Accident-prone drivers on road courses

Whether in fantasy racing or behind the wheel, success requires avoiding too many crashes and skidding drivers.

But identifying the drivers most involved in crashes and turns on road tracks is more difficult than on other track types.

A recent warning date

Statisticians usually calculate crashes and turns from the warning list NASCAR publishes for each race. The enforcement agency categorizes the cause of each alert and what tools are involved.

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

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

I blacked out the competition and end-of-stage warning bars to emphasize what we call ‘natural alerts’. Natural alerts include everything but end of stage and competition alerts.

History reveals trends. For example, the chart shows debris alerts falling from 36 in 2016 to 16 in 2017 as NASCAR implemented its Damaged Vehicle Policy.

The biggest cause of warnings in any year are accidents. The 2021 season has had the fewest accidents (64) since 1986 – that’s how far back I have reliable warning data. We counted 86 accidents this year.

The 47 spins we had is more than triple the 15 spins we had last year. The increase in turns is due to the New Generation car being harder to drive than the old Generation-6 car. The lack of asymmetry makes it much more difficult to ‘catch’ the current car when it starts to turn.

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

Is 2022 really high? Or was 2021 abnormally low?

Road courses are unique

I’m in favor of NASCAR trying everything from format to programming – even if their experimentation makes it difficult for me. The fewer constants there are in the data, the more complex the analysis.

The chart below details this year’s alerts by breed and breed.

Stacked vertical bar chart showing the number and types of strikes for the first 24 races in 2022

The Indianapolis road route statistics immediately caught my eye.

I didn’t need to look at any data to know that there was more than one spin in that race. And definitely more than one accident.

When I reviewed the race video, it convinced me that warnings were not an accurate way to measure crashes and turns on road courses. The road courses are long and spread out. After an accident, cars can safely leave the track or return to the race without warning.

That doesn’t change the fact that it was an event.

Counting events is, of course, subjective. I have only included events that cause significant loss of position or damage a car enough to necessitate an unplanned pit stop.

In addition to the events on the official warning list, the 2022 Indianapolis road course had:

  • 10 accidents
  • nine turns
  • Five off-road trips
  • two different events

One ‘official’ crash plus the 10 crashes I count, 11 crashes this year, more than any other track. Neither course made a total of nine turns in a race. And off-piste trips on a road course would hit the wall on oval tracks.

Again, based on the video, I described the events of the other three road courses this year.

A table showing the number of non-precautionary events in 2022

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

Or does it?

Until 2017, the Cup Series visited two road courses each season: Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Uncaught events were not that important for two reasons. First, road courses were in two of the 29 or more races – from 5.5% to 6.9% of the schedule. Second, the year-to-year variation in the number of the two pieces was probably small.

But in 2021 road courses made up 19.4% of the Cup Series schedule.

Chart showing how road tracks in the Cup Series have changed in recent years

NASCAR replaced four tracks where warnings caught most crashes and turns with four tracks where they weren’t.

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

But crash totals are dubious, waiting to return in 2021 and counting incidents on road courses. The decline in crashes from 2020 to 2021 may have been (at least in part) due to program changes rather than drivers.

Implications for Watkins Glen

The number of uncountable events probably doesn’t interest fantasy racers as much as knowing which drivers are more likely to crash and take turns on road tracks.

According to my crash numbers in the four road courses run this year, the drivers involved in the most crashes 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 crashes exceeds the number of races because drivers who spin or crash often have more than one race in a single race.

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

Competing with Truex for the last playoff position now open, Ryan Blaney has had four events on the away courses this year.

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

From the list of most involved drivers, only Chastain has won a road course this year.

The other three winners are on the least involved list.

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