Strategy, not speed, fuels Daytona success

July, 5, 2012
07/05/12
12:49
PM ET

"The race may not always be to the swift nor the victory to the strong, but that's how you bet."

That's right, we're going to start today's blog with a literary quote, thanks to Damon Runyon.

I'm with Mr. Runyon in that this week's race isn't likely to go to the swift. That's because NASCAR is going back to Daytona, where victory depends less on raw speed -- since everybody will have roughly the same speed -- and more on strategy, bold moves and, yes, even a little bit of luck.

Since the start of the 2006 season, 22 drivers have run the fastest laps (simply a count of who was the fastest driver on every lap) into the double digits in a Cup race at Daytona. Of those 22, not a single one ended up with a top-5 finish.

In fact, we've had more of those drivers finish off the lead lap (seven) than in the top 10 (six). None finished better than seventh.

And with the elimination of tandem drafting at Daytona this year, I'd say the pendulum has swung back in favor of skill and strategy over pure luck. Example: Matt Kenseth led the final 38 laps this year at Daytona to win the 500.

Looking for Trouble

Every week, my fellow members in ESPN Stats & Information crunch the crash numbers and tell us what to watch for that weekend. Here's what they found.

Last year's July Daytona race saw historic mayhem. Thirty different drivers were involved in wrecks (41 total cars were involved in wrecks -- some more than once). The 41 cars damaged were the most in a single Cup race, going back to 1990.

That was under the old drafting rules, but the elephant in the room is always waiting for the "big one." In the past four July Daytona races, we've had an average of 30 cars involved in wrecks.

But while drivers can see their days ruined by wrecks, others can take advantage.

Example: Tony Stewart last year. Stewart was involved in two 15-car wrecks at Daytona on a pair of green-white-checkered finishes but actually improved his position in them, moving up from 25th to 17th, then to 11th.

On the flip side, the driver most victimized by wrecks over the past four July Daytona races is his teammate/employee, Ryan Newman.

Newman has lost 65 positions due to accidents over those four races, the most of any driver.

The Eliminator: Kentucky

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to predict a winner. It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, will be the race winner.

1. Sixteen of the past 17 and 27 of the past 29 Daytona winners had a previous top-5 finish at Daytona (17 eliminated, 27 remaining).

2. Eight of the past nine Daytona winners finished 14th or better in the previous Daytona race (17 eliminated, 10 remaining).

3. The past five Sprint Cup race winners had a top-11 finish in that same race the previous year (seven eliminated, three remaining).

4. Three of the past four July Daytona winners came off of a top-10 finish in their previous race (two eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Matt Kenseth

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.

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