggressive pit strategy. It should be a no-brainer for a non-championship contender to try to stretch his fuel mileage at the end of a race to try and steal a win, as James Hinchcliffe did at NOLA Motorsports Park in 2015. Another example is tire selection during wet races. Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz gambled on their tire selection at Detroit Race #1 in 2015, and both were rewarded with podium finishes. A less obvious way for teams to ‘gamble’ is to put aggressive or experimental setups on cars. A few uncompetitive races is a small price to pay for a chance at ‘catching lightning in a bottle’ during several races each season.

I’ll be posting 2016 season previews for IndyCar drivers in the weeks leading up to the season opening race at St. Petersburg in March. The two methods of predicting the champion’s points will factor into those previews. These methods won’t change many of the drivers that I identify as championship contenders, but they will change how I evaluate the decisions and performances of drivers over the course of 2016.

Kyle Brown