Why Daytona 500 qualifying races are irrelevant

The pace car leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Jonathan Ferrey | NASCAR | Getty Images
The pace car leads the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Budweiser Duel 1 at Daytona International Speedway on February 20, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

You might as well ignore the entire Daytona 500 qualifying process. Between last Sunday's front row qualifying process and the two elimination "duel races" Thursday, we'll see a lot of racing and a lot of fanfare. NASCAR wants to make qualifying a show all by itself, and higher ratings for those telecasts are proving them right.

The so-called experts will try to read between the lines and use those qualifying results to come up with smart predictions for this Sunday's Daytona 500. There's only one problem: The predictions are probably closer to random guessing.

That's because Daytona 500 qualifying has no bearing on what will happen on race day. Because of the way the rules are designed, with NASCAR mandating restrictor plates in the car to reduce horsepower for safety reasons, the race outcome ends up being haphazard and erratic.

According to data provided to CNBC by PitRho, a racing analytics and software firm, we can see exactly how little value qualifying matters to the race outcome. For example, the average duel result of a driver who finished in the top 10 of the Daytona 500 (10.6) was basically the same as the average duel result of the drivers who finished at the bottom (11.5).

The first column is basically the same the entire way down. The second column is the same the entire way down. That means you can win Daytona—or finish dead last—and it would be just as equally unsurprising based on how you did earlier in the week.

The drivers who finished in the top 10 averaged a qualifying result of 21.1. That's almost no different than the 23.6 average qualifying position for drivers who finished at the back of the pack.

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For a comparison to other tracks where the racing is more typical, look at Charlotte and Loudon, New Hampshire. Here you will see real trends shape up.

In this case, the Charlotte and Loudon columns show bigger numbers as you head down. If you qualify poorly, you'll finish poorly. There is a real trend here. The drivers who finish in the top 10 at those two tracks tended to start up front (compare the 14.5 and 13.7 average starting positions for those who finished up front). The drivers who finished in the back had already started back there (notice the 27.3 and 29.4).

For a more specific visual, in the four charts below, notice how the average trend lines tell different stories. The top two charts show Daytona—the line is flat—meaning that qualifying has no predictive value. The bottom two charts reflect Loudon and Charlotte—the upward sloping lines show that qualifying does matter, and is actually helpful in predictions.

Thursday's duels might be fun to watch, but they basically serve no value as to who will win the race on Sunday.