There are several factors for determining if pole position is important in NASCAR racing. History reveals trends that can help us make projections for the near future and educated guesses for the far future. This can leave many fans wondering how important pole position is in NASCAR.
Pole position in NASCAR is important and will give the driver distinct advantages, but it doesn’t guarantee a victory. Research has shown that starting in the top 15, rather than just starting on pole, gives NASCAR drivers the highest probability to win a race over the course of the season.
In the article below, we will discuss what pole position is in NASCAR, and we will reveal how much of an advantage pole sitters have over the rest of the field. We will also investigate NASCAR’s history and discuss how the probability of winning from pole position has fluctuated over time.
Pole position in NASCAR means the driver starts the race in the first position on the inside of the track. This is an obvious advantage, because the driver is in the lead from the start of the race. To earn pole position, a driver must record the fastest qualifying lap time.
Racing professionals and fans always say the same thing: It doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you finish.In NASCAR, this holds true to some degree, and a driver winning the pole position will always have a greater win probability than one starting a race outside the top 15.
Several rounds of qualifying laps determine who sits on the inside of the front row. The drivers speed around the track, and the one with the fastest lap time or, in some cases, timed session, wins the pole.
Historically, NASCAR randomly selected the qualifying order. Drivers used to take two laps, and NASCAR recorded the faster lap of the two. NASCAR often televised such events, but they weren’t very exciting, even to many die-hard NASCAR fans. Qualifying is a little different in modern-day NASCAR.
These days, NASCAR holds “knockout style” qualifying. This style of qualifying differs between tracks, which NASCAR has separated into four categories: Ovals, superspeedways, road courses, and the Bristol dirt race. At most tracks, drivers are divided into Group A and Group B. They then take part in their respective practice and qualifying sessions.
Before qualifying, drivers have an additional 50-minutes of practice at six tracks: Daytona, Atlanta, Bristol dirt, World Wide Tech Raceway, Nashville, and Phoenix. This practice helps them determine any last-minute strategies or fine-tuning they may need for the race.
At the qualifying event, all drivers get 15 minutes of additional practice time before the qualifying rounds begin. Group A then qualifies for one lap before Group B takes to the track and qualifies. The top five drivers from each group move on to the final round.
For the final round, the qualifying process continues as it did during the group round. Except now, the top five in each group merge. They will have one lap to attain their best time, and the driver who records the fastest lap gets pole position.(At certain short tracks, they get two laps.)
Instead of 15 minutes, all drivers receive 20 minutes of practice time at the road courses. Group A will compete in a 15-minute qualifying session before Group B follows. Just like the oval tracks, the five fastest drivers in each group will move on to the final round.
The top five drivers in each group merge into one collective group and they compete in a ten-minute session. The driver with the fastest time wins the pole, and the driver with the slowest time qualifies 10th. Road courses are also the only time you will see the cars qualify collectively. The Bristol dirt track, superspeedways, and ovals limit their qualifying to just one car at a time.
At Daytona and Talladega, there are no groups. Instead, each car qualifies in one collective group and the top 10 move to the final round.The driver with the fastest one-lap time gets pole position.
For the Daytona 500, this only guarantees the top two drivers’ starting positions.The rest are set by two 150-mile ‘duels,’ with odd numbered time trial finishers competing in Duel 1 and even numbered finishers competing in Duel 2. One race determines the odd numbered starting positions (excluding pole) and the other race determines the even numbered starting positions (excluding second place).
The qualifying at the unique Bristol Dirt Race comprises two practice sessions of 50 minutes in length. Then, there are four qualifying races. Drivers do not know who they will race against in this one since NASCAR picks the four groups randomly.
Pole position is very important in NASCAR. Getting pole increases the probability of finishing the race strong. Just as home field advantage in the NFL playoffs increases the probability of earning a trip to the Super Bowl, pole position is an advantage because the driver starts out in first place.
Better Odds And Safety
Drivers who win the pole award will have an increased probability of finishing on the lead lap, especially at short to intermediate ovals. Besides the probability advantages, the pole position and qualifying in general is an important safety measure in NASCAR.
The fastest cars always start at the front, either in pole position or in the top 10. However, if NASCAR penalizes them for a failed inspection or if they revert to a backup car, they will they start a race from the rear. Since the fastest drivers start up front, they don’t need to force their way past slower cars.
Further, NASCAR’s richer teams often qualify in better positions, and their lower-funded teams usually qualify toward the rear of the field. This further increases safety because it often lets highly-funded teammates work together, since they often start nearer to one another for the event.
Although some drivers perform better at the pole position, all drivers will agree that they have less to worry about in the race’s early stages. Drivers starting behind them must account for the cars in front of and beside them, and they must pay close attention to their spotter’s instructions.
Drivers starting from pole position also have an early advantage of choosing their line unless another car immediately jumps out in front of them. Most of the time, the pole sitter can ride high, in the center of the track, or low (toward the apron), wherever they feel the most comfortable.
