Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Tale of Two Drivers

Two stat lines:

81 career starts; 1 win; 3 poles; 5 podiums; 13 races led; best season points finish of 5th

84 career starts; 1 win; 2 poles; 6 podiums; 13 races led; best season points finish of 6th (twice)

Startlingly similar lines there, huh? Who can tell me who those lines represent? The first one might be familiar to anybody who’s been paying attention to IndyCar news, and all of the IndyCar blogs with their chatter about this week’s JR Motorsports announcement. That’s right, the first line is the summary of Danica Patrick’s career IndyCar stats, from her debut in 2005 through now in 2009. Her level of success to date and her potential for future success have been hot topics ever since…well, right about the time she strapped into one of Bobby Rahal’s Panoz-Hondas. And now, she’s going to be tackling NASCAR in a limited format next year, with a debut in February’s ARCA race at Daytona, and then a slate of races in Dale Earnhardt Jr’s Nationwide car, whenever it doesn’t intrude on her IndyCar duties with Andretti Autosport.

Danica’s place in IndyCar and motorsports history is far from determined. People struggle on a seemingly daily basis to figure out where she stands in today’s driver hierarchy, and therefore what her projected success rate might be in NASCAR. Most people would agree that she has not been as successful as Dario Franchitti has been in IndyCar. Dario had a horrible time in his brief NASCAR career in 2008, but most people can also agree that he was not in very good equipment, nor on a particularly competitive team. The same can be said all the way around for Sam Hornish Jr. Danica is likely to be given moderately better equipment, relatively speaking, than Dario or Sam, given that JR Motorsports is basically an offshoot of the dominant Hendrick Motorsports. But, what is she going to do with that equipment?

It’ll be a tough row to hoe for her, as her complete prior experience in race cars in excess of 2200 pounds is limited to one start in an ALMS-spec Ferrari 550 Maranello in 2003 and two starts in the 24 Hours of Daytona in a Daytona Prototype in 2006 and 2009. That’s a pretty limited roster of experience in relatively low-downforce, heavy cars. It’s not going to be an overnight transition for her to get up to speed in any kind of stock car, ARCA, Nationwide, or otherwise. Nobody should expect any wins from her in a stock car in 2010, or probably even in 2011, given that she’s only making a dozen or so starts this year.

To complicate matters, she is also planning on maintaining her “day job” in the IndyCar series, which means that she’ll be doing a fair amount of jumping back and forth between a high-downforce 1600 pound car and a low-downforce 3400 pound car. Is that going to help her case in IndyCar? I’m…more than a little dubious on that.

Let me get this out there now: I am not a Danica hater. I’ve actually been a fan since her Barber Dodge days, though I’ve sure wished that she’d won more races (of any type) by now. This piece is not meant to be a demolition job on her career thus far, nor should it be taken to mean that I’m either guaranteeing or rooting against her success in NASCAR. It’d be nice if she could win some races over there, and show that an above average IndyCar driver can be competitive, given top-line equipment. However, I remain unconvinced that Danica Patrick is going to be a breakthrough star, transcending gender and sporting lines, and draw more fans into NASCAR or even into IndyCar (though she remains one of IndyCar’s marquee names).

Why is that? Well, let me get back to those two original stat lines. I’ll admit, I cheated just a little bit when I came up with the second line. That’s not representative of that driver’s complete career, though it does only omit two top-5 finishes that came in that driver’s last five years in CART. The years that those stats call out are 1981 through 1987, and the driver’s career that they represent is Kevin Cogan’s. That’s right, THE Kevin Cogan, who is largely known as something of a punchline nowadays, and who Robin Miller regularly refers to as “that damn Coooogin,” as A.J. Foyt allegedly called him at Indy in 1982.

