Should Lower-Ranked Drivers Have High Hopes for Talladega?

Lower-ranked drivers are smacking their chops this week because we’re at Talladega. I’ve shown previously that drivers who aren’t in the top 10 may have a greater chance of winning at Daytona than at other tracks, but it isn’t much greater and it doesn’t happen very often.

What about Talladega?

Methods

I’ll consider lower-ranked drivers as those outside the top 10, but we’ll also break that down a little, too.

I tabulated the top-ten finishers of all races between 2000 and 2021, along with where each driver ranked the week before. For the Daytona 500, I used the driver’s ranking at the end of the last year. That doesn’t capture things like moving into better (or worse) equipment between seasons, but it’s the best we can do.

I also excluded tracks with too few data points. That means all the new road courses, Nashville, etc.

Winning

Below, I show the ranking of the winners at each track. The top-ranking drivers (1-5 and 6-10) are in red and pink. The next tier of drivers are in blue and green, and the absolute lower-ranked drivers are in autumnal colors of yellow and orange. I included unranked drivers in the ‘Rank 31+’ category.

A stacked column chart showing the ranking of all winners at different tracks for races in 2000-2021.

There’s a lot of red and pink on the graph.

I ordered the tracks by the percentage of races won by drivers ranked in the top five. Most tracks (the ones from Charlotte to Michigan) fall between 46% and 51%. In other words: a top-five-ranked driver wins a little less than half the time.

At 11/21 (52.3%) of the tracks, a top-five ranked driver wins 50% of the races.

The Outliers

At tracks from Michigan to Phoenix, a top-five-ranked driver wins more than half of all races.

  • On the high end, we have Phoenix, at 63%
  • The next track down, Texas, is at 59%.

But we’re really interested in the left side of this graph because those are the tracks where lower-ranked drivers have better chances.

  • At Daytona, drivers ranked in the top 5 get 43.2% of the wins. That isn’t too far away from Charlotte at 46.3%, it’s a big enough jump that it deserves notice.
  • Richmond is close to Daytona at 41.8%
  • Talladega is much lower than either of these: Only 32.6% of race winners rank in the top 5.

And then there’s Sonoma…

The Problem of Road Courses

The era of road-course-ringers is over, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still glupping up statistics. It wasn’t that long ago that teams brought in road-course experts to run these races. As a result, almost 10% of the races at Sonoma between 2000 and 2021 were won by drivers ranked outside the top 30, or who were unranked.

But if we look at only the last ten years, Sonoma falls way down (up?) the chart.

A stacked column chart that also shows the ranking of the winners of races, but this time only from 2010-2021. You can see the impact of the road-course ringers here. Lower-ranked drivers are shown in blue, green, orange and yellows.
The same graph as above, but limited to the years 2010-2020. Darn those road-course ringers!

Just to make it a little easier to see, here are the graphs right next to each other.

The most recent 12 years
A stacked column chart that also shows the ranking of the winners of races, but this time only from 2010-2021. You can see the impact of the road-course ringers here. Lower-ranked drivers are shown in blue, green, orange and yellows.
22 years of data

Look at how much Sonoma changes. It goes from about 20% of its winners ranked in the top 5 to having almost 65% of winners in the top five when you just look at the last decade. And the last decade has seen no drivers ranked 31st or higher (or unranked) win at Sonoma. Watkins Glen goes from 47% top-five-ranked driver winners when we consider 22 years to 37%.

Those variations are because of drivers like A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, plus the fact that we’ve never run more than one race a season at either of these tracks. I’m thus excluding road courses from the subsequent analysis.

What Does That Say About Other Tracks?

In the last decade, 15/21 (71.4%) tracks have 50% of their winners coming from top-5 ranked drivers, compared with 52% when we consider the entire time span from 2000-2021. This suggests it now harder for lower-ranked drivers to win races in general.

At Talladega, only 5% of the races have been won by someone outside the top 10. Talladega winners from the top-5 ranked drivers falls from 32.6% to 26%. Daytona is still higher than Talladega, which is interesting and which I cannot — at present — explain.

