Is Avoiding Accidents the Most Important Skill for Winning the Daytona 500?

Brad Keselowski noted that one reason he thinks Denny Hamlin is wins at Daytona is that Hamlin is good at avoiding accidents. And he isn’t.

Is Brad right?

  • Do the ‘best’ drivers always win the Daytona 500?
  • Are drivers who are better at avoiding accidents more likely to win the Daytona 500?

Do the ‘Best’ Drivers Always Win the Daytona 500?

The Daytona 500 has a reputation for being a race anyone can win, but I’ve shown that this isn’t true. Most Daytona 500 winners are the usual suspects.

But, unlike other tracks where there is a strong correlation between where a driver starts and where he finishes, Daytona is one of those places where being on the pole isn’t necessarily an advantage.

Polesitters Don’t Win the Daytona 500 Anymore

In the 70s, winning was a question of endurance. The majority of DNFs were from car failures. It makes sense that the same thing that made the polesitter fast might also make the car less robust.

But car durability improved throughout the 80s and 90s. The polesitter stood a good chance to win (or at least finish in the top ten) as long as he or she didn’t get involved in an accident.

But the last time a polesitter won the Daytona 500 was in 2000.

The graph below shows where polesitters finished. Dark grey bars indicate a DNF and light grey indicates involvement in one or more accidents.

Another column chart showing where Daytona 500 pole sitters finished, but this time showing which cars had accidents and/or DNFs
Dark grey bars indicate a DNF and light grey indicates involvement in one or more accidents.

From 2001-2020, fourteen out of 20 polesitters were involved in accidents.

Most Daytona 500 Winners Still Come from the Top 10*

The graph below shows where Daytona 500 winners started. The catch is that this is where they started, not necessarily where they qualified. For example, William Byron qualified on the front row this year, but he’s having to go to backup, so he’ll start in the rear.

A column chart showing the starting positionns of Daytona 500 winners
In this chart, red means that the driver started on the pole, yellow means he started from P2-P10, blue is P11-P20 and black is out of the top 20. The cross hatching in 2017 indicated the only driver (Kurt Busch) who was involved in an accident and went on to win.

The asterisk is there because a large number of the drivers who won from far back in the field qualified well and ended up starting near the back. The exact number of cars sent to the back is hard to ferret out because of the arcane qualifying rules for the Daytona 500.

The original post gives the specifics of how drivers starting from 39th or 34th managed to win. Rarely did the driver qualify badly.

This shows that having a fast car isn’t irrelevant to winning the Daytona 500. You don’t have to be fastest, but you do have to be fast.

But today, that isn’t enough.

Avoiding Accidents

Avoiding accidents is much harder today than it was at any time in the past.

More Accidents and More Cars in Accidents

The number of accidents per race stayed around 3-4 from 1980 until about 2010.

  • In the 1980s, we had an average of 3.0 accidents per race
    • The lowest number of accidents in any race was 1.
    • The maximum number of accidents in any race during that decade was 5.
    • This average went up to 3.9 for the 1990s and the 2000s
  • In the 2010s, 6.0 accidents per race was the average
    • No race had fewer than 3 accidents.
    • The highest accident rate was 12 accidents in one race.

But the number of cars involved in accidents has increased steadily, as shown in the graph below.

A column graph of the number of cars involve in Daytona 500 accidents and spins 1980 to 2020
  • In the 1980’s…
    • Accidents claimed an average of 6.8 cars each race.
    • The largest number of cars involved in accidents in one race was 15.
  • In the 2010’s,
    • An average of 29.7 cars were involved in accidents per race.
    • The most cars involved in accidents in one race is 51.

Some cars get in more than one accident. That’s how we end up with a race with 40 cars and 51 cars involved in accidents. For instance, one driver was involved in four accidents by himself in a single race.

The more accidents, and the more cars collected in those accidents, the more likely any car is to be taken out by an accident. Thus, the skill of avoiding accidents has become much more important.

Are Some Drivers Better at Avoiding Accidents than Others?

The Daytona 500 Accident Index is how many accidents each driver is involved with divided by the number of Daytona 500s run. I only include drivers with six or more Daytona 500 runs and only Daytona 500s from 1990 on.

I show below only drivers who drove at least one Daytona 500 in the last two years.

Remember: This just tabulates who’s in accidents. I make no insinuations as to fault .

A column graph showing the number of accidents involved in divided by the number of Daytona 500s run for drivers who have run at least one Daytona 500 in the last two years, and have run at least 6 Daytona 500s total.
The accident index is the number of accidents divided by the number of races. An index over 100 means you’ve been in more than one accident in a race at least once. This graph covers Daytona 500s from 1990-2020
  • Nine drivers from this group have a Daytona 500 accident index at or below 50%. Recent title contenders in this group include
    • Harvick
    • Truex, Jr.
    • and, just as Brad Keselowski said… Hamlin.
  • Seven drivers fall between 50% and 99%. This group includes
    • Kyle Busch
    • Kurt Busch
    • Joey Logano
    • Aric Almirola
  • Seven drivers are between 100% and 150%
    • Austin Dillon
    • Ryan Blaney
    • and, yes, Brad Keselowski fall into this group. Of the 11 Daytona 500s Keselowski’s run, only two were acccident free.

*Chase Elliott is not on this graph because he’s only run five Daytona 500s so far. His Daytona 500 accident index is the highest of any driver at 160%.

The data show that some drivers are better than others at avoiding accidents The big question is why. Some spotters (or drivers) may be better at seeing potential trouble spots. Some drivers might not feel comfortable riding in the back to avoid a potential wreck. And some drivers might just be unlucky.

How Does Accident Avoidance Affect Winning?

No driver with an accident index over 100% is a Daytona 500 winner. Of course, a lot of drivers with accident indices under 100% also aren’t Daytona 500 winners either.

But: Daytona 500 winners span the range of accident indices. Austin Dillon has the highest accident index (100%) among Daytona 500 winners over this time period.

KEY: Accidents Can Help Accident-Prone Drivers

Bear with me on this. The key for those drivers who aren’t good at staying out of wrecks seems to be a lot of accidents that collect other drivers.

  • In 2011, when Jaime McMurray won, there were 13 DNFs.
  • In 2018, when Austin Dillon won, there were 15 DNFs.

But a lot of DNFs only work in your favor when you’re not one of them!

Conclusion

Being a good driver isn’t enough to win the Daytona 500. Neither is avoiding accidents.

You need both skills AND you need a little luck. Which is why I think drivers like Keselowski get so frustrated with superspeedway racing, where you don’t control you own destiny.

BONUS: Accident Indices of the All-Time Greats

I wanted enough data to include Dale Earnhardt, who stands out by far when it come to superspeedway racing metrics.

  • In 9 starts, Ricky Craven had no accidents. He joins Wally Dallenbach, Jr. and Joe Ruttman in having a 0% average over the time span considered.
  • Darrell Waltrip, Bill Elliott, and Mike Skinner are all at 11.1% or below
  • Mark Martin is at 20.8%
  • Jeff Gordon: 30.4%
  • Dale Earnhardt: 33.3%
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: 38.9%
  • Tony Stewart: 41.2%
  • Rusty Wallace: 56.3%
  • Jimmy Johnson: 57.9%
  • Carl Edwards: 75%

Very few drivers avoid accidents altogether — not even the Earnhardts. There’s some sweet spot where you can drive aggressively enough to take chances, but manage not to cause or get caught up in other people’s wrecks.

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