For the past four years, Ed Carpenter has raced only the oval tracks on the IndyCar schedule. That typically adds up to five or six races a year the driver and team owner of Ed Carpenter Racing gets to compete in. When his name pops up on an entry list, fans and the media love to mention that Carpenter only races on ovals, and they often dub him an 'oval specialist' or 'oval expert.'
And at first glance this seems like it's not a crazy thing to say. Carpenter won pole position at Indianapolis this year and in the process of doing so ran the only 230 mph plus lap of the weekend. This was his third pole position at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, making him one of nineteen drivers who have won pole position at the speedway multiple times -- only ten drivers, including Carpenter, have won it three or more times.
He finished this year's 500 in second place after leading 65 laps, his highest finish since a win at Texas in 2014.
While these results may seem to confirm his strength on ovals, they don't show the whole picture. I wanted to get a better idea of Carpenter's actual skill on oval tracks. Is he really an 'oval expert', or is that too grand of a title to give someone of his caliber?
To start the process of evaluating Carpenter, I needed some data. For the purpose of this analysis, I focused on drivers who are semi-active in the series, meaning they had to have raced in the last two years and preferably be a full-time driver when they did. I also limited the drivers to those who had completed ten or more races on ovals in order to keep those drivers with few oval results (typically younger drivers) from distorting the data. These criteria left us with 26 drivers to compare with Carpenter. We used strictly oval results and statistics for all drivers.
Carpenter has competed in 108 oval races over the course of his IndyCar career and has three race wins. That is the sixth most wins of the driver we looked at, putting him in the top quarter of race wins. For comparison, Scott Dixon, who has competed in 123 oval races, has 18 race wins. The two drivers directly ahead of Carpenter in terms of race wins, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power, have both completed far less oval races than Carpenter. Neither of them has reached 65 oval races yet.
With his pole at Indy, Carpenter's qualifying abilities were put on display and talked about for days after. But the bigger picture isn't as flattering for him. Out of the 26 drivers in our data set, Carpenter ranks nineteenth in average starting position with an average of 13.7. And with an average finish of 13.5, he is fifteenth out of twenty-six. To get a better idea of what this means, we can visualize the data on a graph. Here's a graph of all 26 drivers, with Carpenter's full IndyCar career averages highlighted in blue. I have also included a second marking for Carpenter, his results for 2014-18 only because this is when he decided to race strictly on ovals during the season, the period of him being an 'oval-only specialist.' The size of the point is the number of wins that driver has, and each point represents a different driver.
The better a driver is on ovals, the more their point will be towards the lower left corner of the graph. Carpenter's points are more in the middle of the graph, and as we've seen from looking at the raw numbers, in the worse half of the drivers we looked at. The three large points in the lower left corner of the graph, representing some of the best (by a wide margin) oval drivers in the series, belong to Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves, and Tony Kanaan. If we look at Carpenter's 2014-18 average start and finishing rankings, shown with the red dot, he comes in at twelfth and twentieth respectively.
Other useful metrics for evaluating drivers oval performances are podium percentage, pole percentage, and lead lap finish percentage (the percentage of races a driver finishes on the lead lap). The table below shows Carpenter's performances in each of those categories as well as the ones discussed before. The rank column indicates (out of 26) his performance in the category to the left of it. For example, the fifth column "Rank" is Carpenter's podium percentage ranking. And the seventh column "Rank" is his pole percentage ranking, etc. Once again, his performances for 2014-18 are given their own subcategory too.
The best stat Carpenter has going for himself is his pole percentage. In both the full career comparison and his years as an oval only driver, he ranks sixth in pole percentage. Qualifying seems to be Carpenter's strongest aspect when it comes to ovals, and that explains why he is on that exclusive list of drivers who have won pole position at Indianapolis more than once. He does seem to have a special knack for qualifying -- most notably at Indy -- that he has repeated time and time again throughout his career.
In no other categories does Carpenter even crack the top ten in our rankings of 26 drivers except for race wins in which he is sixth as mentioned earlier. For those that are curious, here are all of the drivers and their oval race stats that were used in the analysis.
Carpenter is not what someone would call an oval expert when compared against the other drivers in the series. From the numbers it looks like he is an upper-midfield performer on ovals. Carpenter definitely has some skill on oval tracks, but not to the level of what we would expect an oval specialist to be at. He rarely finishes races on the lead lap and it shows in his average finishing position. His best category is qualifying. Carpenter has proved he is on the top level of qualifiers in the IndyCar series and that goes double for Indianapolis qualifying. He has managed year in and year out to be competitive on qualifying weekend at the 2.5 mile track despite his struggles to qualify as well at other oval tracks on the circuit.
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Photo courtesy of John Cote/IndyCar