The IRL Underground Stat-o-Matic

The IRNLS from a statistical perspective

© 2000 Dave Cornutt

Brought to you by the IRL Underground

Comments for Kentucky -- written September 17, 2000

Buddy Lazier finally became the first driver to win two races in the 2000 season at Kentucky. Lazier's win broke a streak of nine consecutive races without a repeat winner, going back to Las Vegas of last year. (The nine winners of those races, in chronological order: Sam Schmidt, Mark Dismore, Robbie Buhl, Lazier, Al Unser, Juan Montoya, Scott Sharp, Eddie Cheever, and Greg Ray. Of these, four were first-time IRNLS winners.) Lazier becomes the sixth IRNLS driver with at least four victories in the series.

This race was the third-fastest IRNLS race ever run, in terms of average speed, at 164.601 MPH. Of the top four fastest IRNLS races ever run, three of them have been this year. Prior to this year, a 162 MPH race run by Buddy Lazier at Charlotte in 1997 had stood as the record for three years. This year, it was broken by Juan Montoya at Indy with a 166 MPH race, and then two weeks later that record was broken by Scott Sharp at Texas with the current record of 169.182 MPH. No doubt the cause was helped by the fact that there were only four caution flags for a grand total of 28 yellow-flag laps or 14.0% of the race distance. This was the third best superspeedway race in this category; the Texas race earlier set the record with 23 yellow flag laps for 11.1% of that race's distance (remember it was a 208-lap race), and that broke the previous record set in that Charlotte '97 race with 27 caution laps for 13.0% of that race's distance. (The all-time record was set on the Disney World short track in 1997. In that race, which was cut to 149 laps by rain, there were only two caution flags for 9 laps or 6.0% of the race distance.)

There were several unaccustomed names popping up in the list of race leaders from Kentucky. Sam Hornish and Sarah Fisher led an IRNLS race for the first time in their careers. Jaques Lazier led for the first time since Atlanta last, and the first time ever for the Mid-American team. And, amazingly, Jimmy Kite's sixteen laps led were his first time on the point in three years -- his only other time as a leader was at Charlotte in 1997, driving for the Scandia team in only his second IRNLS start. Not only that, but it was also the Blueprint team's first time in front in nearly as long; their last time leading previously was when Jim Guthrie led nine laps for them at Las Vegas in 1997. (An ironic twist of fate is that Kite's then-teammate Eliseo Salazar won that race, the only IRNLS win ever for Andy Evans's team.) As for Hornish and Fisher, they removed themselves from a dubious category: drivers who have made at least five starts without leading a lap. Currently that category includes fifteen drivers. In order of most starts, they are:

Driver Starts Comment
Jack Miller 21 17 DNFs
Johnny Unser 15 Full-time ride in 1999 didn't work out
Steve Knapp 13 1998 Indy ROTY; set back by neck injury
Mike Groff 12 IRNLS record for best career avg finish
John Hollansworth 11 Has raced this year, looking for ride
Jaret Schroeder 11 ROTY contender with Tristar
Brian Tyler 10 Running Sprints and Silver Crown
Ronnie Johncox 8 Has raced this year, looking for ride
J. J. Yeley 7 Active, currently with Byrd-McCormack
Doug Didero 6 Has raced this year, looking for ride
Billy Roe 6 Has raced this year, looking for ride
Fermin Velez 6 Retired
Michele Alboreto 5 Three top-5s in 1996
Paul Durant 5 Probably still running Modifieds somewhere
Lyn St. James 5 Will she try Indy one more time?

