Can Anyone Really Win at Talladega?

Every year at this time, we hear that Talladega is a wild card because “Anyone can win”.  Which, of course, made me wonder — can anyone win?

Who Wins Races?

Let’s start by looking at who wins races in general. I analyzed the last three years and everything we have so far for this year and put it in a table. Why a table? Because tables help you see your way through all the numbers.  What I was interested in was trying to find a correlation between who wins and how “good” a driver they are, as determined by how high they finish in the standings at the end of the year.

The number in each box is the percent of all wins run by drivers in the top 5, top 10, top 15, top 20 and the Chase.  Note that I discarded some situations, like Brian Vickers, who won a race in 2013, but sat out much of the season due to illness and finished 78th in points. Same thing for Hamlin and Stewart, neither of whom ran all the races that year, but won a race.

Note that the new rule – that anyone who wins is automatically in the top 16 is going to invalidate this type of an analysis in the future because someone who would’ve finished lower in points gets boosted up by the win.

Year T5 T10 T15 T20 Chase
2011 44.4 63.9 83.3 91.7 77.8
2012 48.6 88.6 94.3 100 88.6
2013 61.8 70.6 91.2 94.1 85.3
2014 35.5 71.0 96.8 100 100

Here’s a gratuitously colorful graph of the same data, just for Moody:

BSPEED_PercentWinsByFinishingStatus

The take-away message:  It is very unusual for a driver who ends the season outside the top 15 to win a race. In fact, for the last three years, more than 70% of the races are won by the top ten drivers. (And I don’t know about the goofy perspective Excel uses in those graphs.  It makes it look like the numbers for 2013 and 2014 are less than 70% – but they’re not. I promise.)

But What About Talladega?

If Talladega really is an ‘equal opportunity racetrack’ in terms of winning, then the stats ought to look very different over the years. I analyzed Talladega races all the way back to 1990, which is almost 50 races. You know what? It’s not that different from the average.

Year T5 T10 T15 T20 Chase
2011 44.4 63.9 83.3 91.7 77.8
2012 48.6 88.6 94.3 100 88.6
2013 61.8 70.6 91.2 94.1 85.3
2014 35.5 71.0 96.8 100.0 100.0
Talladega 44.7 72.3 91.5 95.8

The stats are almost identical relative to every other race track out there. Out of the 47 races I included, only two were won by drivers outside the top twenty.

Jamie McMurray – 2009 Fall (22)

David Ragan – 2013 – Spring (28)

I omitted the Spring race in 2009 because the driver (some guy named Brad Keselowski (?)) only finished in 38th place – but only ran 15 out of the 36 races. So if you’re currently running below 20th place, you’ve got less than a 5% chance of winning.

Even the year Michael Waltrip – the patron saint of teams hoping for an upset at a plate track – won, he finished 15th.

Wait a Minute… That Can’t Be Right

We all remember David Ragan winning Talladega and Daytona and Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500.  Is it true that if you’re not in the top 15 and you’re going to win, it’s likely going to happen at a plate track?  Let’s look at the exceptions.

Year Driver Finishing Rank Track
2013 Martin Truex, Jr. 16 Sonoma
2013 David Ragan 28 Talladega
2012 Joey Logano 17 Pocono
2012 Marco Ambrose 18 Watkins Glen
2011 Trevor Bayne 53 Daytona
2010 Regan Smith 26 Darlington
2010 Paul Menard 17 Indy
2010 Marcos Ambrose 19 Watkins Glen

This year Aric Almirola won Daytona, and I’ve left that out because we don’t know where anyone is finishing yet. He could be 15th or better still.

But even if you counted him, not even half of the “upsets” take place at restrictor plate tracks.

But I swear I remember all these times…

I gotta tell you. I sweated this one out. I have looked at Dega Data for two straight days because I knew there had to be something interesting in there.

And I finally found it – but it runs counter to all my intuition. This is one of those things scientists have to be very, very careful about – not letting our expectations get in the way of reality. If you expect to see something, you’re more likely to see it.

So why does everyone think anyone can win Talladega?

It’s not at all surprising – it’s called the von Restorff or isolation effect. It’s named after a woman named Hedwig von Restorff (1906-1962), a psychiatrist and children’s doctor who conducted a set of memory experiments and found that an isolated dissimilar item surrounded by otherwise similar items would be better remembered.  In other words, it basically says that when something stands out as being very unusual, we tend to remember it.  For example, consider two lists

A B
9 TCE
21 GTS
3 JWN
16 PDY
QXK QXK
5 RWV
13 MTX
8 LEB
54 DVQ
3 PYN

The same three-letter sequence is in both lists. If I showed you the lists, then took them away and asked you what you remembered, you’d remember the letters better if I’d given you the A list than if I’d given you the B-list.  We tend to remember the unusual. And there’s a reverse effect, in that you may actually remember less about the things that don’t stand out.

Now if only I could wipe Michael Waltrip’s last dance (and 70’s mustache) out of my memory.

3 thoughts on “Can Anyone Really Win at Talladega?”

  1. I don’t think that’s a fair way to characterize the data – in the 4 year span 2010-2013 there were 16 chances at a plate track, and there were 2 ‘non-usual-suspect’ winners. That’s 1 in 8, a pretty respectable rate. For road courses, there were 3 in 8 chances. For every other race, there were three in 120, or a 1 in 40 chance.

    I think most people would accept that road-course racing is a different skill than oval racing. And maybe plate track racing is as well.

  2. It’d be interesting to add in Top 10’s because teams that don’t normally run up front do so at plate races. That is why the notion that anyone can win Dega and Daytona exist. Landon Cassill, Travis Kvapil, Casey Mears and Cole Whitt all ran in the Top 15. They are usually 30th or worse. Just one example.

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