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Dr. Diandra: The best Next Gen superspeedway drivers

Rick Allen, Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton, and Dale Jr. react to Kurt Busch's decision to withdraw his waiver to still be eligible for the playoffs and detail the scenarios for drivers like Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr.

The best superspeedway drivers understand the draft. Their spotters anticipate trouble and opportunity, and their crew chiefs provide cars that handle well enough to deal with both.

Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) will determine the last of the 16 drivers who will compete for the 2022 championship.

I examine how this race will differ from February’s Daytona 500. Using data from 2022 superspeedway races at Daytona, Talladega and Atlanta, I identify which drivers have the best shot at that last playoff spot.

Summer in Daytona

Daytona has a different character in the summer. More grip produces higher speeds and a faster pace, as Alex Bowman’s crew chief Greg Ives told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” this week.

“When the pace is higher,” Ives said, “your ability to make passes gets lower because everybody starts to handle better. You’re not lifting as much, so getting those runs and just making passes is a little more difficult.”

A second factor crew chiefs must consider is the high probability of thunderstorms.

Rain has shortened the 400-mile summer race twice in the last 10 years. Aric Almirola and Justin Haley earned their first career wins at those races.

Rain or shine, Daytona hosts more first-time Cup Series career winners than any other track. Erik Jones (2018) and William Byron (2020) made their first trips to Victory Lane at summer Daytona races.

Rain could affect qualifying, but qualifying is much less important at superspeedways. Last summer’s race had an average of 55 passes per lap. With that much shuffling, there’s almost no correlation between starting position and finishing position.

The graph below shows the starting positions of the last 10 summer Daytona race winners. The colors identify where the winner started the race. Hatch marks indicate involvement in an accident or spin, and asterisks note years without qualifying.

A vertical bar chart showing where Daytona summer winners started the race

In the last 10 summer races:

  • The polesitter won only once: Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2015.
  • Five winners came from the top-10 starting positions.
  • One race winner started from P15.
  • The remaining three winners started outside the top 20.

While winning the pole demonstrates you have a fast car, sheer speed isn’t the key to winning at Daytona. Of the nine polesitters who didn’t win:

  • Four had race-ending accidents. Four more were involved in incidents that hampered their finishes.
  • Only Kevin Harvick, the 2020 polesitter, escaped involvement in accidents and spins. He finished 20th.
  • Not counting Earnhardt’s win, the best finish by a polesitter was Matt Kenseth’s third place, in 2012.
  • The other eight polesitters all finished outside the top five. Six of those eight finished P20 or worse.

With this being the final race of the regular season, expect drivers to take risks, especially toward the end of the race. Of the last 10 Daytona summer races, seven went into overtime and four ended under caution. The races that finished under green were decided by 0.159 of a second or less.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

The Big One — a crash that involves a large fraction of the field — is virtually inevitable. In the last 10 summer Daytona races, from 16% to 50% of the field failed to finish the race. With 37 cars on the preliminary entry list this weekend, those percentages project between six and 20 cars in the garage before the race ends.

Only 12 cars failed to finish the Daytona 500. But drivers have gained a lot more experience with the Next Gen car since then. Twenty-five races into the season, they understand better what the car can and can’t do. Given the stakes, expect the DNF numbers to skew toward the high side.

Strong superspeedways finishers

The Next Gen car has made such a difference for some drivers their career stats may be irrelevant. The graph below shows changes in average finishes at superspeedways from 2021 to 2022.

A bar chart comparing drivers' 2022 superspeedway average finish with their average finish in 2021

Red bars indicate the driver’s performance is worse this year than last. Blue bars show improvement. I’ve arranged the drivers in order of amount of change from worst on the left to best on the right.

Among drivers whose finish positions are worse this year than last:

  • Austin Dillon has the largest decline in performance, with a net change of 14.5 positions. He had DNFs at both Atlanta races due to accidents.
  • Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin finished an average of 13 positions worse than 2021.
  • Harvick’s average finish was worse by 10.5 positions.

Among drivers performing better on superspeedways this year than last:

  • Martin Truex Jr.’s average finishing position improved by 15 positions: from 24.25 to 9.25.
  • Bowman improved by 10.75 positions, Daniel Suárez by 10.5, and Almirola by 10.25 positions.

The best superspeedway drivers in 2022

Fifteen winless drivers within the top 30 in points are eligible for the last championship slot. If none of them wins this weekend, the last playoff spot comes down to a points battle between Truex and Ryan Blaney.

Chase Elliott has the best superspeedway average finish this year at 6.0, which includes his win at Atlanta in July.

The two drivers with the next best average finish on superspeedways are Truex and Blaney at 9.25.

Truex has never won at a superspeedway. According to Racing Insights, his 69 superspeedway races without a win are the most among active drivers.

Although Truex has finished outside the top 10 in 10 of his last 12 Daytona starts, he won two stages in this year’s Daytona 500. Damage to his right front fender after being caught up in Tyler Reddick’s spin relegated him to a 13th-place finish. Truex also led laps at three of this year’s four superspeedway races.

Truex’s challenge is that there will be only six Toyotas on track. He has a lower probability of finding drafting partners than Ford or Chevy drivers.

Blaney won this race last year — and Ford drivers have won the last three Daytona races. Blaney won one stage at Atlanta and led laps at all four superspeedway races in 2022.

Among the other winless drivers this season, Bubba Wallace has the next best average finish on superspeedways: 11.5. He finished second at the Daytona 500. His frustration at finishing second at Michigan shows how much he wants to win.

Almirola, Jones and Michael McDowell round out the winless drivers with superspeedway average finishes better than 14.

Every driver already in the playoffs wants to win this race. If they can’t win themselves, it’s an advantage for them to have a weaker driver in the playoffs than either Blaney or Truex.

The strategy of self-interest could make for unlikely alliances. Watch for those alliances to form and dissolve Saturday night.