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In NASCAR, separating champions from the rest

Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Dewshine Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2015 in Bristol, Tennessee.
Drew Hallowell | NASCAR | Getty Images
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Mountain Dew Dewshine Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on April 17, 2015 in Bristol, Tennessee.

Saturday night's NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Richmond, Virginia, will be the third time in a month the series has hit a short track. Richmond is three-quarters of a mile, for a race following up recent weekends at Bristol, Tennessee, and Martinsville, Virginia—both half-miles. After Richmond, the series returns to several weeks of longer tracks, each over one mile.

In recent years, much talk has been made about the dearth of short tracks in NASCAR. As the sport has grown its footprint across the nation—and increased its revenues—over the past 20 years, NASCAR's leaders have gone away from short tracks. Instead, they have focused on moving races to bigger venues (like the relatively new 1.5-mile length Kentucky Speedway). Many of these newer tracks have been referred to derogatorily as "cookie cutter" because they almost seem the same in their dimensions and lack of personality.

While many old school fans—like this reporter—can still long for the days of short-track racing, the sport has clearly moved in another direction.

Who does it better?

But here's the question: What does it mean for results? Many drivers are happy to discuss the tracks they love and hate, talking about where they feel they run better. But when it comes to results—maybe track length doesn't matter—if you are elite.

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That's what the data suggest at least. It appears that champion-winning drivers perform about the same on a short track (under one mile) as they do on longer tracks. For nonchampion drivers, the effect is much more pronounced, as their performance is more track dependent. The analysis was performed for CNBC by Andrew Maness of PitRho, a racing data and analytics firm.

For every driver that has won a championship since 2002, their average finish on long tracks and short tracks is basically the same—either zero or one position different. For drivers with less of a pedigree, we see more noticeable contrast. Look at Kyle Larson at the very bottom of the chart. He is only in his second season, so we can expect that 3.8 gap to dissipate with time as he develops into a championship-caliber driver. If it doesn't go away, that would suggest he's not hitting his potential.

At the top of the table, consider drivers like Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer. Their short-track performance is significantly better than at longer tracks—and none of these drivers is a perennial championship contender. Yes, all have sniffed titles in a season or two, but none of them exudes the fear in other drivers as top-level talents.

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"It's an interesting way to try to delineate between the elites and the next level down: What makes a champion?" said Josh Browne, a PitRho co-founder and former NASCAR crew chief.

Note six-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has eight career wins at Martinsville, NASCAR's oldest and smallest track. That ties him for the lead in Martinsville wins among active drivers. Even with such a dominating performance there, he does slightly better at long tracks—one position per race. He's good everywhere—and that's the point.

Champions stay consistent, the others are more volatile

When it comes down to it, track length might not matter for the best drivers. They are elite—and can win titles—because of their ability to stay consistent at all tracks during the season. Lesser drivers have a volatile statistics, which is what hurts them in the long run.

"Track length DOES matter for some drivers—but the elite guys like Harvick and Johnson are just good everywhere," said Browne. "It was interesting that Harvick's average was the same everywhere." As we head into Richmond this weekend, and then move away from short tracks for several weeks, it's important to keep this in mind. Drivers who outperform this week might not be able to hold that up as we reach the summer.

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Sometimes the optics of what we think are happening don't translate into real results. This is the type of information that matters when it comes to setting a fantasy team, making a bet on race outcomes in Las Vegas, or sponsors trying to assess which drivers are actually performing up to expectations.

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