Monday, November 6, 2017

Musings From the Weekend: How Did Newgarden Compare to Past Champions?

Martin Truex, Jr. will have a shot at a championship despite not winning at Texas. World Superbike had the record for points scored in a season smashed. Supercars will have five drivers fighting for the championship in three weeks but one driver is in position for a seventh championship. A Porsche broke down in China. Here is a run down of what got me thinking.

How Did Newgarden Compare to Past Champions?
We mind as well call this "Penske Week" because we will be looking back on what was another dominating season for the team in IndyCar. Before we get to the team as a whole we will look at its newest driver, who ended up winning the championship in year one.

Josef Newgarden won the Astor Cup in his first year with Team Penske and his sixth season overall. The American was a stud all season despite concerns he would need a season to grow. Newgarden was the top Penske finisher in eight of 17 races this season and that was despite only being the top Penske qualifier twice. In fact, he wasn't the top Penske qualifier until Watkins Glen and he was not the top Penske finisher in either of the two races he was the top qualifier.

Four times Newgarden was the top Penske finisher despite being the worst Penske qualifier. Two of those were his victories at Barber and Toronto and the other two were a second place finish in the second Belle Isle race and a second place finish at Road America.

Ironically, Simon Pagenaud was the top Penske finisher in eight races in his championship season in 2016 but only one of those came when he was the worst Penske qualifier and that was Phoenix where he started tenth and finished second. That was the only race Pagenaud was the worst qualifier for the team in 2016. The Frenchman was the best Penske finisher and qualifier in the same race on four occasions and all four of those were his victories from pole position at Barber, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma. Where Pagenaud had Newgarden handily beat was top Penske qualifier. Pagenaud accomplished it on seven occasions and he led the team as top qualifier.

Newgarden scored 642 of a possible 1,059 points this season, or 60.623%. That is the second-highest percentage of points in the DW12-era behind Pagenaud, who scored 65.572%. While Newgarden won under a quarter of the races (23.529%), he finished on the podium in 52.941% of the races, the highest percentage since Dario Franchitti in 2011. Despite such a high podium percentage, his percentage of top five finishes was 58.823%, which is below the total average for champions since 1979, which is at 65.749% and it is below the average since reunification, which sits at 62.058%. His top ten finish percentage of 76.470% is the second highest in the DW12-era and just off the average percentage of top ten finishes for champions since 1979, which is 78.219%.

I know some of you are thinking, "How did Newgarden compare to other American champions?" Newgarden became the 28th American champion since 1979 and for the most part, he fell somewhere in the middle. He had the 13th-best points percentage while his winning percentage was 19th-best. He jumped up to 15th-best podium percentage but dropped back to 19th-best for top five percentage and he jumped back up to 15th-best when it came to top ten percentage.

So does this mean Newgarden is just a run of the mill of American and doesn't hold a candle to Mears, Andretti, Rutherford and Foyt? Not necessarily. This is a very different era of IndyCar. Points systems have changed, the schedule has evolved, cars are more, plus there has been schedule fluctuation.

Since 1979, IndyCar schedules have been as long as 20 races and as short as three races (thank you inaugural IRL season). Buzz Calkins had a better winning percentage than Newgarden but Calkins won one of three races. Greg Ray won 30% of the races in 1999 IRL season but Newgarden had to contest seven more races this season than Ray did in 1999.

Stepping aside from percentages for a second, Newgarden's nine podium finishes were the seventh most for an American champion since 1979 and his 13 top ten finishers are tied with Al Unser, Jr.'s 1994 for third most with only Rick Mears in 1979 and Jimmy Vasser in 1996 scoring more top ten finishes. Newgarden's nine podium finishes are the most for a champion in the DW12-era while he his ten top five finishes match Scott Dixon's 2013 championship and Pagenaud's championship for most since 2012.

Once again, what does all that mean? I don't know. I think it is fun to look at numbers even if it doesn't provide a solid answer. It puts what Newgarden did into perspective. When looking at recent seasons it allows us to compare him to his contemporaries but when comparing to the early days of CART it shows us how IndyCar has changed over the last three decades.

While we might not be able to draw conclusions, we can notice trends. For example, we have not had a champion that has won at least a third of the races since Scott Dixon in 2008 and Dixon's 2008 season was also the last time a champion finished on the podium in over two-thirds of the races. No champion has hit double-figures in podium finishes since Franchitti had ten in 2010. IndyCar has not had a champion finish in the top five in at least three-quarters of the races in the DW12-era, something that had occurred in nine of the 12 seasons (4 IRL, 4 Champ Car and 4 post-reunification) prior to the DW12-era.

It will never be cut and dry comparing IndyCar's present to the early years of CART or the early years of the Indy Racing League. While being far from historic, Newgarden's results shows us he earned that championship by consistently being at the front in what was a strong field.

Champions From the Weekend

The #2 Porsche of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Earl Bamber clinched the World Endurance Drivers' Championship with a second place finish in the 6 Hours of Shanghai.

Lucas Mahias clinched the World Supersport championship with a victory at Qatar.

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lucas Mahias but did you know...

Jonathan Rea swept the World Superbike races from Qatar. Rea ended his championship season with 556 points, breaking the record for most points scored in a season. Colin Edwards previously held the record after he scored 552 points in his 2002 championship season.

The #8 Toyota of S├ębastien Buemi, Kazuki Nakajima and Anthony Davidson won the 6 Hours of Shanghai. The #31 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca-Gibson of Julien Canal, Bruno Senna and Nicolas Prost won in LMP2. The #67 Ford GT of Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell won in GTE-Pro. The #98 Aston Martin of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda won in GTE-Am.

Kevin Harvick won the NASCAR Cup race from Texas. Erik Jones won the Grand National Series race. Johnny Sauter won the Truck race.

Shane Van Gisbergen and Jamie Whincup split the Supercars races from Pukekohe Park Raceway.

Coming Up This Weekend
The MotoGP championship will be decided at Valencia.
Two championships will be decided in Super GT at Motegi.
Formula One heads to Brazil.
NASCAR returns to Phoenix for the penultimate race of the season.