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.

 

One of the growing pains NASCAR has from trying to break out of the relatively insulated world of motor sports into the top tier of sports is the things that motor sports fans are accepting of are unacceptable to outsiders.

This is evident in reaction to a couple of controversies over this past weekend’s Daytona 500.

One controversy surrounds the circumstances of the race ending.  With 54 (of 200)  laps to go, Matt Kenseth passed Elliot Sadler for the lead of the race.  An accident further back in the field brought racing to a halt. As the cars slowly circled the track, rain started to fall and with 48 laps to go, the cars were brought to a halt.  Shortly thereafter, NASCAR determined that the rain was unlikely to stop soon enough to resume the race in a timely fashion.  As NASCAR rules only require 50% of the race to be run before being official, Matt Kenseth was the winner.

A local sportscaster objected to this, saying that it’s the Daytona 500, not the Daytona 380.  Joining him in this line of reasoning is CNBC’s Sports Biz blogger Darren Rovell. Rovell is flabbergasted that the race was not resumed and run to completion:

To NASCAR fans in the stands, this wasn’t blasphemy. There was no explanation needed. No interview with NASCAR president Mike Helton to explain the call. After all, it was only six years ago that Michael Waltrip won a rain-shortened Daytona 500. You might have heard of that race — the Daytona 272?

Can you believe that not a single member of the media at the Daytona 500 questioned the authorities as to why the rules allow this to happen? I know this because I e-mailed with NASCAR’s managing director of corporate communications, Ramsey Poston, who told me my line of questioning was the first time the idea of canceling the race was even talked about with a reporter.

A possible reason why there was no questioning  as to why NASCAR “let this happen” is that this situation is the norm for all forms of motorsports.  The  Indy Racing League operates under identical rules for its oval track races.  Its flagship race, the Indy 500, ended under similar circumstances in 2007, 85 miles short of the finish.  In 1976, the race was run the bare minimum, 255 miles, before being brought to a rain-induced end (see Indy 500 rain postponement history).  At least NASCAR and IRL give its fans some sort of guarantee. The rules of the international king of motor sport, Formula One,  state that once a race is begun, it can only be two hours in length, regardless of whether rain impedes or stops the racing.  Formula One’s crown-jewel race, the Grand Prix of Monaco was affected by this rule in 1997, and in 1991, the Australian Grand Prix was run to a mere 17% completion before coming to an end.

Coming from a general sports background, Rovell is almost certainly ignorant of the situation in the other forms of auto racing. Prior to NASCAR trying to break into the upper echelons of sport, it wouldn’t have had journalists covering it who were so ill-informed on racing in general.

The second controversy involves an accident between Dale Earnhardt Jr and Brian Vickers.  It stems from an incident in the second tier Nationwide Series race the day before.  After colliding with Steve Wallace (~40 seconds into the video),  Leffler was penalized five laps for aggressive driving (a very harsh penalty, as it causes the driver to have to mostly rely on other people crashing out to gain any positions).  However, no such penalty was awarded in the Earnhardt Jr./Vickers crash.  With this in mind, Florida Times-Union columnist Gene Frenette  noted the seeming inconsistency and declared NASCAR’s no-call as “an inexcusable move” .  He alleges that NASCAR’s lack of consistency was a result of Earnhardt Jr’s popularity.

As a long-time NASCAR fan, I had a different view of the matter.  It is fairly well known among motorsports fans that NASCAR is horribly inconsistent in awarding penalties, whether it be for “aggresive driving” or cars not meeting specifications.  The phrase “professional wrestling rulebook” is not uncommon when referring to the governing body.

I was aghast at the penalty awarded to Leffler.  Aggressive driving is usually cited for gross instances, often when retaliation is involved (see Casey Mears Richmond, David Gilliand Texas, et al.) When I saw this punishment being awarded for something so subtle as Leffler’s brush of Wallace, I said aloud “Wow. If they call this the same way the whole season, there are going to be A LOT of people serving penalties. Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be the case” .

