2022 NASCAR Track Correlation

After a year of delay due to COVID 19, NASCAR introduced its Next Gen or Gen 7 car in 2022. The Gen 7 car has many changes from the Gen 6 car. Not the least of these changes is that the vast majority of parts are now purchased by teams from single sources regulated by NASCAR. For purposes of this article though, the most important changes between the Gen 6 and Gen 7 car are a change in horsepower and downforce. The changes meant that as we went into the 2022 season there was some uncertainty about how much historical correlation between tracks would continue to be valid.

The Gen 6 car had variable horsepower at different tracks, this actually even varied year to year. In 2021 the Gen 6 package featured 550hp on intermediate and superspeedways (with even more areo restrictions at the later) and 750hp on short tracks. The Gen 7 car has a standard 670hp across intermediate and short tracks. Only at superspeedways, including the reconfigured Atlanta, does the Gen 7 car use reduced horsepower. The Gen 6 car also had variable downforce packages, while the Gen 7 car used a standard downforce package in 2022.

In addition 2022 saw the Cup Series race at Nashville for just the second time. The Cup Series also made its first trip to two tracks. In April Atlanta saw its first race in its new “superspeedway” configuration. In June the Cup Series made its first ever visit to World Wide Technology Raceway (aka Gateway). So with this in mind let’s take a look into how tracks were actually correlated to each other in 2022.

HISTORICAL NASCAR TRACKS GROUPINGS

While this is a extreme generalization, going into the season most race fans likely identified four major track types: 1) superspeedways, 2) intermediate tracks, 3) short tracks, and 4) road courses. There is also the unique track of Bristol which hosts two races, once configured with dirt and once with its traditional concrete surface. Neither Bristol configuration fits into these other categories at all. The tracks that fit each of these categories were generally identified as follows:

Intermediates
Auto Club (aka Fontana)
Charlotte
Darlington
Kansas
Las Vegas
Michigan
Pocono
Texas

Short Tracks
Dover
Nashville
New Hampshire
Martinsville
Phoenix
Richmond
World Wide Technology

Superspeedways
Daytona
Talladega
Potentially the reconfigured Atlanta

Road Courses
Charlotte Roval
Circuit of the Americas (COTA)
Indy Road Course
Sonoma
Road America
Watkins Glen

Again, these are broad generalizations, when handicapping a race most handicappers use far more narrow groupings or use certain data from some tracks in the groups but not others. But we have to start somewhere, so this is a good broad jumping off point.

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PICKING THE DATA TO ANALIZE FOR CORRELATION

It’s also important to note that there are tons of statistics that you can choose to look at when determining if tracks correlate. You could look at finishing position, driver rating, average running position, average green flag speed, or any one of a million statistics that are available in the NASCAR loop data. For purposes of this article I’m using my incident adjusted speed metric. This metric takes into account situations where a driver has a wreck or other incident that prevents them from continuing to be competitive in a race. Since incidents are largely random, incident free speed is what I’m most concerned about when trying to project races going forward. So, what did we see in 2022?

INTERMEDIATE TRACK CORRELATION

Looking at correlation of incident adjusted speed between tracks the first thing that jumped out to me this year was how much Las Vegas seemed to correlate to everything. The first race at Las Vegas had an r squared of over .6 for 23 of the 35 other points races and an r squared of over .75 for 14 races. The second Las Vegas race had an r squared of over .6 for 18 of the other 35 points races.

That said, some of the Las Vegas correlation is likely random and a larger sample size would eliminate it. For example, the first Martinsville race had an r squared of .64 with the first Las Vegas Race. This isn’t super high, but does suggest there is some relationship beyond “fast drivers are fast.” The second Martinsville race though had an r squared of just .48.

The lower correlation of the second Martinsville race is a correlation suggesting nothing more than the fact that we generally expect there to be some drivers who are good and some who are not as good. For example, we would expect Joey Logano to generally be a top 10 driver, and he was at both tracks. Logano had an incident adjusted speed rank of 10 Las Vegas 1 and eight Martinsville 2. However, outside of very broad generalizations like this, Las Vegas isn’t going to be very predictive of Martinsville most of the time.

