Where Do Daytona 500 Pole Winners Finish?

Since 2001, not a single Daytona 500 winner started from the pole. So how do the pole winners fare? And why the difference from pre-2001?

The Daytona 500 Divide

Yesterday’s blog produced this surprising graph.

A column chart showing the starting positions of Daytona 500 winners from 1982-2019
The red pillars show the drivers who started from the pole and went on to win the Daytona 500.

From 1982-2000, five winners started from the pole and another four from the second position. 47% of the winners started on the front row.

From 2001-2019, not only was there no Daytona 500 winner from the front row, drivers won from as far back as 39th.

In my attempt to figure out what happened to create this divide, my husband (also a physicist) suggested looking at what happened to the pole winners to see if that might give us a clue.

Daytona 500 Pole Winners

The graph below shows the finishing positions of all Daytona 500 pole winners from 1982-2019. Grey bars indicate DNFs due to equipment failure or (more likely) crashes.

A column chart of the finishing positions of all Daytona 500 pole winners from 1982-2019

While this graph doesn’t solve the mystery of the Daytona 500 divide, it does highlight the unpredictable nature of superspeedway racing. Pre-2001, most of the times where the pole starter didn’t win was because they were knocked out of the race.

But that’s not the case with later races.

Some Possibilities To Investigate

  • Cars have become much more reliable over time. Engine failures used to be fairly common, but now we only see two or three a year. Are there just more cars finishing the race these days? If this is true, then we might see similar features in races besides the Daytona 500, especially in other superspeedway races.
  • As multi-car teams became common, there were a lot more ‘good’ cars in a race. Did that contribute to cars being able to win regularly from as far back as P15?
  • Are there more crashes today than there used to be? Do they take out more cars?

I’ll answer some of those questions over the next few blogs. If you have your own hypothesis, I’d love to hear it.

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