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Dr. Diandra: Stats offer strategies for Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski to win Daytona 500

Neither Kyle Busch nor Brad Keselowski — both Cup Series champions — has ever won the Daytona 500. While some element of luck is necessary, statistics show there are things they can do to gain an advantage in The Great American Race.

Unfinished Business

Two of Kyle Busch’s 63 career Cup Series wins are summer Daytona races. Two more wins came at Talladega. But Busch is zero for 18 when it comes to the Daytona 500. He was leading on lap 199 of last year’s Daytona 500 when caution came out. A crash during the second overtime left him finishing 18th.

“I think this was the first time that I led Lap 200.” Busch said at the time. “I wish it was 1998 rules.”

Because NASCAR didn’t have overtime in 1998, Busch would have won.

“That’s the last box to check, essentially, in my career, for the great things to do and accomplish in our sport,” Busch said two weeks ago in Los Angeles. “Been oh-so-close a few times and still continue to work on being able to get that done.”

Keselowski’s six Talladega wins tie him with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. for second-most wins there. Keselowski also has won a summer Daytona race. But he's never finished the Daytona 500 better than third. He did, however, lead the most laps in both 2022 (42) and 2023 (67).

“I would trade all the laps led for a lead on the last lap, I can tell you that.”

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Brad Keselowski

“I would trade all the laps led for a lead on the last lap, I can tell you that.” Keselowski said. “I feel like I made all the right moves and happenstance didn’t play in our favor. It’s frustrating, but there’s nothing I can do about it. You keep moving on and keep pushing forward.”

Is superspeedway racing really out of drivers’ hands?

The numbers support Keselowski’s frustration over luck playing a much larger role at superspeedways than at other tracks. Unlike other types of tracks, superspeedways show virtually no correlation between starting and finishing position.

Superspeedways also offer no correlations between finishing position and average running position, laps led, number of fastest laps, fastest pit crew, number of laps run in the top 15, or pretty much anything else.

But Busch and Keselowski have both won summer Daytona races: Busch in 2008 and Keselowski in 2016. It's not the track.

Aside from one race being 500 laps and the other 400, the two Daytona races are statistically quite similar in the stage-racing era (2017 to the present.)

NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500
NASCAR Cup Series 65th Annual Daytona 500

Weather forecast for 2024 Daytona 500

Here is a look at the weather forecast for the events leading up to Sunday’s Daytona 500.

· Both races have similar average numbers of incidents (crashes, spins, stalls, lost wheels, etc.) per race: 6.42 for the Daytona 500 versus 6.96 for the summer race if it ran 500 laps.

· The Daytona 500 has, on average, slightly fewer cars involved in incidents per race (36.8) than the summer race (41.0, again normalized to 500 laps).

· An average of 16.4 cars per race did not finish in the last seven Daytona 500s, while 18.1 cars were off track by the checkered flag in the last seven summer races.

· Both races were decided by overtime in five of the last seven years.

The Daytona 500 is different

The Daytona 500 is the most prestigious race of the year. Mid- and back-of-the-field teams have a chance to shine on a global stage. The prestige of winning may make drivers take bigger risks.

The temperatures are the biggest physical difference between the two races. Daytona’s summer heat makes the track slicker and more challenging. The relative cool of February increases grip and levels the playing field for drivers. But true underdog wins at the Daytona 500 are still rare.

A more relevant factor may be that the Daytona 500 is the first race of the season. Most drivers' only experience in the Next Gen car since last year’s Phoenix finale was at a track that bears as much resemblance to Daytona as a kitten does to a saber-toothed tiger.

Fifteen teams are entirely new, or have new spotters or crew chiefs (or both). Most teams also have personnel changes on the pit crew, the road crew and even who's driving the hauler. It takes time for people to establish a work rhythm.

Strategy

Statistics suggest some strategic possibilities for drivers whose sole goal is winning this weekend’s race. Some require giving up stage points, so it’s not for everyone. But if winning is the only goal, consider the following:

Don’t stress over qualifying. Winning the pole is a point of pride, but no driver has won the Daytona 500 from the front row since Dale Jarrett in 2000. Running one fast lap alone on the track has vanishingly small relevance to pack racing.

Treat the Duels as practice. Since 2017, no Daytona 500 winner started better than fifth place. Only three of the seven most-recent Daytona 500 winners started in the top 10. An equal number of winners started in 20th place or worse. A driver can win this race starting anywhere.

I’m not suggesting trying to start from the back, but the Duels are 60 laps of on-track time. Use them to understand what your car is capable of and audition potential drafting partners. This is especially important for Busch, who often bemoans the lack of practice NASCAR’s shortened weekend schedules allow. It's also critical for Keselowski, whose Ford has a new body this year.

Proactively avoid crashes. Denny Hamlin has two wins and one DNF in the last seven Daytona 500s. Keselowski has five DNFs and Busch four.
Hamlin is good at anticipating accidents. He doesn’t hesitate to drop to the back when things get squirrely. Think long-term goal over short-term gain.

No unforced errors. Any penalty or error that separates a driver from drafting partners can eliminate his chances of winning. Busch has five unintentional penalties in the last seven Daytona 500s.

Luck can still decide any driver's fate at Sunday's race. But just as good luck sometimes appears as hard work, back luck can also be a cover for bad strategy.