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Dr. Diandra: Cheer up, Kyle!: Busch far from unluckiest Daytona 500 driver

Marty Snider and Steve Letarte provide a final look ahead to Sunday's 65th running of the Daytona 500 at the historic Daytona International Speedway.

Right after NASCAR announced its partnership with PowerBall, Kyle Busch bemoaned his Daytona 500 luck. He quipped that there was a better chance of winning the lottery than the Daytona 500. The next day, a crash in the second Duel claimed his primary car.

Statistically speaking, Busch is wrong about the odds. But his remarks felt right. He’s not the only driver scouring the Daytona infield for four-leaf clovers.

Busch enters his 18th Daytona 500 with an average finishing position of 20.2. Although he’s finished as high as second, 50% of the time he finishes between eighth and 34th place. He failed to finish three of his last six races.

But compare Busch’s struggles with those of Alex Bowman. The two-time pole-sitter has a Daytona 500 average starting position of 6.2, but an average finish of 22.3. He finished second in 2021 and 13th in 2022, but his other four finishes are 21st and worse.

Three of the last four pole-sitters didn’t even finish the race.

But pole-sitters aren’t unique.

Luck plays an increasingly large role at Daytona

No driver has won from the pole since 2000, but that’s not because pole winners are especially cursed. That phenomenon is part of a larger trend that affects everyone.

At most tracks, there’s at least a loose correlation between starting position and finish position. The best drivers usually start nearer the front and finish nearer the front.

I chose Fontana as a comparison only because it’s the next race on the schedule. From 2005-22, 115 drivers started in the top five and 37 of those drivers also finished in the top five. That makes 32.2% of drivers starting and finishing in the top five.

Rates for Fontana and the Daytona 500 are in the table below.

A table showing how likely a driver is to start and finish in the top5, top 10, top 15 or top 20 at Fontana or Daytona. The numbers at Daytona show the need for Daytona 500 luck

At Fontana, two of every three drivers starting in the top 20 have finished in the top 20. At Daytona, that figure is less than one out of two. Drivers who qualify well at Daytona have less of a chance of finishing well than at other tracks.

“But isn’t that just Daytona?” some of you are asking.

Daytona didn’t always race this way. The next table compares the start/finish rates for Daytona over three different time periods.

A table showing how likely a driver is to start and finish in the top5, top 10, top 15 or top 20 at Daytona during different time periods. The need for Daytona 500 luck has gone up with time.

The chances of starting and finishing in the top 20 have changed by 10% or so. But the numbers for top-five and top-10 finishes have changed a lot.

DNFs are down

My first inclination was that did-not-finish (DNF) rates went up over the years. DNFs have no correlation with starting position in the Daytona 500. More DNFs would mean more drivers, including in the top-starting positions, being knocked out.

But DNFs haven’t gone up. On average, today’s races have fewer DNFs. But the percentage of crashes due to accidents has greatly increased over time. Most DNFs in earlier years were mechanical failures.

Individual races vary, of course, but 3.9% of DNFs in the 1960s were due to crashes. The number rose to almost 15% in the 2000s. In the 2020s, on average, one in three drivers did not finish the Daytona 500 due to a crash.

Although total number of DNFs isn’t the answer, that’s what pointed me toward the right answer.

Overall accidents are up

Some accidents remove a driver from the race and some don’t. I tabulated the numbers of drivers involved in at least one Daytona 500 accident each year between 2017 and 2022. I didn’t differentiate between drivers who had a single accident and those that had more than one.

A table showing the percentage of drivers affected by accidents in the Daytona 500. The increasing numbers show the need for Daytona 500 luck.

The table includes only caution-causing accidents, so view these numbers as minimums. Single-driver wall scrapes can also cause havoc with a car’s aerodynamics.

These percentages translate to between 9 and 18 drivers involved in accidents but finishing the race per year. Another 12 to 21 drivers’ accidents knocked them out of the race.

The 90% number in 2019 is the highest since 2001, which is how far back I have reliable data.

The largest accident-impacted percentage of drivers before 2017 was 67.4%. That happened in 2002 and 2011. The best year for accident avoidance was 2003, where only 14.0% of the field banged into each other.

Daytona 500 luck

Here’s where Busch can take some comfort from the stats. His 20.2 average finish pales in comparison to Daniel Suárez’s 30.6 average finish, William Byron’s 29.6 and Erik Jones’ 27.3.

Busch has 10 accidents in 17 races (58.9%). That’s nowhere near as good as Chase Elliott, who’s had only one accident in seven Daytona 500s (14.2%.)

But it’s better than William Byron. He’s been involved in at least one accident in each of his five Daytona 500s. Chris Buescher has six accident-impinged races out of seven total. Suárez has finished only one of the five Daytona 500s he’s run.

So cheer up about your Daytona 500 luck, Kyle. You’ve got the same chances as everyone else in the field of getting through 500 miles without an accident.

They’re not great. But they are better than your chances of winning the lottery.