1.5 Mile “Ovals”

As one might expect, the intermediate tracks with the greatest correlation were the 1.5 mile “tri-ovals” of Las Vegas, Kansas, Texas, and Charlotte. Las Vegas 1 had an average r squared of over .76 to these tracks, with a high of .839 to the Kansas 2 race. Similarly Kansas 1 had an r squared of almost .8 to the other 1.5 mile oval races. Charlotte had an r squared of approximately .75. Texas was the least similar and only had an r squared just under .7 to the other 1.5 mile tri-ovals.

Although it is a differently shaped track, being a true oval and having exceedingly high tire wear, Homestead also had significant correlation to the other 1.5 mile ovals this year. The r squared of the six races at Las Vegas, Kansas, Charlotte, and Texas to Homestead was .775.

Longer Intermediates

This year the Cup Series ran three races at intermediate tracks that were longer than 1.5 miles. Auto Club and Michigan are two mile ovals and Pocono is a 2.5 mile triangle. Despite being longer, the tracks are unique and don’t share a lot of similarities with each other.

Auto Club

Auto Club has very significant tire wear and did not have an r squared correlation over .7 with any other track this year. The track which Auto Club correlated most significantly with was ironically Texas, which has almost no tire wear. Though, this may be coincidence as the next two tracks in terms of correlation were Richmond and Darlington which are high wear tracks.

Michigan

Despite being of a similar age and length, in the words Stewart Hass team member Brian Murphy “Auto Club isn’t relatable to Michigan in any way, shape or form.” The speed correlation between the tracks proved Brian right. The r squared of Auto Club to Michigan was just .43. Kevin Harvick, an SHR driver, also went from a dreadful 22nd in incident adjusted speed at Auto Club, to fifth in speed at Michigan where he won the race. The low r squared suggests only a passing, fast is often fast, relationship between the tracks.

Michigan did have strong correlation with other intermediate tracks though. The r squared correlation of Las Vegas, Kansas, Charlotte, and Pocono to Michigan was over .7. Michigan, with its flater corners also showed reasonable correlation to Phoenix, Richmond, and Nashville.

Pocono

The “Tricky Triangle” is of course unique. It is 2.5 miles long, is a triangle (duh), and has different banking in each turn. Despite this the track still showed correlation to other high speed intermediate tracks. The track had meaningful correlation with the first Las Vegas race, both Darlington races, both races at Kansas and the races at Charlotte, Kansas, and Texas.

Darlington

Darlington is an unusual intermediate track in that it is shorter than 1.5 miles long. Its high banking however has cars running at speeds which are more analogous to intermediate tracks. This is born out in the correlation data. Darlington’s most significant correlation was to the high speed intermediate tracks. Darlington had meaningful correlation with Las Vegas, Kansas, Charlette, Pocono, Michigan, Texas, and Homestead. In addition, while all tracks that the Cup Series visited twice this year correlated strongly between races, more than any other track where the Cup Series had two races, Darlington correlated with itself.

SHORT TRACK CORRELATION

The short tracks with the most Cup Series history are Martinsville, Dover, New Hampshire, Phoenix, and Richmond. Of the tracks Martinsville and Dover are typically seen as unique. Dover is concrete and has 24 degree banking in the turns. Martinsville is much shorter than the other tracks (.526 miles). It also has a unique pit setup, and is a hybrid concrete/asphalt surface. So in the past the most important predictor of Martinsville is a driver’s prior Martinsville performance.

Gateway and Nashville are newcomers to the Cup Series. 2022 was the first year the Cup Series has run at Gateway and just the second year at Nashville. Nashville has a concrete surface, which suggested it would likely correlate with Dover. We did have some data from historical Xfinity and Truck races at Gateway. But this data was old and given the new car I didn’t give it much weight. So going into the season Gateway’s banking in its turns had me speculating that it would correlate strongly with Phoenix and Richmond.

