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Analysis: Handling, risk mitigation key to winning Daytona 500

The NASCAR Cup Series returns for the 2021 season with the 63rd running of the "Great American Race" at "The World Center of Racing."

What matters in today’s race? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the 63rd running of the Daytona 500 (2:30 p.m. ET on Fox):

Not so fast: Elite speed means little without proper handling

Finishing positions for the 2020 Daytona 500 and individual rankings for Central Speed — the latter a compilation of speed-per-quarter averages while omitting crash damage and other aberrations — saw a rank correlation of -1, symbolizing no correlation whatsoever. But this hardly means quantifiable speed is an anathema to competitors.

The fastest car on drafting tracks for all of last season, the JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr., went winless in all four events, as did the four cars ranked second through fifth. Stenhouse, whose 2020 Daytona 500 pole-winning car was observed by Joey Logano as the only machine capable of passing without pack assistance, sees the merits of speed but demands more from his car’s handling capability.

“Obviously, being fast is key, but specifically for Daytona, I feel like you’ve got to have a car that turns off of Turn 4 better than others,” Stenhouse said. “There’s a lot (of drivers) who get tight off Turn 4 and lift (out) of the throttle.”

His workaround is a free-wheeling setup engineered to allow him to stay on the gas through the exit of the track’s final corner precisely as others may be forced to lift.

“It’s tough to beat people back to the start-finish line when you don’t have a car capable of doing that,” he said.

William Byron, with the sixth-fastest Central Speed ranking in 2020 drafting races, won last August in Daytona.

“You can’t win with a turd. You’ve got to have a fast car,” Byron told NBC Sports. “Do you have to have the fastest car? No … I think the third or fourth-fastest car with the best handling is who’s going to win. Handling trumps anything, because you can make those moves and put yourself in position.”

Three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin admitted the creature comforts from his machine may hinder speed — his 2020 car ranked 19th in Central Speed on drafting tracks — but allow enough handling flexibility for late-race heroics.

“Over time I’ve learned I need my car to do certain things to be able to make the moves I need to make at the end of the race to win,” Hamlin said. “I think it’s a little bit off the beaten path of (when) a simulation says, ‘Oh, this will be the fastest.’ I think that I typically just say, ‘I need the car to do this. I don’t care if it’s slower.’ Like if it does this, then I can make the moves I need to, and I can manipulate the air and the situation I’m around enough to make the difference.”

Run out front at your own risk

Whereas there was no correlation between Central Speed and race finish in last year’s Daytona 500, the link between Central Speed and average running position saw a correlation of +0.8, signaling a strong relationship. Eventually, the fastest cars make their way to the front; however, leading the field in Daytona comes with significant risk.

Poorly timed blocks, frequent with the fast closing rates that are a byproduct of the current rules package, have transformed the front of Daytona’s field into a danger zone. Within the top 10, three positions — third, sixth and ninth — were each included in 50% of the multi-car accidents since 2017. The lead car was included in 27% of those crashes, up from 5% in 2013-16.

Teams from Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing positioned themselves near the rear of the field — the safest space across the last 26 Daytona accidents — for large stretches of last year’s event. Their decision to punt on chasing mid-race stage points prompted confusion among observers on social media, enticing championship-winning crew chief Cole Pearn, recently retired, to chime in on Twitter:

While it’s logical for top-tier teams to pick their spots, not every juggernaut is a stage-point pacifist. To wit, Team Penske drivers Logano (9.0), Brad Keselowski (10.6) and Ryan Blaney (12.2) ranked first, second and fifth in average running position in last year’s Daytona 500. Logano is aware of the heightened exposure to risk, but doesn’t plan on deviating from what he believes is his best chance at winning.

“I’d rather be up there racing than riding around all day and still crash,” Logano said. “At least I can say I did something and learned a little bit and had a little fun while I was doing it.”

Track position gains through green-flag pit cycles

Rumors of team or manufacturer orders in NASCAR are typically denied, but on drafting tracks like Daytona, orders are widely accepted and tend to work most effectively in just one respect: Pit stops under green-flag conditions.

Whereas the final laps can devolve into a free-for-all among drivers, synchronizing these vulnerable stops ensures better positioning within the race’s wider peloton without the risk associated with driving through heavy traffic. Pitting quickly as a group allows stragglers to draft unabated among corporate teammates, leapfrogging positions or cutting into on-track deltas.

Unsurprisingly, JGR and SHR, the two organizations that notably eschewed early-stage activity in last year’s Daytona 500, excel in creating positions through a pinpoint timing of stops. Across the four races last year on drafting tracks, SHR crew chief Johnny Klausmeier, now paired with rookie Chase Briscoe, earned a series-best 58 positions on behalf of Clint Bowyer. JGR’s James Small (for Martin Truex Jr.) and Chris Gabehart (for Hamlin) ranked second and third with 41 and 34 positions gained specifically in these scenarios.

A bevy of Chevrolet teams routinely lost positions in drafting-track races without ever being passed. Richard Childress Racing’s Randall Burnett, on behalf of Tyler Reddick, lost 28 spots, while Hendrick Motorsports crew chiefs Greg Ives (for Alex Bowman) and Alan Gustafson (for Chase Elliott) oversaw teams dropping 27 and 25 positions, respectively.

Restarters to watch

Thursday night’s first Duel qualifier was a green-flag affair from beginning to end, robbing us of a late-race showdown between two of the best drafting-track restarters in 2020.

Aric Almirola (75.00%) and Logano (70.83%) ranked first and second in position retention on drafting-track restarts among drivers with 10 or more attempts from inside the top 14; Logano’s 22-position net within the two laps following each restart served as last year’s biggest cumulative gain in Daytona and Talladega.

Kyle Busch (62.50%), Truex (62.50%) and Elliott (61.90%) ranked within the top five for retention — measuring whether a restart spot was successfully defended — while Elliott netted 21 total spots. Ryan Preece, with only eight attempts from inside the top 14, registered a 75.00% retention rate and a 16-position net gain.

If recent Daytona history is any indication, restarting acumen will play a crucial role in deciding the day’s victor. The last six Daytona oval races saw 13 restarts fall within the final one-tenth of the contests.

The choose rule that debuted during the second half of the 2020 season is not in effect for today’s race; however, it’d make for a compelling wrinkle. In last year’s Daytona 500, occupants in the inside groove saw markedly better retention (68.25%) than those restarting from the outside (38.10%). During last August’s 400-mile race, the outside proved stronger (65.31%) compared to the efforts from those originating from the inside lane (44.90%). Given the one-sided nature of double-file restarts that necessitated the choose rule isn’t pronounced here, talent and resourcefulness should win out on the majority of today’s short runs.