As the circuit reaches its traditional halfway point this weekend during the annual July visit to Daytona, it got me thinking about how hard it is to handicap a plate race. I’ve got some experience here in that rating drivers, teams and tracks for fantasy racing games is what I’ve done for a living at another job. Therefore, I thought I’d delve in a little deeper to see if the numbers could pluck a driver out of the pack for us.
I found that there’s something to be said for leading laps instead of logging them at Daytona. Tony Stewart (three wins), Jeff Gordon (six) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (two) rank 1-2-3 in laps led in Daytona points races among active drivers. Stewart has led 633 circuits, Gordon 574 and Junior 386. Of the 20 Daytona wins spread among 11 drivers in the weekend’s field, Smoke, Gordon and Junior can claim 11.
So while it’s always difficult to predict a winner on the plate tracks, it’s safe to say that if a driver can lead the pack — playing the role of pied piper — odds are there’s a reason he’s ahead. Other drivers trust him and will work with him to get to the front and stay there. In short, the respect quotient is higher.
The aforementioned trio also has a bundle of starts on the 2.5-mile monstrosity, so the opportunity to lead more laps is natural. Therefore, let’s look at some percentages. Stewart’s 633 laps led have come while running a total of 3,661 circuits. That’s a series-best 17.2% of Stewart’s laps spent on point — and a pretty impressive percentage, at that.
Next on the list? Kyle Busch, who’s led 12.7% of the laps he’s clicked off (238 of 1,872). Third, to no one’s surprise, is Junior, at a 10.9% clip (386 of 3,531) followed by Gordon (9.7) and Denny Hamlin (7.2).
Some notably bad percentages? Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya (.16%), two-time winner Jamie McMurray (.25% — leading only six very important laps in 2,372 circuits), Kasey Kahne (.41%) and Jeff Burton (1.8%).
Keep in mind that what’s listed above factors only the 400- and 500-mile events each season, and there are some drivers that, despite what the numbers do or do not tell you, are going to factor.
Kevin Harvick is the perfect example. 18 starts, seven top 10s, one admittedly big 500 win and only 129 of 3,049 laps led. Aside from the victory, there’s nothing to see here. However, consecutive Bud Shootout wins in 2009 and 2010 suddenly bump him up to the “Watch Out For…” category on any given race day on the beach.
Other drivers hit you from the chicken bone section. Take David Ragan. He was swept up in a crash in the 2008 500 and finished 42nd. Other than that, he’s never finished worse than 16th in a points race. In fact, in those six races, he averages a 9.5-place finish. That’s hard to do on a plate track, especially for a young buck.
And then there’s guys like Elliott Sadler, who late in his career has learned to play a pretty mean chess game. No, there are no points wins for Ehl-Eeott, but he’s got a Duel triumph and nine top 10s in the big shows — and we all remember that heartbreaker he lost to Matt Kenseth in 2009. Hell, Sadler has five showings of sixth or better in the last nine Daytona races! If that’s not a contender, I don’t know what is.
Now normally, I’d say something along the lines of, “but Sadler most likely will not win…” because he hasn’t before, but we’re talking about the Firecracker 400 here. This is the Race of Underdogs, where Greg Sacks, Jimmy Spencer, John Andretti, Greg Biffle and yes, McMurray, find ways to ignore their plate-racing (or overall career) records and pull the feel-good win. And that’s not factoring in the Pete Hamiltons and Derrike Copes who’ve driven to unlikely immortality in the 500.
And those names are exactly what make this so hard.
So the point of this little diatribe? What’s it all boil down to and where do the numbers lead us? Can Matt gaze upon the tea leaves and read us a winner?
Nope. Hell, I’m picking Kurt Busch. That 0-19 record at Daytona (nary a Shootout or Duel win, either) got me thinking he’s a lock.
Now, on to our questions. You know the drill here.
Q: McMurray is proof that nice guys sometimes finish first. His Daytona 500 win was as emotional as it was unexpected. He is growing into a great restrictor-plate driver, and I have to think is one of the favorites for Daytona. My question is how many have won both the Daytona 500 and Firecracker/Pepsi/Coke 400 in the same year? Here’s hoping Jamie adds his name to the list! — Jacqueline Timmel, Missouri
A: OK, more stat-speak. Ready?
Fireball Roberts was your first sweeper, when he won the 500 in what was then the Firecracker 250 in 1962. Cale Yarborough did it six years later after the Firecracker went to 400 miles (he also won the previous season’s July race). Not to be confused with Cale, LeeRoy Yarbrough equaled the feet in the Summer of Love.
Interestingly, Richard Petty and David Pearson won seven of eight from ’72-’76, but neither doubled up. And the last guy to do it was Bobby Allison, when he drove the old DiGard Gatorade Buick to the sweep in 1982.
After the smaller carbs were used in 1987 (the final year the race was run strictly on the 4th of July) and the advent of restrictor plates, it’s proven to be such a crapshoot that sweeping the 500- and 400-milers in one season has, to this point, not been done. And we all know Kurt Busch is going to win this week, so your boy Jamie will have to start over next year.
Hey, I’m only kidding.
Q: Matt, my friend and I were talking over a cold one and after Randy LaJoie got nailed wondered if NA$CAR only uses urine tests when it tests for drugs. And if they use hair tests, why haven’t they done it with Jeremy Mayfield? Thanks. — Kevin D.
A: According to the NASCAR Substance Abuse Policy, competitors and officials can be tested using urine, blood, saliva, hair and/or breath tests.
As for Mayfield, Judge Graham Mullen introduced the idea of having a hair sample tested when Mayfield first won an injunction against the sanctioning body in July, 2009.
“The harm to Mayfield substantially outweighs harm to NASCAR,” Mullen said. “Mr. Mayfield can cough up a hair sample, and we can find out from a hair sample if he is a meth head.”
To this point, however, Mayfield has not submitted a hair sample, nor has he been asked to. But hair tests, like any other, aren’t foolproof and typically date back approximately 90 days, depending on what drugs were used or are being test for.
Q: The Kasey Kahne talk has died down, and I’m still eager to know where my man is going to be next year! What is the latest? And what is the latest sponsor rumors? Is Bud still in the running? Thanks Matt, you’re always helpful! — 9 Fan Soon to be a 5 Guy
A: I wondered when I’d hear from you again, 9-to-5. Our own Tom Bowles reported that Rick Hendrick was in talks with James Finch to put Kahne in the seat of the 09 for 2011. Nothing more has been divulged, but I’d expect Kahne to land somewhere in HMS/SHR/Phoenix-land. I liken it to a giant puzzle with many intricate pieces: Everything has to fit together just perfect, and with drivers, multiple sponsors, crew chiefs, crews and hardware, there’s a lot to sort through to make it all interlock and then actually work.
It’s my understanding that you’ll hear the Budweiser-to-Harvick announcement, though, before Hendrick has the Kahne deal shored up and ready for public consumption.
OK, that’s our time, boys and girls. Thanks for hanging around ‘til the end, and enjoy the midsummer classic this weekend. And since you made it all the way, here’s your video link of the week, an awesome piece on Sacks’s unlikely win in the 1985 Firecracker 400.