David Smith crunches the numbers for the Coke Zero 400
When I was in middle school, rainy days in physical education class might elicit impromptu games of dodge ball, mindless obstacle courses or — and this is why P.E. teachers were paid the big bucks when I was an adolescent — roll out the cart of basketballs before announcing “have it” and walking over to a cafeteria chair in the corner to read a newspaper for 45 minutes.
Leading up to this weekend’s race at Daytona, one poised to make statistical prognostication seemingly irrelevant, I feel like the P.E. teachers of yesteryear. I yearn to slap the latest restrictor plate track PEER rankings in front of you and retreat back to someplace comfy to read the latest Chuck Klosterman book.
But I’m not going to do that. I like you too much to leave you a disheveled mess of numbers before what could potentially be a disheveled mess of a race.
It’s true that the frantic nature of restrictor plate racing makes a lot of pre-race statistical analysis look futile, but at the same time, it can help push observers in the direction of what to anticipate. At the very least, we can understand the potential story of the race leading up to the point where hell breaks loose and it’s all for naught.
Which drivers will matter in Daytona? Perhaps more intriguingly, which drivers won’t matter at Daytona? This week’s numbers pave the way to those answers.
29 Dating back to this year’s Daytona Speedweeks, 29 different drivers have led at least one lap at Daytona or Talladega in the Gen-6 racecar.
This means that there is a precedent of variety. You will see your favorite driver near the front of the field at some point in Saturday night’s 400-miler, though that won’t be indicative of his or her eventual landing spot. It’s a good rule of thumb to not get too consumed with the amount of laps a specific driver leads in a NASCAR race — after all, there is more than one way to come home the victor — but it is doubly true at restrictor plate racetracks. David Ragan is the most recent plate-track winner and he won at Talladega despite his 20th-place average running position that day.
6.250 and 5.167 This year’s Daytona 500 pitted a final restart consisting of last year’s top title contenders, Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, whose plate track-specific PEERs of 6.250 and 5.167 are two of the top three production ratings in the series.
The 500 victory was secured by Johnson and contested for by Keselowski because both teams coveted track position, essentially making Daytona a pseudo intermediate track. Similarly, Danica Patrick netted the day’s second-best average running position (5.23) en route to her eighth-place finish. Could other teams also emulate this strategy? There is certainly reason to believe that Matt Kenseth and his No. 20 team could get out front and attempt to stay there, based on their attempt to do so at Talladega where he earned a 2.5 average position before finishing eighth.
55% Keselowski topped this year’s Daytona 500 in pass efficiency with 55 percent effectiveness on 442 encounters.
Passing on plate tracks in general is the Wild West, but when a traditionally good passer — Keselowski’s season-long pass efficiency of 53.27 percent currently is the fifth-best mark among full-time Cup drivers — is able to employ one of his best traits as a racer to successful results, life is pretty dandy. Just in case the bottom groove doesn’t emerge from its February hibernation, a potent passer like Keselowski might have an advantage in a race where overtaking is a serious undertaking.
14.8 Carl Edwards is one of the most inconsistent plate track racers, sporting an erratic 14.8 finish deviation across his last 10 points-paying races. Do not misconstrue this as Edwards being a bad Daytona driver, though.
Edwards gets a knock for his ability to produce at Daytona and Talladega, which in a way is true — his plate track-specific PEER of 0.250 ranks 42nd out of 42 drivers going into the weekend — but his good days happen to be pretty swell. In that 10-race span, he finished 31st or worse four times due to various maladies. In the other six races, his average finish is sixth-place. He isn’t as bad as his record indicates; the opposite is true for a fellow Ford driver.
28.6 In the nine points-paying plate track races since his 2011 Daytona 500 triumph, Trevor Bayne has averaged a finish of 28.6.
So you like Bayne for your fantasy team, huh? A steal, you think? Not only is Bayne sneakily one of the most frequent crashers of the last three years in Cup Series competition, but he also does some of his best damage at the plate tracks; he has crashed out of three plate track races since his win in the 500. In the Gen-6, he is a replacement-level driver (0.917 PEER) on plate tracks. Keep in mind: if he is caught in a crash, anything beyond minimal damage might as well be irreparable considering his Wood Brothers Racing team isn’t contending for points. Sure the lights of Daytona could once again shine on Bayne, but beyond that one bright day, the high banks of NASCAR’s mightiest tracks haven’t been kind to him. Tread carefully, Bayne fans.
David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projections, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.