In 1982, the Daytona 500 was run at the very beginning of the NASCAR Cup season, rather than as its second event. The date stuck, and the Great American Race has been run as the first points race of the year ever since.
For all drivers running a full season (which is to say most), the 500 is the first etching on an otherwise clean slate. And when the eventual winner rolls into Victory Lane, things only look up for him or her. The points lead, a jump on the competition, a potential early favorite for the title – what could go wrong?
Well, not a lot, for most. But it’s not necessarily a sign of better things to come, either.
Since 1982, the winner of the Daytona 500 has found Victory Lane at the next series race just twice. The first instance came when Jeff Gordon took the checkered flag at Rockingham in 1997. The second? Matt Kenseth, 2009, Fontana.
In fact, the winner of the Daytona 500 isn’t even likely to finish in the top 10 at race two. Since 1982, the 500 victor has an average finish of 14th. While Gordon and Kenseth’s achievements rank at the top of the board, 2011 winner Trevor Bayne had the worst luck, finishing 40th after his improbable victory. Also close by: Gordon’s 39th in 1999.
Sure, there are some good finishes in there besides the wins. In particular, 1992-97 featured only one 500 champ finishing outside the top 10: Sterling Marlin, 1995, 12th. But in general, the results at race two are average at best. In fact, guess what? No one’s been able to come close to the victory since Kenseth in 2009. Jimmie Johnson has quite a few wins at Phoenix, though. Maybe this is the year that’s reversed.
But is the 500 winner a hopeful for the title after rattling off a victory in race one? Well, sort of. Five races into the season, from 1982 to 2012, two drivers have been leading the championship: Davey Allison in 1992 and Dale Jarrett in 1996. The average placing for the 500 victor, after that point in the standings is sixth. The only major drop in those years (not counting Cale Yarborough, who ran a part-time schedule in the ’80s) was Jamie McMurray, who went from leading the points in 2010 at Daytona to dropping to 18th by race five.
All in all, only two drivers who won the Daytona 500 since 1982 have gone on to win the championship, both of whom came from Hendrick Motorsports. Gordon did it in 1997, as did Johnson in 2006. Oh, which reminds me. The last time Jimmie Johnson won the 500, he also won the championship. Could starting off on the right foot prove beneficial for Hendrick Motorsports and its No. 48 team?
I have a good feeling that Johnson’s going to be raising the averages a bit come the next few races. Though his Chevy wasn’t the strongest in the field, he’s already shown that the team has its stuff together. And after two straight years of no title, that Lowe’s bunch, which is so used to being the best, has to be feeling pretty good right now.
Realize that such statistics are often more about luck than true patterns. That said, with drivers’ tendencies to either win or lose after emerging victorious at Daytona are interesting to see. It shows which guys were able to maintain their dominance after a big week, and which really tanked.
Oh, by the way: the average Daytona 500 finish of the guy who wins the second race of the season? 18th.
So, Marcos Ambrose, there’s that.
*Top Finishes For Daytona 500 Champs In Second Race*
*1st Place* – Twice (Jeff Gordon ’97 & Matt Kenseth ’09)
*2nd Place* – Four times (Davey Allison ’92, Sterling Marlin ’94, Dale Jarrett ’96 & Jimmie Johnson ’06)
*3rd Place* – None
*4th Place* – Once (Bill Elliott ’87)
*5th Place* – Twice (Dale Jarrett ’00 & Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ’04)