DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (Dec. 23, 2013) -- Sometime in the middle of November, as NASCAR prepared for its 2013 culmination, the good folks at Oxford announced "selfie" as their word of 2013.
Well, since then, a new word has taken the sports world by storm: Loopie. As in: Statistically based awards using NASCAR's Loop Data. One day, Oxford will wait until the end of December to make its announcement.
A quick primer on the Loopies: NASCAR's Integrated Marketing Communications squad dug through, deciphered and deliberated on pages upon pages of Loop Data statistics to come up with one final batch of awards. And here they are.
Last but not least, we have the Loopies. The envelopes please ...
Most Improved Driver Award: Points position ... wins ... top 10s ... laps led. These are the factors most often used to determine Most Improved Driver. Not here. We use driver rating, the ultimate picture painter when deciding upon a driver's year-over-year performance. And the winner of this year's Most Improved Loopie: Kurt Busch, who finished 2012 with a driver rating of 71.0. This year, that number ballooned to 93.0, an increase of 22.0 -- the largest in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Interestingly, second and third on that list were Joey Logano (an increase of 12.8 points) and Matt Kenseth (11.0). That means the top three were all drivers who just completed their first full season with a new team.
Least Improved Driver Award: This is what makes the Loopies unique. Not every award is coveted. Like this one. This one goes to the driver who had the biggest drop in driver rating. The unlucky winner: Denny Hamlin. In 2012, he chipped in an excellent driver rating of 100.9. This season, it fell to 82.4, a difference of 18.5. No need to worry for Hamlin, however. He heads into 2014 hot. Three of his last four finishes were in the top 10 (including his season-finale win at Homestead-Miami Speedway), and two of those resulted in a driver rating over 100. We believe Vegas has posted him as even money for the Most Improved Loopie in 2014.
Jimmie Johnson Lifetime Achievement Award: A new award, this one goes to the driver who has assembled a career that most resembles that of Jimmie Johnson, one of the all-time NASCAR legends. The winner: Jimmie Johnson. With its inception in 2005, Loop Data is now nine years old. During that span, Johnson has posted otherworldly stats -- and he doesn't show signs of slowing down. A few superlatives: Series highs in career driver rating (105.9), fastest laps run (8,071), laps in the top 15 (75,070) and average running position (10.206). Additionally, this year, he set Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup records in driver rating (125.8), average running position (5.165) and laps in the top 15 (3,001).
Project Makeover Award: This goes to the driver who switched teams in 2013, and became a completely different competitor. Congratulations, Matt Kenseth. Here's why: Kenseth ranked second in laps led with 1,783. His average rank in the five seasons prior to 2013 was 9.8. (Another fun fact: His 1,783 laps led were more than his laps led total in the previous four seasons, combined.)
It's Go Time Award: This one goes to the top "closer" in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The "closer" stat measures the positions gained or lost in the last 10 percent of races. And the Loopie goes to: Dale Earnhardt Jr., who improved 68 positions over the final 10 percent of races this year, tops in the series. That accounts for almost two positions per race, and the reason for his career-high 22 top-10 finishes. In eight races this season, Earnhardt came from outside-to-inside the top 10 with 10 percent of the laps remaining.
No, Really, It's Go Time, Why Aren't You Going? Award: While statistics like average finish and laps led tell fans what a driver did, Loop Data tells them how and why a driver did it. Here's a possible explanation of why the winner of this award went otherwise winless this season for the first time since 2009. The unfortunate winner: Clint Bowyer. The reason: He lost 67 positions in the final 10 percent of races, the second highest figure in the series. That means a very strong season could have been that much better. On the bright side, he did win this Loopie.
Stefan Kretschmann Lifetime Achievement Award: Nothing pleases an awards show crowd -- and dictates a standing ovation -- like a Lifetime Achievement Award. That's why the Loopies have two of them this year. (It's been seven years of this ... we do what we gotta do.) A quick explanation on the namesake of this award: Stefan Kretschmann works for our good friends at Stats, LLC in Chicago, and is considered the godfather of Loop Data. The formulas that make Loop Data so interesting and invaluable are his brainchild. Prior winners of this prestigious award included Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. The winner this year ... Jeff Gordon. If not for Johnson, Gordon would lead almost all key Loop Data categories. Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, he is second in fastest laps run (5,006), average running position (11.9), laps in the top 15 (70,985) and percentage of laps run on the lead lap (89.4 percent). In addition, only three drivers have posted a 90+ driver rating each year from 2006 to present in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition: Gordon, and the two previous winners (Johnson and Busch).
And that's that. Congratulations to all our winners, even those who didn't want a Loopie. Seven years are now in the books. Three more, and the Loopies will be eligible for induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Happy Holidays everyone!