This Sunday, NASCAR's drivers will race at the famous Talladega Superspeedway—the largest track they'll see all year. At 2.66 miles in length, speeds are enormous, and could reach 250 miles per hour if the cars were left unaltered.
As a way of keeping speeds at a safe level, NASCAR artificially reduces the speed of each car to around 200 miles per hour, causing all cars—good and bad—to race at the same speed. This "restrictor plate" racing creates a bumper-car like gridlock of race cars around the track. When one car spins out, it usually means several others are crashing out with it.
As a result of big crashes and the unique style of racing at Talladega, drivers with normally mediocre results can actually steal a win.
These unique characteristics have spawned a novel theory. In 2013, former NASCAR crew chief Josh Browne theorized about the "Talladega Daves" —drivers who are typically just not that good at other tracks, but can actually get decent results at Talladega. As it happens, they have names like David Ragan, David Gilliland, David Reutimann, David Stremme, and Dave Blaney. See the pattern?
Browne, a co-founder of racing analytics firm PitRho, had suggested that under-funded teams need the prize money just to stay afloat. By having their drivers just hang out in the back, they could avoid crashes and end up with a good finish.
A week later, he proved prophetic. The May 2013 race at Talladega was won by David Ragan, followed by David Gilliland in second. In the two years since, Ragan has only earned one top five finish, with Gilliland unable to do even that. The two drivers have a combined total of 19 top-five finishes, the majority of them (10) coming at restrictor-plate races —even though plate races represent a meager 11 percent of the schedule.
According to a data set collected over the last 13 years comparing four Daves against the best team in the sport (Hendrick Motorsports), it's clear to see that races like Talladega give them a fighting chance: they finish almost identically (22nd place average versus 19th). Considering there are only 43 cars in a race, finishing 22nd is right in the middle.
At regular races, without restrictor plates, they are clearly back-of-the-pack cars (27th average finish compared to 15th place average for Hendrick.
This Sunday, look for the no-name drivers to get their one chance to possibly win a race. Especially if his name is David.