The Fifth of May was a day for underdogs everywhere. The little guy won. The Davids beat Goliath.
Front Row Motorsports’ taming of Talladega Superspeedway, the 2.66-mile track that is home to more action and unexpected turns of events than a pro wrestling cage match, might be the best feel-good story of the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. A former start-and-park team conquered the day. It made many fans feel all warm and fuzzy.
Unfortunately, the moment for fuzzy feelings is likely over. Statistically, David Ragan and David Gilliland, the first- and second-place finishers of the May race at Talladega, overcame long odds and bucked tried-and-true strategy. It doesn’t mean their performance wasn’t spectacular; on the contrary, their end-of-race march carried all the flair of a storybook ending come to life.
+6 and +4 Ragan and Gilliland gained six and four positions, respectively, on the first lap following the green-white-checker restart.
Ragan’s win was, sorry to say, a bit fluky. He averaged a 20th-place running position on the day and went from 10th to first in two laps, taking advantage of plum positioning on the race’s deciding restart. He might not get an opportunity to duplicate the effort — restarts aren’t guaranteed — so, to solidify his giant-killer status, he’ll have to perform far better than his other restrictor plate race outings (finishes of 35th and 22nd) this season.
Gilliland was just one of four drivers (Kurt Busch, Michael Waltrip and Jamie McMurray were the others) to score a net gain of positions from the non-preferred groove during the race. The non-preferred line, especially specific positions within it, is no-man’s land.
33.3% Drivers lining up in the fifth- and seventh-place positions on restarts in the spring race retained those positions just 33.3 percent of the time.
In a late-race situation at Talladega, if a driver comes down pit road in eighth place and gains one spot after a fantastic stop, it’s a death wish. Seriously. The reward for one spot gained (from an even-numbered position) on a final stop is about a 67 percent chance that the recipient will cough up that spot (and then some) on a pivotal restart. When it comes to double-file restarting, especially at Talladega, it’s better to be lucky than good.
Restarts, though, come with cautions. Even though this is a close-proximity race, cautions aren’t guaranteed and caution “trends” are unreliable. The best way to score a win in a restrictor plate race is by running up front.
76.9% Dating back to the 2012 Sprint Unlimited at Daytona, restrictor plate race winners were running either first or second with 10 percent of the race to go 76.9 percent of the time (10 races out of 13).
Additionally, the eventual winner led over 10 percent of the race 11 times (84.6 percent). Ragan’s victory, while cool for his race team and completely unexpected, is an outlier. The best bet to win this type of race starts with a team controlling its own fate. In 2013, one championship driver and team have been better at it than the rest …
4.43 Jimmie Johnson’s average running position across the last three point-paying restrictor plate races is 4.43-place.
The No. 48 team won two of those races, both at Daytona, and enjoyed its highest average running position at Talladega (3.52) en route to a fifth-place finish. Ironically, in a race where track position is reshuffled every lap, average running position is at its highest importance. Avoiding mid-pack crashes and taking advantage of clean air in the lead draft can go a long way for keeping a car unscathed. Johnson’s Chad Knaus-led team, one of the smartest entries in the Cup Series garage area, knows this and the driver executes accordingly. It’s a big reason why Johnson is the top-ranked plate racer per MotorsportsAnalytics.com’s Production in Equal Equipment Ratings (PEER).
2.46 The day’s best average running position in the spring Talladega race belonged to Matt Kenseth, who led a race-high 142 laps and cruised around the high-banked tri-oval with a 2.46-place running position.
Kenseth hasn’t scored a restrictor plate win in 2013, but that doesn’t mean you should expect anything less than immaculate performance. The point leader is a smart drafter, proving this in 2012 when he captured wins in the Daytona 500 and the fall race at Talladega.
4.375 Michael Waltrip ranks fourth in restrictor plate track PEER with a 4.375 rating.
He’s a goofy, polarizing entertainer on television, but that isn’t indicative of his drafting ability. Waltrip is a reliably productive plate racer, demonstrated with his last two outings — top-5 finishes at Talladega and Daytona — with the latter race acting as the site of a ferocious 34th-to-fifth-place run to the checkered flag in the closing laps. He returns to the seat of his own No. 55 car this weekend. With a cloud of negativity and a recent batch of layoffs announced amid his organization’s downward spiral, an attention-shifting victory, not outside the realm of possibility, would provide some relief.
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.
Photos byAction Sports, Inc.