Where Do Daytona 500 Winners Start?

No polesitter has won the Daytona 500 since 2000. So if the guy who starts first isn’t winning, where do Daytona 500 winners start?

The Data

I show below the starting positions of all Daytona 500 winners since 1970. Polesitters are shown in red, drivers starting from positions 2-10 are shown in yellow and those starting outside the top 10 are blue.

A column chart showing starting positions of Daytona 500 winners from 1970-2020
Red pillars show those drivers who started from the pole. Yellow bars indicated those who started from P2-P10.

A Divide in Daytona 500 Winner Starting Positions

Before 2001, all but four winners came from the top ten. That’s decidedly not the case after after 2001. Let’s break down the two time frames separately.

  • Of 31 winners from 1970 to 2000:
    • 6 (19.4%) won from the pole
    • 6 (19.4%) won from P2
    • Which means almost 40% of all winners came from the front row.
    • Only four winners (13%) came from outside the top ten.
  • Of 20 winners from 2001 to 2020:
    • 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)
    • 10 winners (50%) came from outside the top 10

What About Those Wins From Back in the Field?

After 2000, we’ve got winners from as far back as 32nd, 34th and 39th. But some of those can be explained.

  • 2009: Matt Kenseth Wins From 39th
    • Kenseth wrecked in his Duel and started from the back 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.
  • 2007: Kevin Harvick Wins from 34th
    • Harvick’s car had a rear-end failure in his Duel.
    • 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.
  • 2011: Trevor Bayne Wins from 32nd
    • Again, Bayne crashed in his Duel race.
    • Bayne came in 3rd during single-car qualifying, right after Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He definitely had a fast car, but he also had some bad luck in the Duels.
  • 2020: Denny Hamlin wins from 21st
    • Hamlin got sent to the back for too many inspection failures.
    • Because of all the other cars going to backups or having their own problems, it only sent him back to 21st.

David Smith at Motorsports Analytics showed that there’s most crashing when you’re nearer the front of the field, but his shift compares 2013-2016 with 2017-2020, and the phenomenon of not winning when starting up front clearly started well before that.

About Diandra 443 Articles
I'm a recovering academic who writes about the intersection of science and life. I'm interested in AI, advanced prosthetics, robots and anything that goes fast. Author, THE PHYSICS OF NASCAR and Editor, BIOMEDICAL APPLICATIONS OF NANOTECHNOLOGY

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