Editor's note: Earlier this year All Left Turns introduced the Watermill Score, the four-pronged strategy that Sprint Cup teams should follow in order to win a title. In a follow-up story, we showed how winning a NASCAR title is like counting cards. This third post elaborates on the first two, covering why the Watermill Score is important and how teams can use it to affect race strategy.

**I. Introducing the Watermill Score**

There is a startlingly basic relationship that almost fully defines the traditional NASCAR points system as it was created by Bob Latford a generation ago. The current Latford system gives points all the way from first to last and bonus points for leading laps. You can score anywhere between 34 and 195 points in a single race. But take a look at this simple revelation. We can simplify the points system to just this: Add up for each driver just four data points.

**Wins + Top 10s + Lead Lap Finishes + Races at the Finish**

The total of these four numbers gets you to basically the same rankings as the current Latford system. We have W+T+L+R. For purposes of this article, and with no other name I can think of, I will refer to this number as a Watermill Score. Also notice the letters W, T, L, and R all get used in there.

**II. Examples of the Watermill Score in use**

Let’s briefly review two examples:

First, consider the driver with the highest Watermill Score in each season this decade. Notice that in every case but one, the driver with the highest Watermill Score also scored the most NASCAR points that season. The year 2002 is the only exception because of a rare closeness in the competition, where seven drivers were within 226 points of the champion. Notice I am not resetting the points for the Chase. I only want to look at how many total points drivers accumulated during the year. The Chase reset doesn’t allow for a fair comparison.

The post WHAT IS THE WATERMILL SCORE? appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>Editor’s note: Earlier this year All Left Turns introduced the Watermill Score, the four-pronged strategy that Sprint Cup teams should follow in order to win a title. In a follow-up story, we showed how winning a NASCAR title is like counting cards. This third post elaborates on the first two, covering why the Watermill Score is important and how teams can use it to affect race strategy.

**I. Introducing the Watermill Score**

There is a startlingly basic relationship that almost fully defines the traditional NASCAR points system as it was created by Bob Latford a generation ago. The current Latford system gives points all the way from first to last and bonus points for leading laps. You can score anywhere between 34 and 195 points in a single race. But take a look at this simple revelation. We can simplify the points system to just this: Add up for each driver just four data points.

**Wins + Top 10s + Lead Lap Finishes + Races at the Finish**

The total of these four numbers gets you to basically the same rankings as the current Latford system. We have W+T+L+R. For purposes of this article, and with no other name I can think of, I will refer to this number as a Watermill Score. Also notice the letters W, T, L, and R all get used in there.

**II. Examples of the Watermill Score in use**

Let’s briefly review two examples:

First, consider the driver with the highest Watermill Score in each season this decade. Notice that in every case but one, the driver with the highest Watermill Score also scored the most NASCAR points that season. The year 2002 is the only exception because of a rare closeness in the competition, where seven drivers were within 226 points of the champion. Notice I am not resetting the points for the Chase. I only want to look at how many total points drivers accumulated during the year. The Chase reset doesn’t allow for a fair comparison.

Now let’s look at our second example – the 2009 standings. The drivers are sorted by their NASCAR points ranking. Notice that the Watermill Score is broken up into color-coded groups by score. In almost every case, the groups are in distinct blocks separating the various drivers. As the Watermill Score goes down, so do the total points for each driver. You can see how the Watermill Score is a very good estimator for the overall points system.

What’s most important is that the Watermill Score is just as accurate at the top of the points system as at the bottom. Some data (like lead-lap numbers) might only be relevant to the top 10 in points, because most people at the bottom of the standings do not have a significant number of laps led. But this score is consistently accurate throughout the standings. That’s what makes it so valuable.

I attempted a modified version of the Watermill Score, using top-fives instead of top-10s. It turns out this metric is very good as well, but the original version is slightly more predictive. The table below shows the results, along with the value of some of the most basic metrics commonly cited by industry professionals today. These correlations were done each year using the top 30 in the driver points standings. I used 30 to remove the effect of part-time teams, mid-season driver switches, teams that don’t qualify for every race, etc.

