Kevin Rutherford · Tuesday November 12, 2013
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ final race of the season is an interesting affair — and not just because of the implications of the season finale. For the second time in a year, the race will start during the day, but will end under the lights, following in the footsteps of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Coca-Cola 600. Unlike Charlotte, which begins just before dusk and is run mostly after dark, this weekend’s FORD EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway will see mostly daylight conditions before a finish under the lights.
It’s been well-documented that cars handle differently between day and night; though a driver might have a stunning race going at first, a change of conditions could ruin his or her day completely — and vice versa. Sometimes, racers rise to the occasion, making the necessary changes and acclimating to what could be a completely different environment. But sometimes, there are competitors who, for whatever reason, can’t even buy any luck when the day becomes night.
In the age of Racing-Reference especially, it’s easy to figure out the average finishes of drivers over a given season. When it comes to checking out performance during different track conditions, that can be a bit tougher.
Thirty-five races into the 2013 season, 10 races have been run under the lights, starting with the spring date at Texas. Jimmie Johnson’s been the best this season during the daytime hours, but who tops the charts when the lights come on? Yep, Matt Kenseth.
Entering Homestead, Johnson has an incredibly high average finish when the race finishes during the day — 8.56, to be exact. That’s nearly three positions better than his closest competitor, speaking exclusively in terms of drivers who have run every race in 2013.
But the difference between Johnson’s performance at day and at night this season has been — pardon the pun — day and night. In the 10 races run under the lights in 2013, the current championship leader has an average of 16.2 — almost twice his average during the day and a nearly eight-spot increase.
Meanwhile, Kenseth’s about the opposite — though with less of a difference between the two. During the daytime, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has an average finish of 13.72 — solid, but only ninth out of the 28 drivers who have run every race. On the flip side, he’s scored a 9.1 average under the lights, including three wins this season.
Kenseth’s production during night races hasn’t been beat in 2013, but his closest competitor isn’t far off. In fact, it’s also his closest rival in the points. Kevin Harvick is the only other driver to score an average finish below 10th at the night races this year, coming in at 9.3 on the strength of two wins under the lights this season. But unlike his contemporaries, Harvick doesn’t have as much of a drop over on the day side, scoring an average finish of 12th.
Perhaps the most telling example of differences between day and night racing resides not with drivers in the Chase, but with one right outside it.
Brad Keselowski barely missed out on making the Chase in September, even though his performance on the vast majority of the tracks was exemplary. He’s scored an average finish of 11.4 during the daytime, second only to Johnson. His nighttime average? Well, if you thought the jump for Johnson was crazy, get a load of this: Keselowski’s average during night races in 2013 is 24.7.
That, of course, is a 13-spot drop from his average during every other race and includes a win, captured last month at Charlotte. The other nine races, all of which occurred before the start of the Chase, represent an average of 27.33, with six finishes outside the top 30. Had he been unable to pick up the pace a bit with his Charlotte win, he would nearly have had the worst average of anyone during this season’s night races among those running every race — only beating David Reutimann and Travis Kvapil, with their 27.9 and 28.8 marks, respectively. With the win, his stock increases slightly, now besting Danica Patrick, Casey Mears and David Ragan in addition to BK Racing. But that’s it. Really.
In other words, it’s worth noting that Brad Keselowski just might have made the Chase had it not been for some awful results under the lights this year. You don’t have the second-best average at races run during the daytime among championship-contending drivers without royally messing up elsewhere, and it looks like that’s exactly where that team’s bad luck struck the most in 2013.
If things go the way they’ve been going, Kenseth and Harvick might have a real shot Sunday — as long as they can stick around until the point when day becomes night. If Johnson drops like a rock at that point and his competitors swoop in to capitalize, the championship could be a lot closer than anticipated. Of course, even if Johnson maintains his 16.2 average, he’ll still win regardless, so it may not matter one bit. At the very least, it could be our championship contenders swapping the lead by race’s end, the change coming once the moon rises over Homestead. The question will be whether or not the difference matters.
Top Five, Worst Five in Average Finish — Races Finishing During the Day
1. Jimmie Johnson – 8.56
2. Brad Keselowski – 11.4
3. Clint Bowyer – 11.72
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. – 11.96
5. Kevin Harvick – 12
24. David Gilliland – 26.84
24. Danica Patrick – 26.84
26. David Ragan – 27.52
27. Travis Kvapil – 30.76
28. David Reutimann – 32.4
Top Five, Worst Five in Average Finish — Races Finishing at Night
1. Matt Kenseth – 9.1
2. Kevin Harvick – 9.3
3. Ryan Newman – 10.2
4. Kyle Busch – 12.2
5. Joey Logano – 12.6
5. Kurt Busch – 12.6
24. Danica Patrick – 24.8
25. Casey Mears – 26
26. David Ragan – 26.3
27. David Reutimann – 27.9
28. Travis Kvapil – 28.8
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