State of the Championship: Who Benefits if IndyCar Adds More Races?

Yesterday IndyCar announced that the series will not race at Portland or Laguna Seca this season due to the coronavirus. In their places, IndyCar will add a doubleheader at Mid Ohio next week and a second race at the Indianapolis road course in October. Despite the cancellations and additions, the schedule winds back up at 14 races long for now, the shortest season in over a decade.

IndyCar has been talking about adding more races to the schedule even before these cancellations, either in the form of doubleheaders or new tracks. As it sits right now, the entire month of September is wide open for additional race weekends, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if we see a few more races get added to the schedule. Operating under the assumption that there might be more races added to this year’s schedule, I’m interested today in exploring the question of what would happen to the championship forecast if more races are added.

In general, the longer the season goes, the more likely it is that the “best” driver in the series (whoever that may be) will win the championship. It helps to think of extremes when thinking about this. Imagine a one race season: in a single race, there’s a lot of randomness, luck, and other stuff that goes into the race result that is not a true indication of a driver’s skill. As the season gets longer, the luck factor becomes less and less important as drivers are lucky in some races and unlucky in others and you are left with a driver who is more deserving of the championship title. We see this phenomenon play out a lot in baseball. Baseball is a sport with a lot of randomness, and the postseason is really a small number of games compared to how random the sport is. Let’s say Team A has a 75% chance of beating Team B in a single game. They are pretty heavy favorites. In a five game series, they have an 89% chance of winning the series, which means there is an 11% chance of the worse team winning the series. But if you turn that five game series into a seven game series, Team A now has a 93% chance of winning the series. If you boost it up to a 15 game series (hypothetical), now Team A has a 98% chance of winning.

This same idea explains why a longer IndyCar season will benefit the best drivers more than the average ones. Luck is less of a factor in a longer season, and the best drivers get to distance themselves from the pack. The tough part is figuring out who is exactly better than who.

Right now The Single Seater’s Elo ratings have Scott Dixon #1 at 1,944. Dixon currently has a 78% chance of winning the championship according to my forecast and he is approaching his all time highest Elo rating. The two other drivers with a real shot of winning the championship according to my forecast are Simon Pagenaud (16%) and Josef Newgarden (4%). Most people have seen how dominant Dixon was to start the season and that has helped him build up a healthy points gap to the field. His average track position in the last 25% of the race this season is 4.1 and he leads the field in adjusted passing efficiency at +7.7%. Based on his performance so far, additional races would likely help him in the championship, although I don’t think he would benefit as much as Newgarden would for reasons I will get to shortly.

While Pagenaud would additionally benefit from a longer season compared to the average driver, Newgarden is someone who I think might have an outsized gain from additional races compared to even Dixon and Pagenaud. Newgarden sits third in Elo rating and points this season, but he is actually leading the field in average track position with an ATP of 5.7. He also has the second best ATP deviation in the field, a measure of how consistent his track position is race to race, meaning he is consistently running towards the front of the field. Newgarden should have won at Road America had he not stalled in the pits and he has raced more of his laps in the top five positions (67.3%) than any other driver in the field. One thing that has also been nice to see from Newgarden this season is his race-start performance. In 2019, Newgarden retained his starting position in the opening two laps of the race in only 53% of races. Through the opening of 2020, Newgarden is a perfect 6/6 on race-start position retention.

Newgarden has had a slightly unlucky start to the season. Looking at Expected Points (xPoints), the number of points we’d expect a driver to earn in a race based on their average track position, Newgarden has under performed his xPoints by -4 points to start the season. In comparison, Pagenaud and Dixon have both over performed their xPoints by over 60 points each through the opening six races. As I wrote last year, a driver’s xPoints in the first half of the season is more predictive of the actual number of points they will earn in the second half of the season than their actual first half points. In other words, drivers who over perform their xPoints by a significant amount tend to have been somewhat lucky over that period, and it’s likely that driver’s results will come more in line with their xPoints over time. I think it’s likely Dixon and Pagenaud’s results revert back towards the mean in the second half of the season while Newgarden’s should trend slightly upward. Newgarden would be the most aided by having additional races added to the schedule, while Dixon would benefit positively but less than Newgarden in terms of his change in percentage chance to win the title. Pagenaud, only four points ahead of Newgarden but significantly over performing his xPoints so far, would benefit the least from having more races tacked on to the 2020 season.

While it seems odd that all three of these drivers would benefit to varying degrees from more races, the reason is because more races crushes the chances of anyone else in the field from winning the title. Dixon, Pagenaud, and Newgarden are the three best drivers in the field by a good margin, and more races really allows them the chance to put significant gaps on the rest of the field. The important question then is how their probabilities change in relation to each other. As I’ve laid out in this article, I think that order is Newgarden followed by Dixon and then Pagenaud.

Header Photo: Chris Owens/IndyCar

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