**1. The correlation of the Watermill Score is high, repeatable, and consistent.**

- The Watermill Score is more correlated to the points standings than every other metric listed.
- Notice the minimum score in blue at the bottom, .977, is better than the average score of any other metric, including Average Finish.
- Average Finish can be deceptively inaccurate in some years (like last year with a .90 correlation and other years with .92 and .94.)
- The Watermill Score is very consistent, and always correlates between .977 and .988 every year this decade.

**2. The number of wins by itself is not a great measure of success. In fact, wins is a worse predictor than average starting spot.**

**3. Notice in every single season, top-10s are a much better predictor of success than top-fives.**

**4. Racing at the Finish (inverse of DNF) on its own is not a very important statistic, but when combined with the other data, it becomes very important as a needed measure of consistency.**

In conclusion, the data shows us that the Watermill Score is in fact a truly helpful statistic, and it is the best estimator of the points standings than any other dataset.

**IV. How can the Watermill Score be used to affect race strategy?**

Now that we’ve seen the value of the Watermill Score, we can see that the way to maximize your points during the season is to focus on four tasks:

* Finishing races

* Finishing on the lead lap

* Getting top 10s

* Winning

If you win a race and accomplish all four tasks, you earn a Watermill Score of 4 in that race. If you crash out of a race, you accomplish none of these tasks, earning zero watermills. A lead-lap top-10 earns you 3 watermills.

Notice that the points are split between accomplishing basic tasks (finishing and on the lead lap) while the other half is focused on up-front results (top 10s and wins). This makes a lot of sense to anybody who has been watching NASCAR for years. The Latford system punishes you for bad results just as much as it rewards you for good ones.

Notice that Jimmie Johnson had 96 Watermills this year, an average of 2.67 per race. Matt Kenseth, who finished 12th in non-chase points, had 77 watermills, an average of 2.13 per race this season. In the entire decade, nobody has ever averaged 3 watermills throughout a season.

Think about what this means for crew chiefs deciding race strategy. If you can walk away from each race with your 3 watermills by finishing in the top 10, do you really want to risk going for the win, when the possible bad outcome is you finish off the lead lap?

**Example 1: Fuel-mileage game**

You can fill up right now on caution and guarantee yourself a top-10 finish. The other option is to stay out and hope your fuel will make it to the end. Reward is a win; risk is you run out of gas and finish off the lead lap.

A top-10 guarantees 3 watermills.

A win gets you 4 watermills.

Finishing off the lead lap gets you 1.

So if you had a 50/50 shot of making it, the risk-weighted watermill score is .5*4 + .5*1 = 2.5 Watermills, which is *LESS* than the guaranteed top 10. In fact, you’d need at least a 67 percent chance of making it to get your risk-weighted Watermill score back up to 3 points, the same as your guaranteed top 10. Then you’d have .666*4+.333*1 = 3.0, the same as the guaranteed top 10. (Hope you were able to follow that. My e-mail is at the bottom of the article if you would like me to clarify.)

This math suggests that in most cases, unless you are almost absolutely sure you can make it all the way, you are better off not risking your top-10 to go for the win.

However, if you were running back in the pack, and filling up the tank would guarantee you a lead-lap finish OUTSIDE the top 10, then your math is very different. Filling up the tank guarantees you 2 watermills, but stretching fuel means you might win (4 watermills) or finish off the lead lap (1 watermill). Now the math is much easier, because you are risking less. All you need is better than a 33 percent chance of being able to stretch fuel for the risk to be worth it.

By just focusing on whether you’ll win, get a top-10, and finish on the lead lap, a crew chief can more quickly and easily come up with the best risk/reward strategy without having to worry about the more complicated points scheme. As we’ve shown, if you can win the competition of Watermill Scores, you will also win the championship.

**Example 2: Potential flat tire?**

Many times we’ve heard a driver complaining that he might have a flat tire. Or we have seen instances where there is a fender rubbing the tire, and nobody is sure whether that will cut it down flat. Sometimes it’s not obvious if the tire is actually going down, so what’s a crew chief to do?

Go back to the Watermill Score. You get: 1 watermill for finishing a race, 1 watermill for staying on the lead lap. Even on bad days, if you can just get out with 2 watermills, that’s not too bad. As we’ve seen, the best drivers average less than 3 watermills per race. So a few 2s won’t kill you, but a few zeros will.

