Dr. Diandra: Which drivers are superspeedway specialists?

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We often view superspeedway races as events anyone can win, but that’s not the case. It’s just that we remember surprise winners much more vividly. We also tend to lump Daytona and Talladega together despite being very different tracks. Most of the true underdog winners — the Trevor Baynes and Michael McDowells — win at Daytona.

Eleven drivers earned their first win at Talladega. For six of those 11, that win is their only Cup win. Some drivers in Sunday’s field have only won at superspeedways: David Ragan, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Bubba Wallace and Justin Haley. Two out of three of Aric Almirola‘s wins are at superspeedways. Some drivers have developed unique skill set necessary to succeed Talladega, Daytona and the new Atlanta. This fast-paced form of racing requires drivers to rapidly process information, understand the draft, and avoid wrecks.

Who’s good at superspeedways?

I focused on the 2020-22 seasons to keep the results recent enough to be relevant to this weekend’s race. The trends observed, however, hold for other ranges of time as well.

I limited my analysis to Talladega and Daytona because we’ve had only one race at Atlanta in its superspeedway configuration.

I excluded drivers who ran fewer than three superspeedway races. That, unfortunately, eliminates rookie drivers. Don’t overlook Austin Cindric, this year’s Daytona 500 winner.

I also excluded drivers with an average finishing position higher than 25.

I plotted drivers’ average finishes below. We’ve had nine combined Cup Talladega and Daytona races between 2020-22. If a driver didn’t compete in all nine races, I noted the number of races run atop the bar. Drivers are ranked from left to right in order of best average finishing position.

A vertical bar graph showing the average finishing positions of drivers at superspeedways from 2020-2022

No one will be surprised by the first three names on the left side of the graph. A lot of pundits recommend Ryan Blaney and Wallace this weekend as winning picks. Despite a disappointing 2021, Kevin Harvick finished fourth, fourth, 15th and eighth at superspeedways last year.

You might not expect to find Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on the right side of the graph. His two superspeedway wins both occurred back in 2017. In the last two years, he finished second at Talladega in 2020, but every other finish was out of the top 15.

What’s more surprising are the last two names on the far right: Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch, two recent champions. We know they’re good drivers, but superspeedways seem to have been their Achilles heels recently.

Sussing out superspeedway skills

To separate out good drivers who aren’t so good at superspeedways from drivers who are mid-pack everywhere, I compared each driver’s average finishing position at superspeedways to their averages at all other types of tracks. I kept superspeedway data in green and added the non-superspeedway data in yellow. I again ordered the drivers with the best finishing average at superspeedways to the left.

A vertical column chart that compares average finishes on superspeedways to average finishes on all other types of tracks.

The graph shows that some drivers, like Hamlin and Chris Buescher, have relatively similar average finishes at superspeedways as they do at other tracks. But many drivers have big differences in their finishes at the two types of tracks.

I’ve dotted in the green bars for the seven drivers with the largest ratio of average superspeedway finish vs. other-track finish. Wallace’s superspeedway results are almost twice as good as at other types of tracks. The other six drivers are: Justin Haley, Corey LaJoie, Chase Briscoe, Ty Dillon, McDowell and Blaney. These drivers clearly have an edge at superspeedways that makes them better bests there than at other tracks.

On the other side, we have drivers who finish worse at superspeedways than at other types of tracks.

Kyle Larson’s average finish at superspeedways is about three times worse than elsewhere. His weakness seems to be not finishing races. Larson has 12 DNFs at the 30 Daytona and Talladega races he’s run. That’s a 40% DNF rate.

Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. also do much better at non-superspeedways. Logano and Truex finish about twice as far back at superspeedways compared to other tracks. Each of these drivers has a teammate at the other end of the graph. This looks like a driver issue and not an equipment/team issue.

Don’t base Talladega picks on Daytona results

Some drivers perform very differently at different short tracks. The same is true for superspeedways.

The graph below shows average finishing position for Talladega in red and Daytona in blue. Drivers with the best Talladega average finishes are to the left. I again shaded the red bars for drivers who perform much better at Talladega than Daytona.

A vertical bar chart that compares average finishing position for Talladega to average finishing position for Daytona

 

Wallace won the last fall’s Talladega race, but he didn’t finish within the top 10 at any other Talladega race from 2020-22. All but one of those finishes were out of the top 15. At Daytona, Wallace only has one finish out of the top 15 and two second-place finishes. He’s on many ‘recommend’ lists for Talladega. The numbers don’t seem to support that degree of enthusiasm.

Ty Dillon finishes three times better at Talladega than Daytona. This stat is based on only three Daytona and two Talladega races. I left him in because I think he’s a good underdog pick.

Brad Keselowski was undeniably good at Talladega with Penske. He won his Daytona Duel this year. But his new team is still struggling to get good finishes.

Erik Jones is about 2.5 times better at Talladega than Daytona. His stats are skewed by fifth- and second-place finishes in 2020 running for JGR. He did finish ninth in the last Talladega race, though.

Although Byron ranks low on the superspeedway finish graph, he’s eighth in Talladega ranking and the highest Hendrick car.

The news from this chart isn’t good for Kyle Larson fans. His average finish at Talladega is worse than at Daytona by a factor of two.

Chase Elliott has an even larger differential on the Daytona-favoring side. His average finish at Daytona is three times better than at Talladega.

Luck is necessary at Talladega. But drivers with better-developed superspeedway skills have a distinct edge on their competition. This isn’t a race just anyone can win.