Assessing Daytona 500 championship with Data Visualization

By Eshan Wickrema and Lachlan James

Fellow rev-heads unite! The iconic Daytona 500 is set to kick-off the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup series next weekend at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida (Sunday February 22).

And, because NASCAR only comes in second to the NFL for US television ratings, as well as being broadcast to 150 countries worldwide, we can only assume you’ll be watching!

So who do you need to keep your eye on when cheering the epic lap times, duels and smashes in the 57th annual Daytona 500 this Sunday – be it trackside or couch-side? Let’s use Business Intelligence and data visualization to find out.

Wins by manufacturer over time at the Daytona 500

Well, if analyzing success over time by manufacturer tells us anything, direct your dimes towards a driver behind the wheel of a Chevrolet this Sunday.

Over the last 57 years, Chevrolet has been the most successful manufacturer at the Daytona 500, with a total of 23 wins. While Ford has sizzled across the line for a scintillating 13 successes, the other six manufactures have mustered fewer combined Daytona 500 victories (20) than Chevrolet alone.

But perhaps Chevrolet’s dominance is out-dated – too far in the past to matter. How does the race for manufacturer bragging rights stack-up, in recent history, over the last 20 years?

Year-by-year wins by manufacturer at the Daytona 500 (1994 – 2014)

Since 1994, only three car manufacturers have claimed the Daytona 500 title. You’ll never guess who’s taken the most chequered flags…

Yep; you guessed it. Chevrolet has maintained its Daytona 500 dominance over the past two decades, claiming the top position on the podium 13 times. Chevrolet also enjoyed a streak of successive successes in that time, with five straight victories from 2003 to 2007.

While Dodge amassed two triumphs (2002 and 2008) in the ‘naughties’, 2015 is looming as another Chevy vs Ford battle. Ford claimed three wins in four years between 2009 and 2012. On the other hand, the Chevrolet juggernaut appeared to re-emerge in 2013 and 2014, with two wins from two starts.

But it’s not all about manufactures. So who are the driving forces behind these impressive machines?

Daytona 500’s finest: Most successful drivers over time

While many of you might be looking to Dale Earnhardt Jr to earn his triple Daytona crown this year (check out Fox Sports article, Three reasons Dale Earnhardt Jr can repeat as Daytona 500 champ), by backing-up his 2014 victory (he also won in 2004), Richard Petty is the undisputed all-time champ with an incredible seven Daytona 500 titles to his name.

Unfortunately for Petty, he raced at a time when race day exploits were far less lucratively rewarded, accruing just over $(US)1.5 million in prize money (adjusted for inflation for the sake of modern day comparison).

Contemporary Daytona success story, Jeff Gordon, has earned the most from his three Daytona 500 victories (1997, 1999, 2005), compared to any other Daytona 500 titleholder, taking home just over $4 million in today’s terms.

Despite their historical and lucrative victories, neither Petty nor Gordon hold the fastest average speed record for a Daytona 500 winning driver. That honor goes to Buddy Baker in his singular 1980 victory, with an average speed of 178 miles per hour (mph). But that was 35 years ago. Doesn’t it seem strange that nobody’s bettered that record since?

Average speed of Daytona 500 winner by year (1959 – 2014)

It’s easy to see that race day conditions and incidents, chiefly crashes and weather, have contributed to significant year-to-year variations in the average speed of Daytona 500 winners.

Despite these year-to-year fluctuations, the average speed of Daytona 500 winners increased over time from 1959 to 1980. But, since Buddy set the long-standing average speed record in 1980, the average winning speed has fluctuated markedly – from 176mph in 1987, to 130mph in 2011. If anything, there appears to a downward trend in average winning speeds since 1980.

With a raft of automotive advancements over the last 35 years, why hasn’t this benchmark been beaten – significantly? Are modern, over-the-top, engine regulations and technical restrictions to blame (see’s article, Dale Earnhardt Jr disqualified in Daytona 500 qualifying)?

Whatever the case, while average winning speeds might be trending down, Daytona 500 prize money has increased significantly over time.

Winning windfall: Daytona 500 prize money over time (1959 – 2014)

The most obvious leap in loot for crossing the line first was between the 1997 and 1998 seasons, where prize money tripled from $377,410 to $1,059,805.

This payday boon was accredited to a surge in NASCAR popularity as the IndyCar industry began to decline. The sport received an additional boost in 1999, which saw the signing of large broadcasting deals with three major television networks, ensuring the leap in prize money was maintained.

Although it’s interesting to note that, while take home pay has essentially increased year-to-year at the Daytona 500 – including that massive jump in 1998, winners’ prize money has actually stagnated in the new millennium.

When adjusted for inflation (in the above chart), we can see that the value of the championship cheque has actually decreased, in real terms, since the 2004 Daytona 500.

And, when you add in another data point – the winning driver of each Daytona 500 of the past 20 years – another intriguing trend emerges (each colored dot on the below chart represents a particular driver).

No driver has been able to win back-to-back Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin (light blue dot) in his Chevrolet in 1994 and 1995. Perhaps that’s one good reason why Dale Earnhardt Jr won’t win in 2015.

In fact, looking back at our chart of Daytona 500 wins by manufacturer over the past 20 years, we can now also see that Chevrolet’s five straight victories (from 2003 to 2007) were actually achieved by five different drivers. So does this actually mean that the type of car is more important than the man behind the wheel?

Let me (Daytona 500) entertain you!

Regardless of whether man or machine is responsible, we just want to be entertained!

And, we want a tightly contested race, with many automotive thrills and spills, Talladega Nights style!

So what do you enjoy most about the Daytona 500? Let us know on Twitter: @YellowfinBI