If you pit on green, you’ll probably lose a lap and potentially never recover. If you stay out, and the tire does go bust, you’ll probably crash the car in the wall and won’t finish the race. How do you approach it?

- If you are already off the lead lap, go ahead and come in to fix the tire. At this point your best bet is to get 1 watermill for finishing the race, so you lose nothing extra by falling back another lap or two. Come in and pit, get the new tires.
- If you are on the lead lap, outside the top 10, you have 2 watermills right now. Lose a lap to pit and you have 1 watermill. Stay out and crash and you get zero watermills. Stay out and nothing happens, you keep your 2 watermills (with some potential upside of reaching the top 10.) The math here suggests you only pit if you think there is more than a 50 percent chance of the tire actually being flat. If you are just guessing, and you think it’s less than a 50 percent chance of being a flat, stay out.
- If you are on the lead lap, in the top 10, you’d now have 3 watermills if the race ended now. Again your options are to crash out, lose laps by pitting or stay in the top 10 by staying out. In this case you only pit if you are more than 66 percent sure that it’s a flat. Even a 50/50 guess is worth staying out, because your risk weighted Watermill Score in that case is .5*3 + .5*1 = 1.5.
- Similarly, if you are leading the race, then you only pit if you are more than 75 percent sure you have a flat. Since it’s such a big loss to lose those laps, you might as well take the chance on getting your full 4 watermills, stay out and see what happens.

Again, without thinking about the complicated points system, crew chiefs can very quickly think about risk/reward and whether it’s worth pitting now. This depends on where you are running on the track. Be smart about accumulating watermills and you will do well in the points standings.

**Example 3: Four tires, two tires or no tires?**

If you are in the top 10 right now, going into the last stop of the race, and fuel mileage isn’t a concern, what is your tire strategy?

If you finish in the top 10, you get 3 watermills. If you take four tires, you can guarantee yourself a top 10.

If you take no tires, let’s say that gives you a 20 percent chance of winning (4 watermills), 50 percent chance of finishing in the top 10 (3 watermills), and 30 percent chance of finishing below the top 10 (watermills). The weighted average of all this is .2*4+.5*3+.3*2 = 2.9, or worse than the guaranteed 3.0 you could have had by taking four tires. As long as the chance of falling outside the top 10 is higher than your chance of winning, then it’s a bad strategy. You need your chance of winning to be higher than your chance of falling outside the top 10 for this to be a good idea.

Let’s say by taking two tires you change your chances to 30 percent winning, 60 percent staying in the top 10, and 10 percent falling out the top 10. In this case it makes sense to go with the two tire strategy, since the risk-weighted watermill average here is .30*4+.60*3+.10*2 = 3.2, better than the 3.0 you’d get for taking four tires.

Again, these examples do not focus on what specific place you are in or what your competitors in the standings are doing. I also do not give you the specific percentages for what different gambles are worth. That’s where a good crew chief comes in, using his smarts and experience. What I am suggesting is a simple way to take those percentages, risk-weight them to the Watermill Score, and be able to more simply and quickly come up with appropriate race-time strategy. Because the overall points system is too complicated to quickly figure out, by following this simpler program, and thinking about the four simple tasks (winning, top 10s, lead lap finishes, finishing the race), this strategy can help teams look past all of the endless combinations of results and focus only on the four tasks that matter, and that can help win a championship.

(All Left Turns contributor Dale Watermill is the creator of the Watermill Score and the FLOPPER Award and edits the racing statistics blog 36 Races. E-mail him at 36races@gmail.com.)

The post WHAT IS THE WATERMILL SCORE? appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>With the Dover race in the record books, just eight races remain until the 2009 Sprint Cup champion is crowned. Let’s take a look at the updated championship probability table, which includes some interesting side notes.

1) The big winner at Dover was Jimmie Johnson, who nearly doubled his chance of winning the Chase.

2) Mark Martin's second-place finish kept him in second place on this table, but his percentage moved up a good chunk, from 18 to 23.

The post CHAMPIONSHIP PROBABILITY TABLE: JOHNSON PASSES STEWART AND MARTIN appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>With the Dover race in the record books, just eight races remain until the 2009 Sprint Cup champion is crowned. Let’s take a look at the updated championship probability table, which includes some interesting side notes.

