NASCAR: Does the Daytona 500 polesitter matter?

Daytona 500, NASAR (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Daytona 500, NASAR (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

How much does taking the pole position for the Daytona 500 actually matter in the grand scheme of NASCAR’s biggest race?

Every year, big storylines emerge ahead of the Daytona 500 to open up the new NASCAR Cup Series season. There is always a “big” story. This year’s story is whether Denny Hamlin can win three Daytona 500s in a row. This will holds fans over until the racing activities begin.

But that will soon take a backseat to whoever takes the pole position. The level of attention on the polesitter is second only to the race winner. So it appears to be a big deal.

And it’s a big deal, because whoever takes the pole position should have at least a tiny advantage to win the race, right? Maybe?

But starting position means much less at superspeedways than it does at the intermediate tracks and short tracks.

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Starting first in any race is better than not, but as the race progresses, many other factors come into play that render starting positions meaningless. To win at superspeedways, you need flawless pit stops, good drafting help and a knack for avoiding crashes.

Mistakes can cost you in a big way, especially at the season’s biggest race. But just how hard is it to win the Daytona 500 as the polesitter?

Turns out it’s REALLY hard! The 2021 race is the 63rd running of the Daytona 500, and as of now, only seven drivers (Fireball Roberts, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Richard Petty, Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett) have managed to do this. Incredibly, Yarborough and Elliott actually did it twice!

The most recent polesitter and race winner was Jarrett all the way back in 2000 — 21 years ago!

Taking a look back at the last 10 years you can see how this has played out:

YEAR     POLE (finish)                       WINNER (qualifying position)
2011     Dale Earnhardt Jr. (24)       Trevor Bayne (32)
2012     Carl Edwards (8)                  Matt Kenseth (16)
2013     Danica Patrick (8)                Jimmie Johnson (21)
2014     Austin Dillon (9)                   Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7)
2015     Jeff Gordon (33)                   Joey Logano (21)
2016     Chase Elliott (37)                 Denny Hamlin (10)
2017     Chase Elliott (14)                 Kurt Busch (22)
2018     Alex Bowman (17)               Austin Dillon (14)
2019     William Byron (21)               Denny Hamlin (12)
2020     Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (20)     Denny Hamlin (5)

A few drivers have come close, but other times, not so much. Winning at superspeedways comes down to being in the right place at the right time and lucky. Usually it’s a combination of the two. A saving grace is that the polesitter usually finishes in a respectable position. “Respectable” doesn’t win trophies (or glory), though.

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My prediction for the 2021 Daytona 500 is that Hamlin’s run ends. Bubba Wallace take the pole position and finishes in 17th place while Chase Briscoe wins the race after starting in 16th.