Predictive analytics get better all the time, but every now and then, it's essential to take a breath and appreciate the uncertainties that remain with us in sports. Competition always involves both skill and luck, and our greatest joys and deepest agonies as fans usually come from watching them collide. In the case of the Daytona 500, coming up on Feb. 17, I mean that literally.
Daytona truly is a place where anyone can win. In 2013, Tim Chartier, a professor of mathematics and computer science at Davidson College, and Brian McGue, then a Davidson student and now a software engineer, studied the order of drivers at various points in a series of NASCAR events. They found that where drivers ranked during Daytona races had essentially no bearing on where they ended up until very late in contests. For instance, the correlation between the standings after 475 miles at the 2011 Daytona 500 and the final results was less than 0.2. "This indicates the position a driver was in with only 10 laps to go had no significance to where he eventually finished the race," wrote Chartier and McGue.
Of course, there's a good reason for this: In 1987, Bobby Allison went airborne, hurtling into a fence and injuring four fans at Talladega. Since then, the circuit has required restrictor plates -- which cut the flow of fuel and air into an engine and reduce its horsepower -- at its two superspeedways, Daytona and Talladega. With a front straight of 3,800 feet and a back straight of 3,000 feet, Daytona's oval is long enough that today's cars could probably break 225 mph if left unimpeded. Instead, restrictor plates keep drivers to a maximum speed of about 195 mph. And when they bunch together, races stay close.
As a result, the level of chaos at Daytona is just extraordinary, inside and outside NASCAR. Consider: MLB teams leading after eight innings have gone 6,296-304 over the past three seasons, for a winning percentage of .954. If you are up by a field goal with five minutes left in an NFL game and you have the ball, first-and-10 at the 50-yard line, your win probability is 84.6 percent, according to Pro Football Reference. In most leagues, the best teams build leads that almost (though not quite) always hold up. But 95 percent of the way through the Daytona 500, you typically can't tell how the drivers are going to place! As far as I can tell, it's the most random major sports event in America.
The best strategy for drivers at Daytona might be simply to try not to crash for 480 miles or so and only then start to maneuver. But it's not clear even that is possible.
Avoiding pileups in plate races might not be a persistent talent. In 2015 and 2016, for example, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano won a combined five races in 16 Cup events at Daytona or Talladega, leading to speculation they had figured out how to work the superspeedways. In 2017 and 2018, however, Keselowski and Logano suffered eight crashes and finished 20th, on average, at the same tracks. Moreover, accidents are swallowing up more vehicles, as drivers have tried to exploit bunching. In the past two years, cars running in the top six at Daytona were caught in nearly half of multicar crashes, up from just 15 percent before 2017, according to David Smith, who runs the Motorsports Analytics website. "As teams became aware of the safe space the front of the field provided, they placed their focus on moving from the middle to the front," Smith says -- and suddenly, that space isn't as safe as it used to be.
An entire sport couldn't run with this degree of randomness -- even in your weekend softball league, you want some assurance that results reflect talent and performance. But winning laps at Daytona still counts toward the season's standings, so there's incentive for drivers to try to do well, even if they are more prone to losing leads or crashing. And beyond Daytona, the correlation between driver position during races and final standings is much stronger at other tracks. Within the overall context of NASCAR, this one crazy race works for old-school and more casual fans alike. Come for the tradition, stay for the unpredictable fun -- or vice versa.
The NBA playoffs and NFL draft will be here soon enough -- and NASCAR is lifting its restrictor-plate rules in April. So give yourself a valentine: Enjoy this Daytona 500 without worrying a whit about who'll win. Because the numbers say nobody knows.