1) The big winner at Dover was Jimmie Johnson, who nearly doubled his chance of winning the Chase.

2) Mark Martin’s second-place finish kept him in second place on this table, but his percentage moved up a good chunk, from 18 to 23.

3) Tony Stewart’s ninth-place finish dropped him from first to third here, down to 15 percent, which means he is half as likely to win the title as Johnson. The key lesson here is that top fives and wins will be necessary to win this year’s Chase, not just top 10s. Notice that Stewart is now closer in points to 12th-place Kasey Kahne than he is to points leader Mark Martin.

4) The big loser was Denny Hamlin, who finished 2 laps down in 22nd. That’s never going to get the job done.

5) Carl Edwards joins Kasey Kahne in the dreaded "less than one percent so I had to add another decimal place" category.

6) Johnson and Martin combine for 52 percent of the championship possibilities. If you include Stewart and Jeff Gordon, that’s a 79 percent chance of the title going to somebody in the Hendrick stable.

*(All Left Turns contributor Dale Watermill is the creator of the Watermill Score and edits the racing statistics blog **36 Races*. E-mail him at 36races@gmail.com.)

*Related links:*

Menard strengthens FLOPPER lead

Updated championship probability table: Martin closes in on Stewart

Winning in NASCAR is like counting cards

Chase bonus points are meaningless

Jimmie Johnson has most points at Chase tracks this season

Numbers say Cup is Stewart’s to lose

The Watermill Score: How to win a Sprint Cup title

Replacing crew chiefs has not helped Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The post CHAMPIONSHIP PROBABILITY TABLE: JOHNSON PASSES STEWART AND MARTIN appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>Coming off Mark Martin's dramatic win in New Hampshire this Sunday, we have a brand new updated table of championship probabilities.

The post CHAMPIONSHIP PROBABILITY TABLE: MARTIN CLOSES IN ON STEWART appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>Coming off Mark Martin’s dramatic win in New Hampshire this Sunday, we have a brand new updated table of championship probabilities.

1) Martin is now only three percentage points behind Tony Stewart, who finished 14th. This is particularly encouraging for Martin, considering he had never won at Loudon before and disliked the track so much he left it off his schedule the last two years.

2) Juan Pablo Montoya’s strong run moved him higher in the points standings, but his title percentage remains very low. He’ll need a lot more top fives to make a dent in these percentages. It’s still possible for him to climb, though, if he can successfully upgrade his early season "points racing" strategy.

3) The top five guys on this table (Stewart, Martin, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson) have a combined 83 percent chance of winning the title. Look at these five for your true contenders.

4) The mid-pack guys in yellow (Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Brian Vickers, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards) did not do anything meaningful enough to change their situations. Their percentages stayed practically the same.

5) Kasey Kahne was never really a threat to win the title (three percent last week), so his engine failure only set him back 2.5 percentage points (to 0.5 percent).

*(All Left Turns contributor Dale Watermill is the creator of the Watermill Score and edits the racing statistics blog **36 Races*. E-mail him at 36races@gmail.com.)

*Related links:*

Winning in NASCAR is like counting cards

Menard takes FLOPPER lead

Chase bonus points are meaningless

Jimmie Johnson has most points at Chase tracks this season

Numbers say Cup is Stewart’s to lose

The Watermill Score: How to win a Sprint Cup title

Replacing crew chiefs has not helped Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The post CHAMPIONSHIP PROBABILITY TABLE: MARTIN CLOSES IN ON STEWART appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>In my previous article about the Watermill Score, I explained how we can simplify the NASCAR points system to just four basic metrics: finishing the race, finishing on the lead lap, top 10s and wins. I also suggested how this allows for smarter gambles by crew chiefs. Another way to think about this concept is to use the analogy of counting cards in blackjack.

The point in blackjack is that you have 52 cards in a deck, but only certain cards are worth points. In a simple counting scheme, many cards are worth zero points, but some are worth plus one or minus one. Savvy gamblers keep track of the cards with point values, and based on the count, they use different tactics. We can see the same analogy in NASCAR. If you take that same card-counting approach, instead of keeping track of all 43 positions, all you need to do is keep track of the four important metrics:

1 point for finishing the race

1 point for finishing on the lead lap

1 point for a top 10

1 point for a win

Every other place in the final results is worth zero.