Because of NASCAR’s past history, I was unsurprised to see that there were no penalties handed out for the Earnhardt Jr. incident and certainly did not see it as a conspiracy on the league’s part.  People who follow the sport season-round year after year have become accustomed to NASCAR’s erratic rulings, but it is understandably jarring to relative outsiders like Frenette.

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– Going back to the CNBC article, I’m amused that Rovell argues for completing the race on Monday on the basis of television viewers.  If the race were re-started at 9 AM on Monday morning as he suggests, only a small fraction of the people who invested three or more hours of their time Sunday watching the race would have been able to see it!  Also, one could argue that it was making changes to accomodate television audiences that got us into this mess.  For most of the race’s history, the start time was 12: 15 PM.  Had yesterday’s race started then, it would have been well over before the rain arrived.  However, since 2003, the Daytona 500 start time has gotten progressively later, with 2009’s being 3:45 PM.  The later starts are a result of trying to capture the west coast viewing audience and have races that end nearer to prime-time.

– To understand why Frenette and others would think NASCAR is being protective of Earnhardt Jr., see articles like the Washington Post’s Earnhardt could give NASCAR a lift, which suggest that a successful season for Earnhardt Jr. would mean a more successful season for the sport at large.  I think that while a better season by him may result in marginal ratings gains, etc. it would no nothing to overcome the headwinds the sport faces (e.g. ticket prices, being opposite the NFL in the Fall, etc.)  To make a cross-sports comparison, I believe effects of his success (or lack thereof) would pale relative to the effect that Tiger Woods’ presence has on a golf tournament.

Update: Touche’, Darren Rovell, touche’.  Because I worked the day in question, I had forgotten that Monday was a holiday.  And yes, having woken up at all sorts of hours to watch a Formula One race run in Europe or Asia, I have no doubt that devoted fans would have set their alarms to catch a 6 AM Pacific restart. Even those in Hawaii!  Also, I mistakenly presumed that such an event would have been broadcast on the FX channel, which would have eliminated ~25% of potential viewers. (Last year the February California race was postponed to Monday and broadcast on Fox. As I was watching  via the American Forces Network,  that detail slipped my attention).

The thought in my head, that only got out in the warped form of people being unable to watch the race, was that the number of people watching a Monday restart would pale in comparision to the number of viewers Fox had Sunday evening.  Reviewing tv ratings from the past three years, one can see how the viewership of races like the (March) Atlanta and (August) Michigan events were adversely affected by the being pushed to a weekday (lamentably, the Monday numbers for the afforementioned California race are not available).  While this would have been alleviated by Monday being holiday, there’s no making up for the sizable number of casual viewers who tuned in as the race neared its end.  Plus, some people did have to work.

The Florida Times-Union today had a somewhat unfocused article on NASCAR’s travails to sell tickets.  The article mentions some reasons why NASCAR would have a tougher time pushing tickets compared to other sports, but doesn’t mention a couple of practices that have probably hurt them of late.

One of them being the practice of making renewal of annual tickets to events like the Daytona 500 contigent upon buying tickets to the “undercard”  races.  Imagine having season tickets for the NFL regular season and then being told you need to buy tickets to exhibition games to be able to renew next year.  Then next year you have to buy tickets to training camp (as well as exhibition games) to have the privlige of buying season tickets.    I know of a couple of families that were long time fans of the Daytona 500 who finally got tired of not only paying higher prices for the 500 tickets, but having to buy tickets for more and more events.  They decided to not renew and give up on the venture altogether.  The strategy works in flush times, but in lean times the sport becomes dependant on more casual fans to replace the devoted fans that they drove off.

Another thing squeezing the fan that just wants to go the race on Sunday is tied to NASCAR’s attempts to grow the TV audience nationally.  While once upon a time the 500 started at 1:00, the start time has drifted later to 3:30.  A similar trend exists for most races on the schedule.  This affects the significant amount of fans have to travel a moderate amount (say 1-3 hours) to get to the track.  Instead of getting home from the race in the early evening, they don’t get home until late night.  Fox Sports’ CEO understandably prefers the later starts, I would think some track owners aren’t as enthused.