Expectations for Danica Patrick in the 2013 Daytona 500

February 20, 2013

In which the author offers some historical perspective on Ms. Patrick’s accomplishment as well as an explanation of some vagaries of The Great American Race

In 1994, an inexperienced driver named Loy Allen Jr. shocked the NASCAR world by becoming the first rookie to win pole position for the Daytona 500. Any race fan who remembers his name remembers it solely for that accomplishment as he never won a race.

In 2002, another rookie driver won the pole for the Daytona 500. His name was Jimmie Johnson and it is likely only fans of his and trivia fans who remember that particular accomplishment. That is because he went on to win six season championships and 60 races.

In 2013, Danica Patrick, in her first full season racing at the highest level of NASCAR, the Sprint Cup Series, became the first woman to win the pole position for the Daytona 500. One expects her career accomplishments in the Sprint Cup will lay somewhere between those of Jimmy Johnson and Loy Allen, but what about this race?

 

First, let us review what she has accomplished and what lies ahead for her.

As the premier race on the NASCAR schedule, the Daytona 500 is different from every other race with regards to how the field is set. Like any other race, there is a qualifying session. One by one, drivers take their car onto the track and get one chance at completing a lap of the race track as quickly as possible. The driver who is fastest wins the pole position **, the first starting position in the race. In general, the balance of the starting field for the race is filled on the basis of these qualifying laps in order of fastest to slowest. It was in such a qualifying session on Sunday that Danica Patrick earned the pole position for the Daytona 500. If this were any other race on the schedule, the qualifying session would be the sole story for who starts the race and in what order. But the Daytona 500 is unique.

For the Daytona 500, the qualifying session only fixes the first two positions, the pole position earned by Patrick and the position next to her, which was claimed by three-time D-500 winner Jeff Gordon. On Thursday, the qualifiers are divided into two groups (Danica Patrick and all odd-numbered qualifiers in one group, Jeff Gordon and all of the even numbered qualifiers in another) who will race in separate 150 mile events. The finishing order of these two events determines the next 30 drivers in the starting order behind Patrick and Gordon. Once those spots are filled, qualifying times from Sunday are again used to determine the balance of the field. As such, the third fastest driver in Sunday qualifying (Trevor Bayne) can find himself starting the race in 33rd if he has a poor showing on Thursday. Conversely, a driver that was slow in the qualifying session can dramatically improve his starting position with a strong result in his race on Thursday. For Danica Patrick, her finishing position in the race does not matter, but it is still important.

There are two ways Danica Patrick could have a bad day on Thursday. One involves events which erase the benefit of earning the pole position ***. If she is involved in an accident and her car is damaged beyond repair, she will have to race in the Daytona 500 in a backup car, which would force her to relinquish her first place starting position and send her to the back of the field. A major mechanical failure that necessitates an engine change carries the same consequence (.correction: A transmission change would warrant the penalty in any race. For the Daytona 500, an engine change is permitted after the Thursday race.)More subtlely, she could discover that while her car was set up ideally for running alone in the cool weather on Sunday, it is unsuited for racing in a pack of cars in warmer weather. That is, without changes, her car will be uncompetitive in the Daytona 500. As I’ll show shortly, success in qualifying does not necessarily translate to success in the big race.

While Thursday offers the only opportunity to experience race conditions, there are three more opportunities to test the car (or experience heart-breaking misfortune). There are two practice sessions on Friday and one on Saturday in which drivers can take their car onto the track and turn laps at their discretion. These sessions tend to be uneventful as a whole, but it is not unheard of for drivers to crash or have mechanical failures which send them to the back of the field for the start of the race on Sunday.

 

No driver starting in the pole position has won the Daytona 500 since 2000. Dale Jarret was on the pole that year and like the aforementioned Loy Allen, he was not in the lead when the first lap was completed. Unlike Loy Allen, he was in the lead for the most important lap, the final one, and 88 other ones as well. Since then, the average finishing of the pole-sitters has been 17th (Mildly interesting to note that the average finishing position of the three rookies to win the pole was slightly better, 16th). Some of this is due to the nature of the racing at the Daytona International Speedway. Cars will tend to run in one or two large lines (sometimes referred to as drafts), the lengths and arrangements of which change rapidly. A driver can be leading a line of cars one moment and suddenly find himself a number of positions behind when the draft breaks into a separate line and passes him by ***. The tendency of the cars to race very closely nose to tail in these lines makes the probability of a melee wreck involving a substantial number of cars very high; it is a rare Daytona 500 that does not have an incident referred to as “The Big One”; the largest crash of the race involving 10-20 cars with varying degrees of damage.

These features of Daytona racing can make it quite difficult for the inexperienced driver. Danica Patrick does have a couple of advantages over most rookie drivers of the past. One is that she is in top-tier machinery. She drives for a team that won the season championship in 2011 with her car’s engine coming from a team that won eight of the 16 championships before then. Secondly, the cars being raced this year are of a new design; drivers are still figuring out the particulars of their racing characteristics and how to best apply them to Daytona. Most lLessons learned by veterans in 2001 or 2011 will not apply.

Last year, driving an inferior car, Patrick was 29th in qualifying and finished 16th in her race on Thursday (caught in a crash near the end of the race). She started the 500 in 29th position and was caught in a wreck very early in the race and finished 38th. Depending on the strategy she employs in her race on Thursday, she may improve on last year’s result, but she also could run the race without incident and finish further back. ***** As only 43 cars compete in the 500, she is almost certain to improve on her finishing position in the big race. As history shows, most anything is possible and the pole position is no indicator of a strong finish. Barring her being victimized by a wreck not of her doing, I would expect her to finish in the front of the middle; 13th-25th position. 12th place would equal Janet Guthrie’s mark as the top finish by a female driver; anything higher would be a superlative effort.

** The term pole position comes from horse racing. While all forms of motorsport use it in the same fashion, NASCAR’s roots were closer to the origins of the term; many early stock car races took place on tracks also used for horse racing and the fastest qualifying car was placed first in line, next to “the pole”.

*** Only the first place starting position is forfeited; for the purpose of the record books, the fastest driver in qualifying is the pole-sitter even if he or she doesn’t actually start the race in first position. The only exception would be if the car or its fuel was found to be outside of regulations.

**** What I describe here is the general nature of NASCAR racing at Daytona for the better part of my lifetime. Changes in car aerodynamics as well as a repaving of the racing surface has caused variations over the years. It is not yet clear what sort of racing the newly designed cars will favor; the race on Thursday should bring some clarity.

*****Most veteran drivers starting their Thursday race in first would tend to follow a simple strategy: Run up front as long as possible, but if the lead is lost, fall to the back of the pack to ensure that you’re not caught in a wreck. The need for Danica Patrick to get more experience in race conditions may force her to “mix it up” and put her car more at risk than would sometimes be the norm.

 

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