The post WINNING IN NASCAR IS LIKE COUNTING CARDS appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>In my previous article about the Watermill Score, I explained how we can simplify the NASCAR points system to just four basic metrics: finishing the race, finishing on the lead lap, top 10s and wins. I also suggested how this allows for smarter gambles by crew chiefs. Another way to think about this concept is to use the analogy of counting cards in blackjack.

The point in blackjack is that you have 52 cards in a deck, but only certain cards are worth points. In a simple counting scheme, many cards are worth zero points, but some are worth plus one or minus one. Savvy gamblers keep track of the cards with point values, and based on the count, they use different tactics. We can see the same analogy in NASCAR. If you take that same card-counting approach, instead of keeping track of all 43 positions, all you need to do is keep track of the four important metrics:

1 point for finishing the race

1 point for finishing on the lead lap

1 point for a top 10

1 point for a win

Every other place in the final results is worth zero.

Remember that over the past decade the Watermill points ranking has a .98 correlation with the real NASCAR points ranking. It is equally valuable whether you are fighting for first in points or 35th. If you can maximize your Watermill score, you’ll also maximize your real place in the standings. Crew chiefs and teams just need to "count" these four points, ignore everything else, and let the rest of math’s magic work in their favor.

They can quickly use this counting device to decide whether or not to risk a fuel mileage gamble, figure how much they should gamble on over-adjusting a mediocre car, decide if it’s worth pitting for a tire they aren’t sure is going down, etc. They can stop focusing on the complicated points system of 43 places and instead focus on those four factors. If they keep track of the count, they’re all set.

*(All Left Turns contributor Dale Watermill is the creator of the Watermill Score and edits the racing statistics blog **36 Races*. E-mail him at 36races@gmail.com.)

*Related links:*

Menard takes FLOPPER lead

Chase bonus points are meaningless

Jimmie Johnson has most points at Chase tracks this season

Numbers say Cup is Stewart’s to lose

The Watermill Score: How to win a Sprint Cup title

Replacing crew chiefs has not helped Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The post WINNING IN NASCAR IS LIKE COUNTING CARDS appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>With the Chase field locked, it is time to put away our Chase qualifying tables and break out our championship percentage probability tables. With 10 races to go, Tony Stewart leads all drivers with a 30 percent chance of winning the Cup.

I kicked things off with a simulated model of 14,950 potential outcomes in the next 10 races. (Yes, this is what I do for fun.) Adjust for the current points standings (5,000 through 5,040) and we get percentages for who will end the Chase with the most points.

Right now we see Stewart at the top of the list with strong competition from four guys in particular: Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, and Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin.

The post NUMBERS SAY CUP IS STEWART’S TO LOSE appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>With the Chase field locked, it is time to put away our Chase qualifying tables and break out our championship percentage probability tables. With 10 races to go, Tony Stewart leads all drivers with a 30 percent chance of winning the Cup.

I kicked things off with a simulated model of 14,950 potential outcomes in the next 10 races. (Yes, this is what I do for fun.) Adjust for the current points standings (5,000 through 5,040) and we get percentages for who will end the Chase with the most points.

Right now we see Stewart at the top of the list with strong competition from four guys in particular: Hendrick drivers Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin, and Gibbs driver Denny Hamlin.

Stewart makes the top of the list because 4,497 combinations out of the 14,950 total end up with him winning the title. Again, these numbers are based on performance of each driver so far this year. Past performance predicts future success.

Hamlin has scored, by far, the most points in the last 12 races of the season. If he repeats that performance in the final 10, he could win the title. Unless Juan Pablo Montoya has a new trick up his sleeve, his "Chase racing" strategy will not translate to any shot at winning the title.

*36 Races**. E-mail him at 36races@gmail.com.)*

*Related links:*

The Watermill Score: How to win a Sprint Cup title

Replacing crew chiefs has not helped Dale Earnhardt Jr.

