Avoiding accidents is a top priority for every driver in the final race of the regular season Saturday (7 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock) at Daytona International Speedway.
But there is no scientific way to do this.
In 2021, 136 crashes and caution-causing spins involved 263 cars in the Cup Series. The four superspeedway races accounted for 17 accidents, which is 12.5% of the season total.
Accidents in those four races, however, involved 96 cars. This is 36.5% of the total number of cars involved in accidents, although freeways accounted for only 11.1% of the schedule.
When it comes to multi-car crashes, Daytona and Talladega are the most successful.
Between 2001 and 2021, 86 superspeedway races produced 416 accidents involving 1,986 cars. Only 2 of those 86 races were accident free. Both were at Talladega: the 2001 spring race and the 2002 fall race.
The Daytona is slightly more crash and spin friendly than the Talladega. Daytona averaged 4.93 accidents per race from 2001-2021, while Talladega averaged 3.65.
The most accidents in a single superspeedway race is 12, at the 2011 Daytona 500. Forty-one cars were involved in accidents. This includes cars involved in more than one accident.
The ‘Big One’ isn’t the biggest threat to playoff hopes
While the “Big One” gets most of the attention, most superspeedway incidents involve just a few cars.
- 31.0% of Daytona and Talladega incidents between 2001 and 2021 involved only one car.
- 16.5% of crashes and rollovers involved two cars.
- This means that almost half of the accidents involved no more than two cars.
- 56.8% of accidents on expressways involved three or fewer cars.
- About 20% of freeway crashes involved seven or more cars.
- Only 4.9% of accidents involved 15 or more cars.
Of course, it doesn’t matter if a driver is involved in a major or minor accident. There is no correlation between the number of cars involved and the damage to the cars.
The most cars involved in a single accident is 26. It has happened three times: twice at the Daytona summer races (in 2014 and 2018) and at the 2005 spring race at Talladega.
So far this year, Daytona and Talladega have had nine crashes involving a total of 35 cars. The largest crash involved nine cars, but 55.5% of crashes involved three cars or fewer.
Finding a safe place
Predicting which running positions are safest is a tall order. Meaningful statistical analysis might be possible if one had access to NASCAR’s raw SMT data, which tracks the cars via GPS. Cycle data is not enough because drivers can gain or lose half a dozen positions in a few seconds.
Even with multiple camera angles, using video to determine where cars were driving when an accident occurs is difficult. It also takes a lot of time, especially fixing the positions of the cars at the back of the field.
But even with this data, no strategy guarantees that a driver can avoid accidents. The system—thirty-odd cars, their drivers, and their observers—is complex enough to make modeling impossible.
Here’s an exhibit on why you can’t predict which cars will be affected by an accident. The incident is from last year’s summer race at Daytona.
I slowed down the video to highlight how Martin Truex Jr. lost at least four cars on his way to hit William Byron. Kyle Busch, running just ahead of Truex, and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., running right behind him, both escaped injury. The cars immediately in front of and behind Byron also avoided accidents.
Truex returned to the track — again, missing a number of cars along the way — and cut Tyler Reddick. Reddick had run the P24.
The driver in P13 took out the driver in P16, however everyone two rows in front and two rows behind them avoided contact.
“Big” is usually several “small”
Cars brake or swerve to avoid accidents, but some of these cars spin and/or are hit by other cars that are also trying to avoid contact.
In the Daytona incident, a group of drivers running P25-P27 avoided the initial crash – only to be hit by the P22 car after it spun and hit the wall.
The upper right corner at the bottom of the video shows the P36 car, which swerved trying to avoid the accident.
A crash that started in P13 affected eight cars between P16 and P36 – but not in any logical or predictable order. A moment’s hesitation, or a choice to go high instead of low, could have easily changed which cars were damaged and which were not.
The added blocking by drivers produces more accidents at the front of the field, potentially exposing more cars to damage.
Exhibit two is a 12-car wreck from this spring’s Atlanta race. I chose that over Talladega or Daytona because the incident happened just one lap after a restart. The cars were pretty well ordered, making it easy to figure out who was who when the accident started.
Below shows the order of the first few rows of cars before the accident. Red shows the car that started the incident. Orange circles indicate damaged cars, while green circled cars avoided damage.
There is no rhyme or reason to which cars pass and which don’t. The kinetics of the crash depends on how quickly observers and drivers react.
Just being in the vicinity of an accident does not necessarily mean you will be a part of it.
Because most of the crash in Atlanta happened in the front, the cars driving the bottom lane had a slight advantage. They had more space to get away from each other. Cars running behind the wall did not have this option. But as the video shows, the bottom lane wasn’t completely immune.
Staying ahead of accidents
Staying ahead of drivers should, in principle, ensure that the driver avoids accidents. But sometimes even that doesn’t work.
At the 2022 Daytona 500, the P39 car lost a wheel. Twenty positions forward, cars P19 and P20 collided. One apparently expected care to come out sooner than the other.
And there is no standing before the accident when the leader causes it. Given the stakes for tonight’s race, expect plenty of deadlocks, especially in the late stages. Those fighting for the remaining playoff positions may consider giving up stage points in order to survive until the end of the race.
There are no safe places on freeways.