Phoenix and Richmond

Phoenix and Richmond were, as expected, predictable in 2022. The tracks correlated strongly to one another and the drivers we expected to be good at these tracks were good. The correlation of incident adjusted speed for the four races at these tracks was right around an r squared of .7. Kevin Harvick, the old reliable short flat track driver finished in the Top 10 at all four races and won Richmond 2. The only real new twist to these tracks in 2022 was that the summer race at Richmond saw multiple grooves working early in the race.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire is typically seen as a track that correlates reasonably well to Richmond and Phoenix. This year there was a lower than expected correlation. The r squared between both Phoenix 1 and Richmond 1 and New Hampshire was just a touch over .5. There was stronger correlation between New Hampshire and the second races at Richmond and Phoenix. Even then the r squared for incident adjusted speed was still under .7. The strongest correlation between New Hampshire and any track was Nashville.

Nashville

Nashville had correlation with a lot of tracks in my incident adjusted speed metric. The track had what appears to be meaningful correlation with Las Vegas 1 and 2, Dover, Darlington 1 and 2, Kansas 1 and 2, Charlotte, Pocono, Michigan, Texas, and Homestead. This suggests that despite its lower banking, the longer length of Nashville makes the track race more like an intermediate than a short flat track. This is partially backed up by green flag speed data from 2021 and 2022. In both years the green flag speed of the leaders was in the low 150s to upper 140s. This is a significant upward deviation from Richmond which averages around 110 mph and Phoenix which has speeds in the 120s.

Gateway

Gateway is a 1.25 mile egg shaped track. Given its length and low banking in the turns I expected the track to be most similar to New Hampshire. I also expected some correlation to Richmond and Phoenix. Although it’s just one year of data, it would appear I was wrong. Gateway didn’t have particularly strong correlation with any track. The strongest correlation was with Nashville, although there was some correlation with Phoenix. Correlation between Gateway and New Hampshire and Richmond was not particularly meaningful, coming in with an r squared around .5 for all races. This will certainly be a track to watch in 2023 to see what if any trends we can identify to help us in the future.

Martinsville

Martinsville was a disaster in the spring, that’s all there is to it. The “paperclip” which is normally one of the most exciting tracks NASCAR visits, was a snoozefest. The combination of the new car, cold weather the day of the race, and tire compound brought by Goodyear resulted in terrible racing. Drivers could not pass. Just weeks before the green flag fans has been complaining that the race had been shortened from 500 to 400 laps. By the end of the race however most were thanking God that we didn’t have another 100 laps to go.

Martinsville has always been unique and we continued to see that this year. There was some correlation with New Hampshire, Phoenix, and Richmond. The strongest correlation between any race and a Martinsville however race was between the two Martinsville races themselves. The fall race, while a bit dull in the middle, was overall a much better race. A few changes to the tire compound and other minor mechanical tweaks significantly improved the racing. I think most fans are hoping to see further changes, but even with changes we still should have a good idea of how to predict Martinsville (again, look at Martinsville) in 2023.

SUPERWPEEDWAYS

Daytona and Talladega were largely their historical selves in 2023. The summer Daytona race was particularly chaotic. One bettor won over $1,000,000 on a pair of Top 10 parlays. That result however was more due to the rain, than it was anything different about the Gen 7 car. The two tracks had little correlation with anything. The strongest correlation between any Daytona or Talladega race was between the Daytona 500 and Talladega 2. Even that correlation was only an r squared a touch over .62.

Atlanta was from the eye test, much what NASCAR had hoped with its reconfiguration. The two races involved pack draft racing. However, there was still some meaningful correlation between the Atlanta races and races at the other 1.5 mile tracks. Atlanta is now a clearly unique track. Bettors will need to look at driver performance at superspeedways, while also considering some 1.5 mile intermediate performance data.

ROAD COURSES

The Cup Series visited six road courses this year. Somewhat surprisingly, with the exception of COTA, there was not as much correlation between road courses as one might have expected. Given the lackluster performance of the Gen 7 car at road courses though, it’s not obvious that these trends will continue to hold in the future.

Stage strategy often resulted in drivers with strong cars getting shuffled to the back after grabbing stage points. This meant top tier drivers were stuck in traffic slowed down and were unable to pass. If there are changes to improve the road course racing product we may see more consistency across road courses in 2023. One such change which would address the 2022 issue at the stage breaks is the elimination of cautions at stage breaks.

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