Dr. Diandra: Avoiding accidents at superspeedways is more art than science

·6 min read
NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400
NASCAR Cup Series Coke Zero Sugar 400

Avoiding accidents is a top priority for every driver in Saturday’s regular-season-ending race (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) at Daytona International Speedway.

But there’s no scientific way to do it.

Superspeedway statistics

In 2021, 136 caution-causing accidents and spins involved 263 cars in the Cup Series. The four superspeedway races accounted for 17 accidents, which is 12.5% of the season total.

Accidents at those four races, however, involved 96 cars. That’s 36.5% of the total number of cars involved in accidents, even though superspeedways made up only 11.1% of the schedule.

When it comes to multi-car accidents, Daytona and Talladega are overachievers.

Between 2001 and 2021, 86 superspeedway races produced 416 accidents involving 1,986 cars. Only 2 of those 86 races went accident-free. Both were at Talladega: the 2001 spring race and the 2002 fall race.

Daytona is slightly more conducive to crashes and spins than Talladega. Daytona averaged 4.93 accidents per race from 2001-2021, while Talladega averaged 3.65.

The most accidents in a single superspeedway race is 12, at the 2011 Daytona 500. Forty-one cars were involved in accidents. That includes cars involved in more than one accident.

The ‘Big One’ isn’t the biggest threat to playoff hopes

While the “Big One” gets the most attention, most superspeedway incidents involve only a few cars.

  • 31.0% of Daytona and Talladega incidents between 2001 and 2021 involved only one car.

  • 16.5% of the accidents and spins involved two cars.

  • That means almost half the accidents involved no more than two cars.

  • 56.8% of accidents at superspeedways involved three or fewer cars.

  • About 20% of superspeedway crashes involved seven or more cars.

  • Only 4.9% of accidents involved 15 or more cars.

Of course, it doesn’t matter whether a driver is involved in a huge accident or a small one. There’s no correlation between number of cars involved and damage to the cars.

The most cars involved in a single accident is 26. It’s happened three times: twice at summer Daytona races (in 2014 and 2018), and at the 2005 spring Talladega race.

So far this year, Daytona and Talladega have had nine accidents involving a total of 35 cars. The largest accident collected nine cars, but 55.5% of the accidents involved three cars or less.

Finding a safe place

Predicting which running positions are safest is a stout order. A meaningful statistical analysis might be possible if one had access to NASCAR’s raw SMT data, which tracks cars via GPS. Loop data isn’t sufficient because drivers can gain or lose a half-dozen positions in a matter of seconds.

Even with multiple camera angles, using video to determine where cars were running when an accident starts is difficult. It’s also tremendously time-consuming, especially pinning down the positions of cars at the rear of the field.

But even with that data, no strategy guarantees a driver can avoid accidents. The system — thirty-some-odd cars, their drivers and their spotters — is complex enough to make modeling impossible.

Here’s exhibit one for why you can’t predict which cars will be impacted by an accident. The incident is from last year’s summer Daytona race.

A video showing part of an accident at the summer 2021 Daytona race
A video showing part of an accident at the summer 2021 Daytona race

I slowed the video to highlight how Martin Truex Jr. missed at least four cars on his way to hitting William Byron. Kyle Busch, running immediately ahead of Truex, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., running right behind him, both escaped damage. The cars immediately in front of and behind Byron avoided accidents, as well.

Truex came back down the track — again, missing a number of cars on the way — and clipped Tyler Reddick. Reddick had been running P24.

A video showing the second part of a crash at Daytona in 2021
A video showing the second part of a crash at Daytona in 2021

The driver in P13 took out the driver in P16, yet everyone two rows ahead and two rows behind them avoided contact.

The ‘Big One’ is usually several ‘Little Ones’

Cars brake or scatter to avoid accidents, but some of these cars spin and/or get hit by other cars that are also trying to avoid contact.

In the Daytona incident, a cluster of drivers running in P25-P27 dodged the initial accident — only to be hit by the P22 car after it spun and hit the wall.

A video showing the secondary accidents at the summer 2021 Daytona race
A video showing the secondary accidents at the summer 2021 Daytona race

The upper-right corner at the end of the video shows the P36 car, which spun trying to avoid the accident.

An accident starting at P13 affected eight cars between P16 and P36 — but not in any logical or predictable order. A moment’s hesitation, or a choice to go high instead of low, could easily have changed which cars were damaged and which weren’t.

Front-of-field crashes

Increased blocking by leaders produces more accidents at the front of the field, potentially exposing more cars to damage.

Exhibit two is a 12-car accident from this spring’s Atlanta race. I chose it over Talladega or Daytona because the incident happened only a lap after a restart. The cars were pretty well ordered, making it easier to figure out who was where when the accident started.

An annotated video showing a crash from the first Atlanta race in 2022
An annotated video showing a crash from the first Atlanta race in 2022

The still below shows the order of the first few rows of cars before the accident. Red indicates the car that initiated the incident. Orange circles show cars that were damaged, while cars with green circles avoided damage.

An annotated still from the 2022 spring Atlanta race showing which cars made it through a front-of-the-field accident
An annotated still from the 2022 spring Atlanta race showing which cars made it through a front-of-the-field accident

There’s no rhyme or reason as to which cars make it through and which don’t. The crash kinetics depend on how quickly spotters and drivers react.

Just being in proximity to an accident doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be part of it.

Because the bulk of the Atlanta accident happened on the frontstretch, cars running the lower lane had a slight advantage. They had more space to get away from each other. Cars running against the wall didn’t have that option. But, as the video shows, the lower lane wasn’t entirely immune.

Staying ahead of accidents

Staying ahead of the instigators should, in principle, ensure a driver avoids accidents. But sometimes even that doesn’t work.

In the 2022 Daytona 500, the car running P39 lost a wheel. Twenty positions ahead, the P19 and P20 cars collided. One apparently anticipated the caution coming out faster than the other.

And there’s no staying in front of the accident when the leader causes it. Given the stakes for tonight’s race, expect plenty of blocking, especially at stage ends. Those battling for the remaining playoff positions might consider forgoing stage points so they survive to the end of the race.

There are no safe places on superspeedways.

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Dr. Diandra: Avoiding accidents at superspeedways is more art than science originally appeared on NBCSports.com