Evaluating the Best Part-Time Drivers in IndyCar

The IndyCar field is full of part-time drivers. Even outside of the plethora of drivers who just compete in (or attempt to compete in) the Indianapolis 500, there are a lot of drivers who are on partial contracts for the season and might only compete in a hand full of races. Most drivers don’t race part-time because they prefer part time, but rather because they haven’t gotten the opportunity to race in a full season yet or haven’t proven themselves. Ed Carpenter is the obvious exception to this rule since he chooses to only race on oval tracks.

Because part-time drivers race a) a different number of events than each other and b) different races than each other, there isn’t a simple way to compare their performances to each other. Who should be next in line for a full-time ride? A simple approach is to take however many points a driver scored in that season and divide it by the number of races they competed in. This gives you the points per race stat that you might have heard of before. But using this alone has a big drawback. The IndyCar season is dominated by road and street courses. If a driver leads in the points per race stat because they did fantastic on ovals but poorly in the few road/street courses they raced on, is that who you want in line for your full time ride? Probably not.

I propose a different method for evaluating part-time drivers in this post. First, because some drivers raced in the Indy 500 and season finale where double points are awarded, I’ve adjusted those races as if they were run under normal points rules to make it an even playing field. Second, I calculate the points per race metric mentioned above for each driver separately for road/street courses and ovals. Then I scale each driver’s points per race metric for road/street and oval courses up to the 12 road/street and 5 oval course format used for the 2019 season. This accounts for the fact that drivers might be better or worse on a specific type of track, and that a full IndyCar season will require them to be great on road/street courses to compete regularly. The end result is the theoretical number of points we would expect them to earn if they ran a full IndyCar season. Once again, double points are ignored in this setup, so a direct comparison between part-time drivers and full-time drivers can’t be made, but it allows for truthful comparisons between part-time drivers.

For this analysis, drivers must have competed in at least one race on an oval and one race on a road/street course in the 2019 season. Trying to assume how a driver (like Pato O’Ward) would have done on an oval without seeing him on an oval last season adds too much uncertainly into the data. So although drivers like O’Ward are part-time (and in this case he did get upgraded to a full-time ride for 2020) they aren’t included in this analysis.

So, who were the best part-time drivers in the 2019 season? Here is the list: pay special attention to the third column which shows the actual number of races a driver competed in in 2019. The higher that number, the more confident we can be in how that driver would perform in a full-time scenario.

To start, the best “part-time” driver of 2019 is not completely accurate – Ericsson missed the Portland GP because of F1 duties, but he was signed for a full year contract and was essentially a full-time guy. Ed Jones competed in 13 races in 2019 and was projected 10 less points than Ericsson over the course of a full season. He is not returning to Ed Carpenter Racing in 2020 (leaving the series) and was replaced by Conor Daly (fifth on our list) to handle the road/street duties with Ed Carpenter on ovals again. Jack Harvey is projected 254 points over a full season and is third on our list followed by Charlie Kimball (253 points) in fourth. Both of these drivers picked up full-time rides this season and would be projected to perform similarly over a full year. It’s nice to see Kimball returning to a full-time ride after being a part-time driver for the past couple of seasons.

Daly as I mentioned did not get a full-time ride for 2020 but could put himself in a really good spot for a full-time ride in 2021 if he performs well at Ed Carpenter. He had an average finish of 10.2 on ovals last year but suffered two tough performances at the street courses he competed in with a first lap crash at Portland and then a 22nd place finish at Laguna Seca. This upcoming season will give him a fantastic opportunity to prove himself on the road and street courses.

Drivers with just two or three races in 2019 can pretty much be safely ignored for the purposes of this analysis. They ran either only during Indy month or Indy and another race so don’t really have a big enough sample size to make useful comparisons.

Looking at the list overall, it seems that teams picked up the better part-time drivers from last season. Ed Jones is definitely one of the best drivers who is leaving the series in 2020 and teams might look to him in the coming years if he has interest in returning to IndyCar. He was (ignoring Ericsson’s missed race) the best part-time driver this year who competed on both types of tracks and proved himself very competent behind the wheel. I expect Harvey and Kimball to be towards the bottom of the field in points as they’re projected to be in the Zach Veach area for 2020.

It’s also interesting to note that the best part-time drivers also tend to be the ones that competed in the most races. This suggests that teams do a pretty good job of assigning the part-time drivers who perform well early on to more races in that season when they have the ability to.

In the future I plan to look at how we can best compare part-time drivers to full-time drivers to see where optimization of team lineups can happen.

Photo: Arrow McLaren SP

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