The post NUMBERS SAY CUP IS STEWART’S TO LOSE appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>With one race left before the Chase field is set, you can almost throw out all of the old probability tables we have discussed before. Obviously, anything can happen in this final race.

Fortunately we have a guide: the previous 25 races this season. If we simulate this Saturday night's race at Richmond by taking the results from the past 25 races this year, we can narrow the possibilities of what the standings could look like on Sunday. Most importantly, we can use these numbers to get a good sense of each driver's probability of making the top 12.

The post VICKERS, BUSCH ONLY BUBBLE DRIVERS WITH SHOT AT MAKING THE CHASE appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>With one race left before the Chase field is set, you can almost throw out all of the old probability tables we have discussed before. Obviously, anything can happen in this final race.

Fortunately we have a guide: the previous 25 races this season. If we simulate this Saturday night’s race at Richmond by taking the results from the past 25 races this year, we can narrow the possibilities of what the standings could look like on Sunday. Most importantly, we can use these numbers to get a good sense of each driver’s probability of making the top 12.

The only exception in this simulation is if a driver performs better or worse than he has all year. A good example of this is Kurt Busch, who scored only 49 points last weekend at Atlanta. That was his worst performance of 2009. It took him down from a 100 percent chance of making the Chase to a 96 percent chance. If the Atlanta results repeat themselves at Richmond, he will fall out of the chase to 13th place in the standings. It’s a crazy possibility, but anybody from Carl Edwards down can crash out of Richmond and knock themselves out of the top 12.

Some other interesting items:

1) The 20-point gap between Brian Vickers and Matt Kenseth in the standings translates to a 12 percent point difference in making the top 12.

2) If the results this weekend match exactly with the spring race at Richmond earlier this year, then Kyle Busch will replace Matt Kenseth in the top 12.

3) Everybody below Kyle Busch in points is out. ESPN/ABC should stop highlighting those guys in yellow on its scrolling leaderboard. It’s misleading. Let’s only focus on Vickers and Busch as the two guys outside the bubble. The rest are toast. Sorry David Reutimann. Better luck next year.

4) We see in this table, the range for 12th place points is 3,168 to 3,237. The range for 13th place is 3,103 to 3,211. The two ranges have a big overlap with each other. Also, 3,125 to 3,162 is the range between fifth in points and eleventh in points. Everybody is very close to the bubble.

Like I said, if somebody has his worst performance of the year, even a 100 percent chance of making it in won’t help now. What I mean by 100 percent is they will make the top 12 as long as they perform within the range of their previous finishes this year.

The one thing I do know ? There is a 100 percent chance of one exciting race this Saturday night.

*36 Races**. E-mail him at 36races@gmail.com.)*

*Related links:*

The Watermill Score: How to win a Sprint Cup title

Replacing crew chiefs has not helped Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Robby Gordon attempting to defend his FLOPPER award

The post VICKERS, BUSCH ONLY BUBBLE DRIVERS WITH SHOT AT MAKING THE CHASE appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>*(Editor's note: All Left Turns stats maven Dale Watermill has done something noteworthy. He has reduced the complicated Sprint Cup scoring system to the four basic factors that lead to success. Teams that accomplish as many of these four goals as possible at every race have the best chance at winning a Sprint Cup title.)*

Forget, for a second, everything you know about the current NASCAR points system: 185 points for a win, 34 points for last place, 5 points for leading a lap and 5 points for leading the most laps.

Imagine if the NASCAR points system consisted only of this:

1 point for finishing the race

1 point for finishing on the lead lap

1 point for finishing in the top 10

1 point for winning the race

In this system, you would get 0 points for not finishing and 4 points for winning. How relevant a points system would this create? Who would the champion be in this system?

What if I told you that in seven of the last eight seasons, the champion in the traditional NASCAR points system was the same as the driver in my fictional system?

The post HOW TO WIN A SPRINT CUP TITLE appeared first on NASCAR.

]]>*(Editor’s note: All Left Turns stats maven Dale Watermill has done something noteworthy. He has reduced the complicated Sprint Cup scoring system to the four basic factors that lead to success. Teams that accomplish as many of these four goals as possible at every race have the best chance at winning a Sprint Cup title.)*

Forget, for a second, everything you know about the current NASCAR points system: 185 points for a win, 34 points for last place, 5 points for leading a lap and 5 points for leading the most laps.

