The Michigan/Fontana Fallacy

Over on the frontstretch.com, they have an interview with Steve Letarte (Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief).

A few interesting tid-bits are contained within, including his evaluation of the added camber to the rear wheels at Bristol, but for me, the salient point is his comparison of Michigan to California:

Letarte: Due to the repave at Michigan they might as well be one on Mars and one on Venus. They are totally different tracks. What we see now is tracks are more consistent due to pavement types more than track styles. I think this will be a perfect example where Fontana will be nothing like a freshly paved Michigan. I think it will be more like an old Kansas or perhaps a Texas. It really comes down to roughness and the actual pavement style that makes the most difference.

The first couple of seasons of NASCAR watching, I didn’t really see the similarity of racing between the two tracks. Fontana was a single groove, no-passing kind of track while Michigan had multiple grooves, and passing was a little bit easier. Yes, they both denigrated into single-file races, but I always felt Michigan was racier.

Lower almost flat-track like banking at Fontana vs. steeper, speedier bankings at Michigan contributed to this comparison.

However, in the last few years, Michigan has become less racy, and Fontana more so (see 2011’s last lap pass for the win, and 2010’s last few laps of excitement). Now with the repave, Michigan has definitely turned into a one-groove non-racy track, while Fontana has had moments of multi-groove raciness.

Either way, I’ve definitely fallen into the trap of thinking that Michigan and Fontana are “similar” tracks and people who do well at one do well at the other, as that is what I’ve heard repeated a thousand times on the radio and TV and internet postings and every NASCAR aficionado I’ve ever met. However, the driver average finishes tend to tell a little bit of a different story.

Top 5 active drivers at Fontana, ranked by average finish:

1) Jimmie Johnson Avg. Fin: 5.39
2) Carl Edwards Avg. Fin: 8.73
3) Matt Kenseth Avg. Fin: 10.25
4) Clint Bowyer Avg. Fin: 10.83
5) Kyle Busch Avg. Fin: 11.33

Top 5 active drivers at Michigan, ranked by average finish:

1) Carl Edwards Avg. Fin: 8.24
2) Matt Kenseth Avg. Fin: 9.56
3) Jeff Gordon Avg. Fin: 11.70
4) Greg Biffle Avg. Fin: 11.80
5) Tony Stewart Avg. Fin: 11.93

I think the fact that the two Roush drivers Kenseth1 and Edwards occupy the top averages at both tracks is the data point that “proves” the similarity between the two tracks.

But Jimmie Johnson, so good at Fontana, is 11th of active drivers at Michigan, with an average finish of 15.23 – not similar at all to his Fontana stats.

Greg Biffle, ranked 4th of all active drivers at Michigan, is 14th of active drivers at Fontana.

These averages were mostly created by races run on the old paving at Michigan, and already you can see success at one does not guarantee success at the other, unless you are Kenseth or Edwards.

Now with the Michigan repave, these tracks are even further apart.