Let’s have a closer look. Cogan burst onto the IndyCar scene with a spate of good finishes in 1981 and 1982, including a 4th at Indy in 1982 in his first full year in an IndyCar. Danica burst onto the IndyCar scene in 2005 with a couple of good finishes, led some laps at Indy, the first ever by a female, and finished 4th at Indy. Cogan made an early signing to a top team, Penske, for 1982. Danica signed on to a top team relatively early in her career, Andretti-Green, for 2007. Cogan made a high-profile, possible “rookie mistake” crash at Indy in 1982 that took out several drivers, including Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. Danica made a high-profile, possible “rookie mistake” at Indy in 2005, taking out several drivers, including Tomas Scheckter. Cogan nearly won the Indy 500 in 1986, but was passed by Bobby Rahal with less than ten laps to go. Danica nearly won the Indy 500 in 2005, but was passed by Dan Wheldon with less than 10 laps to go. Cogan followed up a long debut period of no wins by winning his 54th IndyCar start in his 6th season. Danica followed up a long debut period of no wins by winning her 50th IndyCar start in her 4th season.

Where did Cogan go from his strongest season in 1986? That season, he won the first race of the season at Phoenix, nearly won Indy, and finished 6th in the points. From there, Cogan never finished in the top-10 in IndyCar points again, though he was still driving for Pat Patrick’s team in 1987, as he had in 1986. Thereafter, he drove for smaller, less competitive teams, and never really had much of a shot at the top of the sport again. He had a solid career, all in all, even if his early promise never really panned out.

Danica’s career is far from over at this point, but her results have not really backed up the amount of attention that she’s received. The question is: how can she avoid becoming this generation’s Kevin Cogan, a driver who possibly commanded more attention than his results really warranted? A good start for Danica would be to ensure that she stays in a ride that’s capable of winning races. As long as she’s at Andretti, that will be the case, but if she starts to seriously sniff around at running NASCAR more than a dozen times per year, no front-line IndyCar team will want to put her in their car. Top (read that: championship- and race-winning) IndyCar teams are generally only interested in drivers who can compete for championships. If Danica starts to run NASCAR races during the IndyCar season, her chances of winning an IndyCar championship will be over, even if she might be able to score an occasional fluke-y win for a smaller team. Nobody has been able to successfully switch between an IndyCar and a stock car on a regular basis since Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Dan Gurney did it in the 1960’s, and Danica’s far from the level of those legends of the sport.

Danica can do whatever she wants, clearly, but if she wants to be remembered as a racing driver who could do more than just win a race once in a blue moon, she’s going to have to concentrate on one thing. And if NASCAR doesn’t pan out, sooner rather than later, that thing that she’ll need to concentrate on should be IndyCar, the type of car that she’s been training to drive since she was a small girl. Otherwise, 20 years from now she’s liable to be largely remembered as a novelty racer who appeared in some commercials and couldn’t deliver the goods. A lot like Kevin Cogan.

Note: Huge thanks to Sean at for the fantastic one-stop racing statistics shop that he's built. I couldn't have written this without it. If you haven't seen his site, head over there now. Just make sure you've got a couple free hours to spend.


oilpressureblog said...

Excellent piece, Andy! Good comparison between the two.

Cogan has the distinction of being one of the few (if not only) driver to drive for Roger Penske for only one year. It's a wonder he was able to salvage a career after that move.

BTW--you can take out "allegedly" about AJ calling him Cooogin. here's a link to the crash and the interview with Foyt. Classic.

Goose said...

Good stuff, Andy.

Hopefully for her, she doesn't suffer some of the on-track ills Cogan suffered after his Pat Patrick days (i.e. his crashes at Indy in '89 and '91, the latter effectively ending his career save for a couple of races in '93).

Sam Wright said...

I heard the rumblings about Danica's decision on Monday and then saw her talking about it on Tuesday. It's going to be interesting. I was glad to see she's starting with an Arca race.

Sean said...

Not that I'm necessarily going to do this, but do you think it would be better if I switched from keeping track of top 5s/top 10s to podiums for IRL, for comparisons like that? The reason I didn't do that initially is that when I started my site, the IRL's site kept track of top 5s/top 10s, while Champ Car's site kept track of podiums so I was basically mimicking (and expanding) the sanctioning bodies' own standings pages.

Their careers weren't totally alike. I give the edge to Cogan in terms of dominance and Patrick in terms of consistency. However, since I believe dominance is the best measure of performance (I actually think it's a better measure of performance than wins because those can come down to pit strategy or whatever), I have to give the edge to Cogan.