The pole sitter in NASCAR historically wins less than 20% of the time. This is because there are a lot of pit stops and different fuel and tire strategies for each team. Also, the sheer length of many races makes earning pole position an early advantage, but not a guaranteed victory.
Drivers like Richard Petty won often from the pole, and drivers who qualify either near the front or on the pole have a decent overall winning percentage. However, starting from pole guarantees nothing.
There was an 11-month drought over the 2018 and 2019 NASCAR Cup Seasons in which pole sitters did not win. Martin Truex Jr. won from pole at the Quaker State 400 in Kentucky on 14 July 2018. There wasn’t a win from pole until 10 June 2019, almost a year later. Given there is an offseason, it’s more accurate to say there were no wins from pole for 33 points races.
Before the 11-month drought from 2018 to 2019, a similar drought occurred between 2011 and 2012. On 17 July 2011, Ryan Newman won the New Hampshire race. Following his win, 30 races passed before Joey Logano broke the streak at Pocono on June 10th, 2012. This was almost exactly the same length of drought as in 2018-2019!
NASCAR Drivers Who Often Won From Pole
Over his 200-win career, 61 of Richard Petty’s wins came from one of the 123 races in which he started from the pole. Do the math, and 49.5% of his poles resulted in wins. This equates to Petty winning 30.5% of his 200 wins while sitting on the pole.
Overall, Petty competed in 1,184 races and won 200 of them, for a winning percentage of 16.9%. Petty also won more races from the pole than any other driver, with David Pearson (37), taking second place.
Although Pearson won just 37 races from pole compared to Petty’s 61, we also need to take into account that the NASCAR legend competed in just 574 Cup Series races, less than half the number that Petty competed in. Pearson won 105 races, for an overall winning percentage of 18.3. His winning percentage from pole position clocks in at 32.7%, with 37 wins out of 113 pole position awards.
Yarborough started 560 races, winning 83 of them, good for a 14.8% winning percentage. Of his 83 wins, 16 came from the pole, for a winning percentage of 23.2% from the top spot.
Waltrip won 84 races in 809 starts, comprising a solid 10.4% winning percentage. However, 24 of his wins came from his 59 poles, equating to a winning percentage of 40.6%.
How Important Is Pole Position At The Daytona 500?
Pole position at the Daytona 500 isn’t usually very important. Only five drivers have won the Daytona 500 from pole, and no driver has done it since 1987. Overall, two of those five drivers won from the pole twice. This equates to an overall winning percentage from pole of 10.9%.
The drivers who won at Daytona from the pole were Bill Elliott (1985 and 1987), Cale Yarborough (1968 and 1984), Buddy Baker (1980), Richard Petty (1966), and Fireball Roberts (1962). Of the drivers listed, Elliott, Baker, and Yarborough each won the pole four times at the Daytona 500.
Three drivers accomplished a pole position three-peat at the Daytona 500: Fireball Roberts (1961-63), Bill Elliott (1985-87), and Ken Schrader (1988-90). In 2013, Danica Patrick became the first woman to win the pole award at the Daytona 500.
Most NASCAR historians agree that the sport’s modern era began in 1972, one season after NASCAR rebranded itself as the Winston Cup Series. They define the sport’s first 23 seasons (1949 to 1971) as the Pre-Modern Era. Research has determined that the odds of the pole sitter winning a race in the mid-1950s sat at around 35%. By 2010, those odds had shrunk to less than 10%.
The average odds of a driver winning from the pole collectively decreased from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. Around the time the modern era began, those odds jumped back up to just above 30%, before they decreased collectively, bottoming to under 10% by 1980.
From 1980 until 2010, the probability of winning stagnated drastically, peaking at 29% in 1981, before declining to less than 9% by the end of the decade. After another steady but smaller increase throughout the 1990s, the 2000s saw the number plummet again.
The largest peak of winning from pole following the 1980 season came in the mid-1990s, at about 23%. The number has not encroached on the 20 percent margin again. The largest declines occurred in the season following the Generation 3 car’s introduction. When 1992 hit, NASCAR debuted the Generation 4 car, while the Car of Tomorrow (CoT) debuted in 2007 and ran full-time in 2008.
As the decades wore on, NASCAR’s specifications grew steadily stricter, especially when they unveiled new car designs. We can speculate that because of NASCAR’s tightening grip on what teams can and cannot do, the win probability of those starting on pole position will probably remain at 10% or less.
Despite the steadily decreasing win probabilities from the pole position, drivers always strive to start on pole. One reason is that, as 1998, 2008, and 2017 have shown, drivers who qualify in higher positions win races more often. They don’t necessarily need to qualify on the pole, but they do need to post a respective qualifying time and attain the best starting position possible.
Since track conditions change and unfortunate events occur during a race, you won’t often see the pole position translate into a win. But you will see race winners and championship contenders routinely secure top 10 or, at worst, top 15 qualifying spots.
Pole position in NASCAR is important, but it doesn’t guarantee a win. Starting from the pole gives drivers an advantage during the early stages of the race, but most race winners start anywhere in the top 15. The higher the starting position, the higher the probability of winning the race.
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