Dr. Diandra: The most (and least) accident-prone drivers at Talladega
Winning a superspeedway race requires two types of skill -- drafting and avoiding accidents. To identify the most and least accident-prone drivers at Talladega, I examined all races from 1972 to last fall’s playoff race. I assigned each driver a score by dividing the total number of accidents by the number of races run.
Theoretically, scores should be between 0 and 1. You can think of this number like a batting average, except lower is better when it comes to accidents. Unlike batting averages, a driver can be involved in more than one accident per race, so accident scores could be greater than one.
I include all drivers who have run at least 10 Talladega races between 1972 and the present. I only include accidents that caused NASCAR to bring out a caution. I didn’t include spins.
My usual caveat: A high score shouldn’t automatically be interpreted as signaling that the driver causes a lot of crashes. Some are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The most accident-prone drivers
The table below shows all drivers with scores above 0.600.
Road course ace Marcos Ambrose has the highest score of any driver at 0.92. That score arises from 11 accidents in 12 Talladega races. Given that superspeedway racing is unique to NASCAR, it’s not surprising that the Australian import struggled. His average finish was 23.4 with two DNFs.
The second-highest score comes from a current driver known for his aggressive approach to superspeedways. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has 16 accidents in 19 races with four DNFs. Stenhouse’s aggression has, on occasion, paid off. He won the spring Talladega race in 2017 and this year’s Daytona 500. But in the six Talladega races he’s run for JTG-Daugherty Racing, his average finish is 21.8.
Third on the list of most-accident-prone drivers is Danica Patrick, with a 0.80, or an average of four crashes for every five races. She ran a total of 10 races with four DNFs and an average finish of 25.8
Most of the names in this table are current or recent drivers. That’s because accidents at Talladega have gone up over time and the number of cars involved in accidents has also risen.
Honorable mention: Ryan Preece didn’t qualify for the table because he hasn’t run enough races, but he has seven accidents in six races for a 1.17 score. Despite the high accident score, Preece’s average Talladega finish is 15.3 — in JTG-Daugherty Racing equipment. Keep an eye out for Preece. If he can finish an average of 15th with all those accidents, imagine what he might be able to do if he stays out of the chaos.
Most drivers are in the middle
Most drivers’ scores fall between 0.3 and 0.6. Because there are a lot of drivers in the middle. I include just a few of the best-known names in the table below.
This table features a mix of drivers from different decades, although the more recent drivers do tend to have higher scores.
Jeff Gordon (six Talladega wins) is on the low end of the scoring spectrum, with an effective crash rate of about 30%. Jimmie Johnson (two wins) is closer to the other end of the list, with an effective crash rate of about 55%.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is slightly lower than 50/50 with a 0.486. But even with an almost 50% chance of accident, he has six wins and an average finish of 15.4. That shows that avoiding accidents isn’t the only key to winning at Talladega.
Chase Elliott, recently returned from a six-week layoff after breaking his leg, is smack dab in the middle. On average, he’s as likely to be involved in an accident as not. Given that he’s still healing, it will be interesting to see if he chooses to back off if other drivers get too aggressive too early in the race.
The least accident-prone drivers
The drivers with the least number of accidents mostly come from an earlier time. That’s for two reasons: The first is the same reason I gave for why the most accident-prone drivers are mostly current drivers: Fewer accidents involving fewer cars back in the day.
The other factor is that there were a lot more DNFs back in the day due to mechanical failures.
For example: Darrell Waltrip has just four accidents over 55 Talladega races. He also has 23 DNFs. Twenty of those DNFs were in the first 33 races he ran. The vast majority of his failures to finish were not due to accidents. They were because of mechanical failures. Waltrip completed only one of his first nine Talladega races: He retired from the other eight with blown engines, transmissions or oil leaks.
Bobby Allison had only two accidents at Talladega, but one of them was the 1987 tumble that led NASCAR to implement restrictor plates (now tapered spacers.)
Dale Jarrett is one of the more recent drivers on the list of least accident-prone drivers with a 0.119 score. He had just five accidents in 42 races — and many of those races were during the time that accidents were on the rise.
I would be remiss not to mention current driver Corey LaJoie, with just two accidents in 10 races. His finishing average at Talladega is 21.4, with four top-15 finishes and only one DNF.