I measure dominance using average percent led (self-explanatory, the average percentage of laps led, so leading 100 laps at Indy counts the same as leading 50 at St. Pete or 30 at Watkins Glen; it removes the bias of laps led because races have different numbers of laps...for instance Rusty's level of Cup dominance is overstated by laps led because he dominated on short tracks).

By that statistic:

Kevin Cogan - 1.487%
Danica Patrick - 0.710%

Neither is particularly impressive, but I would say Cogan has a clear edge especially when you consider that he competed against stronger fields, he drove on average worse equipment IMO, and that statistic includes the downswing of his career, which Danica hasn't had yet. I would rate him higher.

On the flip side, Danica DOES have the edge on consistency, which I measure using percent beat (the ratio of the number of cars beaten versus the number of cars competed against. So winning at Indy and finishing 10th in a 22-car field would be (32 + 12)/(32 + 21) = 44/53 = 83.02%.) I prefer this to average finish because average finish is biased based on the number of cars in the field (guys in the 18-car Champ Car era have an advantage over guys in the 30-car peak CART era of 1994.) Danica has the edge here (57.42% to Cogan's 46.37%), but don't forget that includes Cogan's weak second half and there's a lot more reliability today, and again I think Danica's had better equipment except for Cogan's one year at Penske.

Sean said...

The top ten IRL drivers for percent beat (with a significant number of starts):

Gil de Ferran - 74.75
Tony Kanaan - 72.61
Hélio Castroneves - 72.31
Scott Dixon - 71.10
Dario Franchitti - 70.17
Dan Wheldon - 68.29
Sam Hornish, Jr. - 68.23
Tony Stewart - 64.56
Scott Goodyear - 61.99
Ryan Briscoe - 59.98

Danica is 12th after Brack.

With Briscoe and Power at Penske, Goodyear should be off that list before long, and not a moment too soon.

The top ten IRL drivers based on percent beat (which again I consider the best measure of performance, but you don't have to):

Tony Stewart - 29.45 (but obviously he was in a much less competitive era in a very different series and deserves an asterisk)
Gil de Ferran - 15.52
Scott Dixon - 14.73
Sam Hornish, Jr. - 14.28
Hélio Castroneves - 14.06
Dario Franchitti - 13.61
Dan Wheldon - 12.19
Ryan Briscoe - 12.00
Tony Kanaan - 11.79
Scott Goodyear - 8.20

And for the sake of completeness:

Champ Car percent beat:

Bobby Unser - 76.34
Sébastien Bourdais - 75.49
Rick Mears - 73.40
Jacques Villeneuve - 69.94
Nigel Mansell - 69.09
Alex Zanardi - 68.37
Bobby Rahal - 67.72
Al Unser, Jr. - 66.72
Mario Andretti - 65.88
Justin Wilson - 65.03

Champ Car average percent led:

Sébastien Bourdais - 32.27
Juan Pablo Montoya - 30.18
Bobby Unser - 28.62
Alex Zanardi - 19.18
Michael Andretti - 16.00
Nigel Mansell - 13.71
Paul Tracy - 13.53
Rick Mears - 12.55
Mario Andretti - 11.22
Jacques Villeneuve - 10.79

Looking at what the MAJOR drivers have done, I can't believe Danica's hype...that even Defender says Hornish is "probably" better than Danica. I am no Hornish fan, but there is no debate...her equipment hasn't been that much worse.

I don't agree Danica's above average and think if several of the more elite drivers had equipment equivalent to her (Servià, Junqueira, WILSON, Tracy, Rice...though that's highly debatable since she did beat him at Rahal) she would be shown as the utter mid-pack driver she is. It's her marketability that gets her the good rides that give her inflated stats (see: Dale, Jr...hey, no wonder they're working together!)

Yeah, she led AGR last year, but Marco and Mutoh suck even more than she does and Kanaan had a string of injuries that made him not perform at his full potential (and she only BARELY beat him, and again, in terms of average percent led, Kanaan still kicked her butt.)

I'm such a nerd. O what I could do were I actually productive at something profitable.