There are some oddities here. Groff, as noted in the table, holds IRNLS records (among all drivers with at least 10 starts) with a career average finishing position of 8.9 and career race completion percentage of 92.7%; he did this despite having finished on the lead lap only once. The key: he was running at the finish in 10 of his 12 starts, and finished 7th or better in seven of them. (Take away Indy 1996, where his car caught fire during a pit stop, and his average finish improves to 7.9 and his completion percentage to 95.6%.) Schroeder made his first two IRNLS start in 1997, did poorly, and lost his ride; the two starts deprived him of his rookie status and for the next two years he was not able to line up a regular ride. However, a rules change this year gave him his rookie status back; Tristar signed him and he has done fairly well his year (his Kentucky miscue notwithstanding). St. James did well in pre-IRNLS Indy races including winning the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award in 1992, but her sporadic IRNLS career has been a litany of injuries. She is now in her mid-50s and is likely to retire soon. Brian Tyler lost his ride just as his team was beginning to click in 1998; disregarding one start as a substitute driver in 1999, his best IRNLS finish was in his most recent start. Steve Knapp was Indy 500 ROTY in 1998, but he broke his neck at Atlanta the following year. Knapp, a noted engine builder, ran Indy this year but he is unsure if he wants to continue as a driver.

Here's an omen for Texas: If you think engine failures are up this year, you're right. Last year there were 18 retirements due to blown engines. This year there have been a grand total of 33. Of those, nearly half, 15 in all, occurred in two races. Which two? The two high-banked tracks, Atlanta and Texas. (Atlanta, which was run under hot and dusty conditions, had nine by itself, an IRNLS record.) Last year, in ten races, there were a total of 24 engine-related DNFs: the 18 engine failures, 4 broken timing chains, and one case of overheating. This year there have been 34 in eight races, the 33 engine failures and one overheating. With one race to go, the IRNLS records for engine failures in a season has already been tied, and the record for total engine-related DNFs is one short of being tied. Both records, 33 engine failures and 35 total engine-related DNFs, were set in 1998; don't forget that that was an 11-race season. There hasn't really been a pattern as far as teams and engine builders that is readily noticable, with two exceptions: Mid-American Motorsports has five engine DNFs in seven starts, and Blueprint Racing has four in eight starts (poor Jimmy Kite has been the victim of all four). What's interesting about this is that both of these are teams that build their own engines in-house. Another interesting bit is that the failure rates for both engine makes are essentially identical: Auroras have blown in 31 of 205 starts for a 15.1% failure rate, while Infinitis have blown in 2 of 13 starts. for a 15% rate (the sample size isn't large enough to state it more precisely). Robbie Buhl has earned the title of Master of Engine Failures, as he's lost both an Aurora and an Infiniti this year.

Championship Corner: With one race remaining, Buddy Lazier's chances at his first IRNLS championship are looking pretty good. At this point, only three drivers are in contention: Lazier, Scott Goodyear (38 points behind), and Eddie Cheever (41 points behind). If Goodyear were to score the points grand-slam at Texas (win the pole, win the race, and lead the most laps), then he would wind up with 275 points. Lazier has already clinched any tie-breaker with Goodyear, so he would need to score 17 points to tie Goodyear and thereby win the championship. This means that if Lazier finishes 13th or better, he clinches the championship no matter what Goodyear and Cheever do. Lazier has also clinched any tiebreaker with Cheever, so with a 16th place finish he eliminates Cheever from the championship no matter what Cheever does. Looking at it from the other perspective, if a full 28-car field takes the green flag at Texas and Lazier finishes last (good for 2 points), then Goodyear must either win the race, or finish second and score at least one bonus point, in order to have a shot at the championship; Goodyear eliminates himself if he finishes 3rd or worse. (If Lazier finishes 28th the differential is 40 points. If Goodyear finishes third, then even with max bonus points he only ties Lazier, and Lazier has already clinched the tiebreaker.) Cheever's situation is even more dire; if he fails to score any bonus points, then he must win the race to have any shot. Assuming a 28th for Lazier, his differential over Cheever is 43 points, and he has clinched the tiebreaker with Cheever. To have a chance with a 2nd-place finish, Cheever must qualify on the front row and lead the most laps, which would earn him 44 points. If Cheever finishes 3rd or worse, he is eliminated. Note that there is still a possibility that Lazier could finish 3rd, if Goodyear and Cheever finish 1-2 in some combination. Cheever cannot win the championship if Goodyear wins the race. Lazier has a shot to break Kenny Brack's 1998 record of the largest points margin by the season champion; his current margin of 38 points over Goodyear is only two short of Brack's record of 40. However, Brack's record of 332 total points scored is not in jeopardy; Lazier at best will finish with 313 points.

