Daytona qualifying is not the most exciting qualifying session of the year. Only two cars lock in their position. It’s a single-car one-lap format, but the lack of drafting is one of the few clues about the strength of individual cars
Here’s a scatter plot of seconds off the pole as a function of qualifying position. The red diamonds show the unchartered teams that must race their way into the Daytona 500. I’ve explained before why I use times and not speeds.
The sharp downturn around the 31st position stands out to me as indicative of a major difference in car strengths.
- 28 cars are within a second of the pole time (46.253 seconds).
- The remaining 15 cars range from 1 second to 3.81 seconds off the pole time.
- The cars in the tail include the non-chartered teams, plus
- McLeod didn’t make a qualifying run.
The last dozen Daytona qualifiers are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of raw engine speed. While good drafting can overcome lack of raw engine power, it also poses challenges entering and leaving pit road.
In 2007, Matt Kenseth won the Daytona from the 39th position — but he started there only because he had to go to a backup car.
The Cinderella story, of course, is Trevor Bayne in 2011, who started from 32nd — but he had the 3rd fastest car in Daytona qualifying.
A Closer Look…
If we really want to milk the Daytona qualifying graph for all it’s worth, consider that the graph breaks down into four groups.
Group 1: Let’s exclude the first three cars: The first two cars are within 5/100ths of a second. Then the times drop off surprisingly quickly. In the first group (shown by the blue line and running from 3rd to 7th, the times increase by about a 10/100ths of a second per position.
This tells you we’ve got a significant gap between the very top cars and the next-to-best cars. What we don’t know is how strongly these teams prioritized qualifying over being ready to go for the Duels. If you set your car up for qualifying and then finished third, you might be at a distinct disadvantage for the race.
Group 2 runs from 7th to 25th positions. We gain about 2/100ths of a second per position. That covers 0.344 seconds. These cars are very close to each other and their positions within this group might be strongly influenced by specific track conditions such as wind, shade, etc.
The third group is from 25th to 31st and there’s a broader range here . The falloff is about 5/100th s of a second per position.
Group 4, which I talked about in the first section, has huge falloff: A quarter of a second (25/100ths) per position.
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