How sports analytics will shape NASCAR's Daytona 500

Matt Baker, Tampa Bay Times on

Published in Auto Racing

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The traditional view of the Daytona 500 is that it’s a crash-filled crapshoot that comes down to being in the right place at the right time — or not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“That certainly is an element,” NASCAR veteran David Ragan said, “but I don’t believe that to be 100% true.”

Instead, Ragan thinks drivers can make some of their own luck with a little push from the buzzword that has become commonplace in stick-and-ball sports: analytics.

Ragan digests data in a way he didn’t (and couldn’t) when he was preparing for his Daytona 500 debut 17 years ago. He had to go to Roush Fenway Racing’s library just to get a disc of the previous year’s race to watch on his portable DVD player during the flight down. Now that footage is readily accessible in the cloud, along with breakdowns of various scenarios that might play out Sunday in the Cup Series’ season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

Which lane works better in late restarts? Do drivers that hang in the back through the first 300 miles finish well? Who gave the best aerodynamic push? When? With or without a third lane on the track?

“All of the above,” 2020 Cup champion Chase Elliott said. “We’re thinking about all of it.”

Some of that is by necessity. NASCAR has shortened testing and practice time, so teams and drivers can’t try as many tweaks during race weekend. Data and team studies, then, fill in the gaps.

Listen to drivers at Wednesday’s Daytona 500 media day, and you hear other analytical advantages — ones that sound a lot like the edges baseball front offices and football coaches seek.

Though the 500 has had its share of unexpected champions, a handful of drivers are almost always in the lead pack for the final laps. Tampa-born Denny Hamlin has won three times with five other top-five finishes. Joey Logano has led 11 of the last 12 runnings of the Great American Race and won it in 2015. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has led 148 laps — including the only one that mattered a year ago — at the track since 2017.


Even if luck played into their triumphs, they weren’t in position to take advantage of that luck by accident. Ragan uses the numbers to reverse-engineer their victories.

“How they race in the middle of the race, some of their strategies on pit road,” Ragan said. “Are they always taking fuel only and keeping track position? Do they take tires to try to have a little better balance? You can start to see a little bit of a trend in stuff like that.”

Learning those trends serve a few purposes. One is essentially a scouting report on the competition, like how the Rays were at the forefront of defensive shifts by figuring out where batters were more likely to hit the ball and lining up accordingly.

“Our sport’s no different,” Ragan said. “We kind of know what others will tend to do based off of their history, and that helps us make better decisions.”

The other edge is personal. If a certain line or strategy keeps working for Hamlin or Logano, maybe it can work for Bubba Wallace or Austin Cindric.

“This guy succeeded in this scenario. Why?” said Cindric, the ‘22 race champion. “This guy failed in this scenario. Why? What are high-percentage things that you can do to prevent or encourage some of those situations, and where do you find yourself in the moment that you can affect that?”

Most of those answers are decided long before the engines start — like Gators coach Billy Napier checking the go-for-it-binder that was refined well ahead of time. By the time the white flag drops in a wheel-to-wheel battle at almost 200 mph, it’s too late to come up with a plan.

“There are a million, trillion situations that can pop up …” reigning series champion Ryan Blaney said. “You just try to take all of the info and experience that you can, and hopefully you’re in a spot where you can use it.”

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