Further down in the standings, though, there is an incredible large and tight group slugging it out for positions 4 through 12. Mark Dismore leads this group with 186 points, and Stephan Gregoire trails it 161 -- a difference of 25 points separating nine drivers. The possible combinations are far too many to enumerate, but here are a few highlights:

The other area of interest in the points standings is the Rookie of the Year contest. For most of the year it has looked like a two-horse race between Jaret Schroeder and Airton Dare. However, poor finishes by those two drivers over the last two races left the door open, and thanks to excellent showings at Kentucky, Sam Hornish and Sarah Fisher are suddenly right in the thick of things, and Shigeaki Hattori still has a mathematical chance. Dare leads Schroeder by a mere two points, 124 to 122, so it's essentially a toss-up between those two. However, unless he wins or finishes second at Texas, Schroeder loses the tiebreaker, so in most scenarios he needs to finish either two or three positions ahead of Dare (or beat him on bonus points). Hornish at 107 points is 17 behind Dare and 15 behind Schroeder (particularly impressive considering that Hornish missed one race and came close to finishing the season without a ride). For him to have a chance, he has to finish 13th or better at Texas. If he were to win the race and the maximum 55 points, he would beat Schroeder, and Dare would have to finish second to beat him. For a more realistic scenario, consider if Hornish finishes 5th and no one involved scores any bonus points; in that situation Hornish would beat Dare if Dare finishes 18th or worse, and Hornish would beat Schroeder if Schroeder finishes 15th or worse. As for Fisher, she is only two points behind Hornish, so if she should finish 5th at Texas, she wins if Dare finishes 20th or worse, Schroeder 17th or worse, and Hornish 7th or worse. She is mathematically elimiated only if Dare or Schroeder finishes 2nd or better. (Currently, the tiebreaker order between these four drivers is: Dare, Hornish, Fisher, and Schroeder. But to protect that, Dare needs to finish 7th or better at Texas; otherwise, any of the other three could take the tiebreaker from him with a 2nd-place finish.) Hattori isn't eliminated yet, but at 83 points, 41 behind Dare, his chances are slim. For him to have a chance, even assuming that he wins the race and earns the max 55 points, all of the below have to happen (assuming none of these other drivers earns any bonus points):

To have a shot, Hattori has to win or finish 2nd; if he finishes 3rd or worse, then he cannot pass Dare. Nonetheless, he has done a fine job considering that he is in contention after having made only four starts. Another long shot is the chances of Robby Unser's 1998 rookie points record of 176 to be broken. Dare and Schroeder could both do it, but for Dare to do it he has to win Texas and score at least three bonus points. For Schroeder to do it, he has to max out with 55 points.

Milestone starts: Another light list this week. Buzz Calkins, winner of the first-ever IRNLS event, will make his 40th start at Texas. Jacques Lazier will make his 15th; combined with brother Buddy making his 42nd, they will have made 57 starts, the most for any brother combo in the series' history. (Neat, but not huge since there's only been one other sibling combo in the series to date: the Groff brothers, with Mike having made 12 starts and Robby 7.) Tyce Carlson and Donnie Beechler will be making their 27th starts, tying them with the immortal Sam Schmidt for 15th on the all-time starts list. It is worth noting that if Scott Goodyear decides to go into semi-retirement at the end of this season, as is rumored, he will do so with 38 starts and a tie (with Scott Sharp) for seventh on the all-time list.