How Many Cars Finish on the Lead Lap of the Daytona 500?

The inherent tradition of the Daytona 500 always brings out people talking about how much better the racing used to be. But was it really?

Memories are selective. Luckily, data isn’t.

To Finish First, You Have to Finish on the Lead Lap

It was common in the early 80s for only 10% of the field (4 cars) to finish the Daytona 500 on the lead lap. The largest number of cars to finish on the lead lap in the 80s was in 1988: 40% of the cars.

A column chart showing the percentage of car finishing on the lead lap in the Daytona 500 1982-2019

Thanks to the increasing reliability of the cars, the percentage of lead lap finishes has gone up over time. Well over 70% of the cars finished on the lead lap in the 2000s and 2010s. The maximum percentage of cars to finish on the lead lap since 1982 is 77.50% in 2016.

But the last three Daytona 500s have produced some of the lowest numbers of cars finishing on the lead lap in recent years, in part because of some spectacular crashes:

  • 37.5% in 2017
  • 25.0% in 2018
  • 35.0% in 2019

You Have to Finish the Race, Too

The percentage of cars that finish the race doesn’t vary quite as much as the percentage finishing on the lead lap, but that number has been down the last three years, too.

A column chart of the percentage of cars finishing the Daytona 500 by year

In the early 1980’s, it wasn’t unusual to have only 40% of the field finish ata Daytona, which helps explain why only 10% finished on the lead lap: there just weren’t as many cars on the track at the end.

Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, it wasn’t unusual to have 70-90% of the cars finish the race.

But again, the number of car finishing on the lead lap of the Daytona 500 the last three years is down because fewer cars are finishing the race: 62.5% in 2017 and 2018, and only 47.5% in 2019. We haven’t seen as high a number of DNFs since 1985.

So what will this year bring?

A return to form?

Or even fewer cars finishing and more of those finishing off the lead lap?

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