Can You Win the Daytona 500 from the Rear?

The Daytona 500 has a reputation for being able to be won from any starting spot. But is that reputation warranted?

Things We Learned This Week

If you’ve been following my ‘Graph of the Week’ feature this week, you learned that…

Does Where You Start in the Daytona 500 Matter?

You also know — because I harp on it a lot — that there’s very little correlation between starting position and finishing position at superspeedways. Here’s a graph, for example, of the finishes from the 2014 Daytona 500 vs. where the cars started. If there were a perfect correlation, we’d see a straight line.

Starting vs. Finishing Positions for the 2014 Daytona 500 show very little (if any) correlation between where you start and where you finish in this race.
Clearly NOT a straight line. Red triangles indicate drivers who didn’t finish the race due to a crash or car failure (or a driver failure).

One key as to why there’s no correlation is that more cars crash out of the race compared to other tracks. Red triangles show cars that didn’t finish the race.

Focus, for a moment, on the lower left corner. There’s a small concentration of points. Is it possible that starting up front doesn’t guarantee you’ll finish up front, but starting in back makes it unlikely you’ll finish in front?

Where Do Daytona 500 Winners Start?

Here are the starting position of each Daytona 500 winner since 1982. I chose that date because that was when the 500 became the first race of the season.

A column chart showing the starting positions of Daytona 500 winners

There’s an interesting disparity here between the pre 2001 and post 2001, which I’ve pointed out by coloring the pre-2001 races in orange and the post-2001 races in blue.

Before 2001, all but one winner came from the top ten. After 2001, we’ve got winners from as far back as 32nd, 34th and 39th.

  • Of 19 winners from 1982 to 2000:
    • 5 (26%) won from the pole
    • 4 (21%) won from 2nd position
    • Which means 47% of all winners came from the front row.
    • Only one winner (5.3%) came from outside the top ten.
    • The average starting position of winners was 3.8
  • Of 19 winners from 2001 to 2019:
    • No one won from the pole
    • No one won from the first row
    • The closest to the front any winner came from was 3rd. (Dale Earnhardt, Jr. 2004)
    • 3 winners (15.8%) came from 30th position or back
    • the average starting position of winners was 13.9.

Frequency of Wins From Different Starting Positions

Here’s a histogram of how many drivers have won from each position. It’s the same data as above, just a different way of looking at it.

A histogram of the starting positions of Daytona 500 winners. Most of them come from the first 15 positions, but there are outliers

This way of looking at the data highlights some additional features

  • 86% of all Daytona 500 winners started in the top 15 positions.
  • Starting from the very front was important pre-2001, but you seem to be able to start further back and still win in the post-2001 era.
  • Two people won from 19th place (in 2001 and 2002)
  • No one’s won the Daytona 500 since 1982 starting in 20th to 31st place.

But What About Those Last Three Points?

Everyone remembers the exceptional races, where a ‘dark horse’ driver started from the back and won it all. Let’s look at those three winners who started outside the top 30.

2009: Matt Kenseth Wins From 39th

Surely winning from almost the very, very back proves anyone can win, even if they have a weak car, right?

Maybe not. Kenseth wrecked in his Duel. He started in the back because he was in a backup car. It took him 40 laps to move from 39th to 3rd and then (with the exception of pit stop cycling) he was in the top 10 most of the rest of the race. He clearly had a good car, but we didn’t see it because he crashed out of his Duel race.

2007: Kevin Harvick Wins from 34th

Here’s another case of a good driver who DNF’d his Duel. His car had a rear-end failure. In the Daytona 500, it took Harvick 30 laps to move up to 4th and he won by two-hundredths of a second on a last-lap shootout with Mark Martin.

Trevor Bayne Wins from 32nd

Okay: Here’s one I probably can’t dismiss, right?

Trevor Bayne’s 2011 surprise win for the Wood Brothers. And in a year when the Wood Brothers weren’t even running the full schedule.

Again, Bayne crashed in his Duel race. And can you really call him an underdog when he qualified in 3rd, right after Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ? If he’d been a tenth-and-a-half faster, he would’ve cemented his starting spot then.

Conclusions

If you’re betting on the race (or have a fantasy team), drivers starting within the top are your best bet. However, due to the nature of superspeedway racing and the fact that crashes don’t car if you’ve got a good car, even the top-starting cars may not finish well.

You can look at last night’s first Duel as an example. Daniel Suárez, running in P10 gets crashed due to bad communication among the Ford teams and not only is knocked out of the Duel, is knocked out of the 500. They same type of tragedy can befall any driver, no matter where he starts.

Upcoming

You might notice that I’m trying for shorter, more frequent posts, so I won’t be following every lead in every dataset right away. Keep an eye out for my graph of the day.

  • I’ll throw out a couple theories on the pre/post-2001 division.
    • I’m looking at what happens to the pole winners in the Daytona 500
    • There’s also an interesting correlation with how the number of cars finishing on the lead lap has changed since 1982 (Hint: it’s gone way up.)
  • I’ll have an opinion piece soon on the Natalie Decker hype that is being propounded mostly by male writers. Those of us who spent most of our lives in male-dominated fields are very familiar with something called critical mass. One woman doesn’t change a field, even if she’s spectacularly successful.

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