NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Double Take: Practice Speed Doesn’t Guarantee Race Success

As Tom Bowles noticed last week, it’s much easier for drivers to overcome a poor qualifying effort this season.

With the new low-downforce package making passing easier and drivers able to manipulate the air on cars in front, racers like Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick have been able to start mid-pack and come away with a trophy. In fact, only three times has the eventual race winner qualified in the top 10 this season – Daytona, Las Vegas and Martinsville.

Qualifying isn’t as important as it used to be. Sure, it’s nice to start up front, but it’s obvious that one doesn’t need to start in the top 10 to ensure a shot at the win. In fact, the average starting position of the winner through seven races this season is 13.1, a tad lower than last year’s figure of 12.7. It should be noted that that 12.7 is a number skewed low due to Atlanta-winner Johnson’s inability to make a qualifying lap. Throw that race out and the average drops to 8.7.

Yes, it is easier to pass this season and qualifying isn’t as important. But what about practice speeds? After all, those sessions are more indicative of who should be fast come Sunday, with a slew of stats such as fastest 10-lap average giving the field notice of who has a good long-run car and who doesn’t. Do those who run a fast lap on Saturday finish up front on Sunday as is assumed?

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)
Drivers including Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson have found great success despite poor qualifying efforts. (Photo: Nigel Kinrade / NKP)

Twenty-nine drivers have placed in the top 5 in at least one of this season’s 23 practice sessions. In a sport with no more than 40 cars showing up week in and week out, that’s nearly three quarters of the field placing in the top 12.5 percent in a practice. Daytona certainly skews this stat, with seven practice sessions and teams electing to sit out multiple sessions to keep their cars clean. This allows lesser known drivers a chance to place in the top 5, sure, but still – those who claim parity has increased due to the new race package, and to a lesser extent the charter system, have some solid evidence to back up their claim.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into these practices. Nine of the 23 sessions saw the eventual pole-winner place in the top 5. Only once did the pole winner lead a practice session – Austin Dillon at Auto Club Speedway. Placing third in practice is the golden ticket for top-5 drivers when it comes to winning the pole. Five times this season has the pole-winner placed third in a practice session: Chase Elliott at Daytona, Kurt Busch (twice) at Las Vegas, Kyle Busch at Phoenix and Joey Logano at Martinsville.

The average starting position for the drivers who have led a practice session is 9.9 – not bad at all. This ranges from Dillon’s ACS pole to Michael McDowell’s 25th-place run at Daytona. The practice average for second-place finishers? 11. For third, 10; fourth, 9.8; and for fifth, 13.

Likewise, nine of the 23 practice sessions saw the eventual race winner in the top 5. Three times did the winner lead a practice session, each time at a different track configuration: Daytona, Las Vegas and Phoenix.  And the average finishing-position for those in the top 5 in practice ranges from 13.1 for those who placed second to 14.7 for fifth.

It appears then, that just having a fast practice time doesn’t guarantee success in the race. A solid top-15 finish, sure, but not competing for the win. Take note for your fantasy teams. I know as someone who looks at practices to choose my lineup that I will.

But if you look at the average practice finishes for race winners this season, you’ll notice that all have a weekend-long practice average in the top 10 at least once – Johnson and Kyle Busch are the only ones to average outside the top 10, but they have two wins.

  • Denny Hamlin (Daytona): 6.75
  • Johnson (Atlanta): 7.5
  • Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas): 7
  • Harvick (Phoenix): 2.67
  • Johnson (Auto Club): 11.33
  • Kyle Busch (Martinsville): 9
  • Kyle Busch (Texas): 15.5

So while a fast lap in practice doesn’t guarantee a great finish – only 55 of 115 top-5 finishers in practice in 2016 have finished in the top 10 in the race – it’s apparent that a driver needs them in order to win.

What does all this mean? Can you game your fantasy lineups using these stats? Perhaps, but how will you know which of the fast cars are flukes that put down a fast lap and which ones are the real article? What it really comes down to is handling. Harvick noted prior to the Las Vegas race, “Don’t worry about how fast you are in practice,” he said. “Make sure it drives good.”

The race winner will have a high practice average, that much is certain. But for everyone else, Harvick is right. All bets are off.

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