Imagine if the NASCAR points system consisted only of this:

1 point for finishing the race

1 point for finishing on the lead lap

1 point for finishing in the top 10

1 point for winning the race

In this system, you would get 0 points for not finishing and 4 points for winning. How relevant a points system would this create? Who would the champion be in this system?

What if I told you that in seven of the last eight seasons, the champion in the traditional NASCAR points system was the same as the driver in my fictional system?

For our purposes, let’s call this the Watermill Score. Ignoring the reset of points caused by the Chase, in every single Chase year the driver who scored the most total points all season was the same driver who had the highest Watermill Score. The year 2002 is the only exception because of a rare closeness in the competition, where seven drivers were within 226 points of the champion.

In 2009, for example, the top three under this system are Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. They also are the top three in the traditional standings.

In fact, going back every single year this decade, there is a .98 correlation between the Watermill Score and the traditional NASCAR points system, not just at the top of the standings, but for every spot down the line.

In every single year, the Watermill Score is more correlated than any other individual metric of Top 10s, Top 5s, Most Wins, Lead Lap Finishes, Racing at the Finish, Average Finish, Average Start, etc. There is no single other metric that is a better estimator of the points standings.

Why is this interesting? And why is this important?

Despite the complication of the current system, and all of the talk that it needs to be changed, this revelation is interesting because it tells you that the essential factors that go into winning a championship are finishing the race, finishing on the lead lap, getting Top 10s and getting wins. Two of the four points you receive just for being consistent and the other two points you receive for finishing up front. The points system is half-based on consistency and half-based on running up front.

It’s important because it suggests a new way to approach race strategy. If you are a crew chief who is thinking about gambling for fuel at the end of the race, think about this math:

If you do not gamble, you are guaranteed a Top 10 finish, which is a guaranteed 3 points in this system. But if you *do* gamble, and you try to take the win, the risk is that you will fall off the lead lap. Your reward in this case is 4 points; your risk is going home with 1 point. Assuming a 50/50 chance of running out of gas, the average of that is 2.5 points. You would need an 80 percent chance of saving fuel all the way to get back to a 3-point-average scenario. And would you really want to risk that? Is that a good trade?

So when you simplify a situation like this, you can make a quick guess as to what to do. Come in now for the gas, take your guaranteed Top 10 and go home; the guaranteed 3 points is better than anything else. And I have just proved to you that if you can win based on this points system, you will also win in the real NASCAR points system.

Using the Watermill Score as a guide, crew chiefs will take the guaranteed Top 10. They will take the 3 points per race because NO DRIVER THIS DECADE has finished a season above a 3-points-per-race average. Tony Stewart has 66 points in 2009, which is a 2.75-points-per-race average. So whenever you can get a guaranteed Top 10, you should take it every time. The gambles are not worth it in the long run.

By simplifying the points system to this easy checklist, crew chiefs can better come up with strategies during the race without getting caught up in how other drivers are doing, where they might finish the race, etc. Just focus on these four categories (finishing the race, finishing on the lead lap, getting a Top 10, winning) and everything else will work itself out.

**Juan Pablo Montoya has followed an a conservative racing strategy into the Top 12**

Also note the importance of finishing on the lead lap. It is one-fourth of the entire points system here. It is just as important as a Top 10 or winning. Again, if you are having a bad day, if you can still finish on the lead lap, you will earn yourself 2 points. Think about what that means for crews making adjustments to bad cars. Do you swing for the fences on a big adjustment, another gamble, to try to get the car way up in the front, but carry the risk of going the wrong way and sending your car to the back? Or do you focus on smaller adjustments you know will work, even if it means riding around the back of the lead lap?

As we see in this system, the answer is to go for the guaranteed small adjustment. First priority is not losing that lap. If your car is not a Top 10 car this weekend, then focus on finishing on the lead lap, and again the points will take care of themselves.

*(All Left Turns contributor Dale Watermill is also the editor of the racing statistics blog **36 Races**. E-mail him at 36races@gmail.com.)*

**Related links:**

Robby Gordon attempting to defend his FLOPPER award

Busch, Vickers have equal shot at breaking into the Chase

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