A lot predictions claim that drivers who don’t usually run upfront (i.e. ‘anyone’) are strong candidates to win the Daytona 500.
The Premise: Anyone Can Win
There’s a perception that ‘anyone’ can win at superspeedways. That the nature of pack racing makes it just as likely for a driver who normally finishes in the P15-P20 range to win as a driver who normally posts top tens every race.
That perception is incorrect for superspeedway racing in general, and for the Daytona 500 in particular.
Crew Chief Chris Gabehart summed it up perfectly on Sirius XM. I was in my car when I heard it, so I can’t quote him exactly. What he said was basically that a driver (like Denny Hamlin) who might have a 5% advantage over other drivers at any other track only has a 1-2% advantage at a superspeedway.
My recent review of the best drivers at superspeedway tracks supports this assertion.
In other words, the drivers who win the Daytona 500 tend to be winning drivers. But we tend to remember the cases in which that wasn’t the case.
We can test this by comparing the number of career wins to Daytona wins. If it’s true that anyone can win, we ought to see a large number of drivers who have won Daytona, but not too many other races.
I looked at Daytona 500 winners from 1970-2020 in the analysis that follows. The light blue bar represents the number of Daytona 500 wins and the dark blue bar shows the rest of the wins.
I cut off total wins at 20 on the graph. because otherwise you can’t see the Daytona wins.
The drivers on the left are those who support the proposition that anyone can win the Daytona 500. Trevor Bayne is the poster child for every winless driver in the field. But he’s the only driver whose only win is the Daytona 500.
But there are only eight drivers on this chart with fewer than 10 career wins. That’s 25.8% of all the drivers considered here.
Another Way to Look at the Data
We can also look at this by plotting the percent of total wins that were at Daytona.
Bayne is on the right: 100% of his career wins are Daytona 500 wins. Even though Richard Petty has 5 Daytona 500 wins, they comprise a small fraction of his 200 wins.
What you will see is that drivers who normally don’t show up in the top five or top ten may finish better in superspeedway races like the Daytona 500.
A dark horse winning the Daytona 500 is a rare occurrence in the last 40 years. That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but it’s not as frequent as some people would like you to believe.