Having the fastest car in a NASCAR race does not guarantee victory. This has been especially true in 2021.
Generally, the fastest car in a given Cup Series race is victorious 40% of the time, a rule of thumb dating back to the inception of NASCAR Loop Data in 2005. Given the series, this rate makes sense. While a speed ranking is indeed the statistic most correlative with finishing position, Cup Series races often last 400 miles or longer, lending to positional jostles influenced by strategy, driver talent or culminating scenarios which might halt an obvious winner.
But this year, through 22 races, the fastest car in an individual race, based on its median lap rank, isn’t bringing home trophies at the usual clip.
The fastest car doubled as the winning car just six times — a rate of 27.3% — this season. Kyle Larson, whose Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 car ranks first overall in average median lap (averaging a team’s median lap rank for each race) — converted four races into wins with the fastest car, at Las Vegas, Charlotte, Sonoma and Nashville. Martin Truex Jr. (at Darlington) and Kurt Busch (two weeks ago at Atlanta) were the only other drivers to successfully navigate a race’s fastest car to victory lane.
Why is the rate lower than usual? On a macro scale, there’s a lot to which we can point, such as the lack of practice and use of the initial green-flag runs (toward the competition caution and the end of the first stage) as a de-facto feeling-out process, something James Small, Truex’s crew chief, alluded to after their win in Phoenix when their No. 19 car — ranked as the 12th-fastest through the first stage — fared as the fastest car during the final stage.
The lack of qualifying also tears this relationship asunder at times; to wit, William Byron won at Homestead with a car that ranked as the fastest by a wide margin in the race’s final stage. But he started 31st — thanks in part to his 33rd-place finish the week prior on the Daytona road course — buried in traffic and relegated to dirty-air laps during the initial runs. It was Kurt Busch, not Byron, who had the fastest median lap in the Homestead race, a possible harbinger for the former’s win on the 1.54-mile Atlanta track.
But last season’s slate, which utilized similar weekend procedures, saw the fastest cars win 36.1% of the time, a drop but one more in line with the modern average. On a micro scale, this year has seen its fair share of fluky moments involving a race’s fastest car, helping drive down the win percentage even further. Let’s consider some of these odd scenarios:
Chase Elliott, Daytona road course (Feb. 21)
Turning the best lap overall and the best median lap, Chase Elliott’s No. 9 car was the shining vehicle of February’s race on the Daytona road course. Elliott led nearly 63% of the event and held the lead until he pitted under caution in advance of the Lap 59 restart.
As other cars eschewed pit road, Elliott restarted 11th. The peloton pinched Elliott off the racing surface and onto the grass where he impressively avoided serious damage but lost positions:
And after climbing back into the top five with six laps to go, he aborted an attempt at a cross-over pass on Brad Keselowski and, when trying to blend back into the preferred line, Denny Hamlin’s trailing car didn’t relent:
Elliott, in the fastest car he’s had in any race this year relative to the rest of the field, finished 21st.
Kyle Larson, Atlanta (March 21)
In a race that saw Larson lap all but 13 cars, it concluded when high-falloff aficionado Ryan Blaney erased a three-second disadvantage to Larson on the final green-flag run and made the go-ahead pass with nine laps to go.
In the moment, it was unthinkable; Larson’s car was a juggernaut. But in hindsight, the No. 5 car was a sitting duck for a race ending in this exact scenario ahead of a driver who prides himself on his ability to nurse tires on tracks with heavy degradation.
Larson’s first lap clocking in at 33.5 seconds — representing a full 1.3 seconds worth of falloff — was lap 309; Blaney’s first lap at 33.5 came 12 laps later. Blaney may have been the only driver remaining in the race with speed (his median lap ranked as the third fastest) and good enough track position to rope in Larson. Kurt Busch turned the race’s second-fastest median lap but was involved in an accident on lap 113. Kyle Busch, ranked fourth, suffered a pit-road speeding penalty on lap 221. Elliott, ranked fifth, suffered an engine failure.
All but one of Larson’s most dangerous competitors that day remained, but that one proved one too many.
Christopher Bell, Bristol dirt (March 29)
In 54 laps, Christopher Bell produced lap times no other driver could duplicate with 253 laps on Bristol’s fickle dirt layout. The three-time Chili Bowl winner exited the race after a crash that additionally eliminated Larson and Chase Briscoe, also drivers with dirt racing origins and eyeballed as potential race winners.
Kyle Larson, first race of Pocono doubleheader (June 26)
Larson came into the Pocono weekend on a three-race streak (not including the All-Star Race at Texas) in which he had the fastest vehicle. His car during Pocono’s Saturday race was equally fast and despite a multitude of opposing pit strategies happening to spite him, no one could deny him a spot near the front of the field in the closing laps.
After breaking Alex Bowman’s aero-block with four laps to go, Larson’s one-second lead when taking the white flag evaporated with a left front tire blowout, a scene reminiscent of Dale Earnhardt’s last-lap loss in the 1990 Daytona 500.
Austin Cindric, Road America (July 4)
Team Penske’s Austin Cindric entered the Road America race weekend as a rare road course ringer with the speed and chops necessary to potentially win the race. In that regard, he didn’t disappoint.
After qualifying fifth, his No. 33 car turned the fastest median lap of the day and he eventually led two laps before breaking a rear gear. He was relegated to a 38th-place finish; however, his team made history, becoming the first part-time team to produce the fastest car (per timing and scoring data) in a Cup race since Wood Brothers Racing did it in the 2011 Daytona 500 with driver Trevor Bayne.
With 14 races remaining this season, there’s plenty of time for the win percentage of each race’s fastest car to progress towards the 40% average. Regardless, this year has witnessed some truly bizarre moments that impacted what, on paper, was the best car on its day.