However, I will use the larger time span from here on, because we need all the data we can get. The graph above suggests that the situation at Talladega has actually gotten a little more optimistic for non-top-10-ranked drivers, so consider the conclusions below a pessimistic view of the situation.

Top Ten vs Top Five?

The difference between top ten and top five drivers isn’t all that huge. So what if we make the same chart, but we sort by where drivers in the top 10 win? In other words, the graph below orders on the size of red PLUS pink bars.

A stacked column chart that ranks tracks based on how likely lower-ranked drivers are to win. This time, it's ranked using top-ten drivers instead of just top-five

At all but the four leftmost tracks, drivers in the top 10 win more than 70% of races. Daytona edges Talladega out when we consider Top 10-ranked driver winners, with Daytona at 55% and Talladega at 60%.

So it’s true that the chances of lower-ranked drivers winning are better at superspeedways. But we’re talking 10-15%. The top drivers and top teams will win the majority of the races, even at superspeedways.

And yes, I did the same analysis looking at drivers in the top 15.

  • Between 76.2% and 95.4% of all races are won by a driver ranked in the top 15.
  • Only 20% of Daytona winners were ranked out of the top 15
  • At Talladega, only 10% of the winners were ranked 16th and up

At Talladega, 90.7% of the races are won by someone ranked in the top 15.

But What About a Good Finish?

But let’s look beyond winning. Just getting your sponsors airtime makes a big difference for lower-funded teams. Finishing in the top ten — anywhere — can really impact a team’s bankroll, not just in purse money, but in making your sponsor happy.

So I did the same kind of chart for drivers finishing in P2 as I did above for the winners. I ordered the tracks in increasing percentage of winners in ranked in the top 10.

The same stacked column chart, but this time, for P2 finishers.
Road Courses are omitted here because their statistics change significantly from 2000-2010 and 2010-present due to the presence of road-course ringers.

Talladega stands as the best chance for a driver outside the top 10 to come in second.

  • At Talladega, 51.2% of the drivers finishing second came from outside the top-10 ranked drivers.
  • Contrast that with Texas, where the rate is 17.3%.
  • At Daytona, only 41.9% of the second-place finishers come from outside the top-10-ranked drivers.

Talladega is the only track on this chart with more than 50% of the second place finishers coming from drivers ranked outside the top 10.

P3 Finishes

If you look at the same chart for P3, Talladega again wins.

  • Talladega has 78% of third-place finishers coming from outside the top 10.
  • In fact, about 47% of the P3s come from drivers ranked outside the top 20.

You can do this for every position, of course. And since we’ve made the point that Talladega wins the award for most hopeful track for lower-ranked drivers, let’s just look at all the data for Talladega on one graph.

Lower-Ranked Drivers at Talladega

The graph below shows the percentage of each finishing position that comes from drivers in which ranks.

  • By the time we get to P5, more than 65% of drivers are ranked 10th or higher
  • 32% of the P5 finishers are ranked outside the top twenty.
  • By the time you get to P9 or P10, you’re look at 75% of the drivers ranking 11th or higher,
This stacked column chart shows all the rankings for drivers who have finished in the top 10 at all Talladega races.
The red and pink bars represent drivers ranked in the top 10. The rest of the bars represent the lower-ranked drivers.

To bring the point home, let’s compare this type of plot for Talladega with its counterpart for Phoenix.

This stacked column chart shows all the rankings for drivers who have finished in the top 10 at all Talladega races.
This stacked column chart shows all the rankings for drivers who have finished in the top 10 at all Phoenix races to show the difference between Talladega and Phoenix.

Look at how much more green, yellow and gold shows up for Talladega! That translates into more of the top-ten positions being earned by drivers ranking outside the top 10.

Conclusion

A majority of wins at Talladega still go to top-ranked drivers. We tend to remember the lower-ranked drivers who pull out wins. And we remember them precisely because it’s so unusual.

But of all the tracks, Talladega is the one where lower-ranked drivers — those ranked out of the top ten — and sometimes, even out of the top twenty — are most likely to get top 10 finishes.

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