Friday 5: A one in a million shot never before seen in NASCAR – NASCAR on NBC Sports

Lightning and NASCAR have frustratingly intertwined this summer, leading to numerous race delays, but who could have imagined their connection to one person?

The probability of Martin Truex Jr.’s five consecutive third-place finishes nearly equals the chances a person has of being struck by lightning in a given year.

The odds of Truex scoring back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back third-place finishes were 1 million to one, according to Jeremy Losak, assistant professor at the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University.

The odds of being stuck by lightning in a given year are 1 in 1.2 million, according to the National Weather Service.

Never in NASCAR’s history has a driver finished in third place for five races in a row.

That doesn’t impress Truex.

“Seems like third place is just where we’re at right now,” he said with a hint of disdain after last weekend’s race on the Daytona road course.

Crew chief James Small calls those third-place finishes “frustrating” because the team has been so close to wins.

He tries to console himself, though. Small notes that finishing third is “better than fourth. It’s better than crashing.”

But then he adds, “it’s not fun.”

Martin Truex Jr., shown during the Daytona road course race, has gone more than a month since he finished in a position other than third place in a Cup race. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Truex’s streak almost ended Aug. 8 in the first Michigan race, which marked his third consecutive third-place finish. He was eighth on the overtime restart. Truex passed five cars on the first lap of overtime but could not gain any other positions on the final lap. He finished behind winner Kevin Harvick and runner-up Brad Keselowski.

Truex will have a chance to break the streak — or extend it for a sixth consecutive race — Saturday at Dover International Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The odds of Truex finishing third in all six of these races is 23.5 million to 1, said Losak, who determined the probabilities for NBC Sports.

The odds of winning the jackpot in the Mega Millions is 302 million to 1. So compared to that, there’s a good chance Truex will finish third again Saturday.

However long Truex’s run lasts, it will become a part of Losak’s sport data and analysis class at Syracuse.

“I’m probably going to show (the students) this as an example of how to do this sort of thing,” he said.

Losak discovered the probabilities with the help of a teaching assistant, who provided research. Losak, used DraftKings odds on drivers, reviewed historical data, wrote a code and ran 100 million simulations to determine the odds.

“The more simulations I run, the more accurate the number is,” Losak told NBC Sports. “Given how unlikely an event this is to occur, if I didn’t run enough simulations, you would have a bunch fo times it would happen zero times. So I had to run the simulation enough times to get some times where it actually hit.”

Losak noted that Truex’s odds are better than most drivers because Truex has a better record. Most drivers, Losak noted, would have about a 4 million to one chance of placing third in five races in a row. Losak also said that for those drivers, they would have an 85.7 million to one chance of finishing third in these six consecutive races.

“I enjoy doing stuff like this,” Losak said. “It’s just fun to fiddle with the data.”

Truex will save his fun for when he’s back in Victory Lane.

2. Personal changes

Noah Gragson has endured much on the track this season. He’s had a run-in with teammate Justin Allgaier, a fight with Harrison Burton and contact with Riley Herbst and Myatt Snider. But it is off the track that Gragson has focused on recently.

“I’ve kind of made a lot of changes in my personal life in the past week and a half, two weeks,” Gragson said after his third-place finish last weekend on the Daytona road course. “Just trying to clean up things on my end, not even on the racetrack, just trying to be in a better headspace when I get to the racetrack.”

Asked about what he’s done in particular to achieve that, Gragson said:

“Just trying to focus on my priorities and focus on what is going to better myself for our team at JR Motorsports and how I apply myself more. Whether it be friendships that aren’t really the best that are kind of bringing drama in my life or just different things, just trying to eliminate those options.

“I’ve spent a lot of time by myself at home, really not doing anything, studying film, playing Xbox and going to the shop. … Trying to clean up my friends, trying to clean up stuff that brings extra drama to my life, things that the less I can think about during the day, the better I can be on the racetrack. There are a lot of things that are rolling through my head right now.”

Gragson enters this weekend’s Xfinity Series doubleheader at Dover third in points with victories in the season-opening race at Daytona and at Bristol. He goes into Saturday’s race (12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) with top-10  finishes each of the past two weeks.

3. Choose your path

The choose rule returns this weekend at Dover International Speedway.

The rule, which was tried at the Bristol All-Star Race, and used at Michigan earlier this month, will be in place the rest of the season except at the Charlotte Roval and races at Daytona and Talladega.

The rule allows drivers to choose whether to restart on the inside lane or outside lane. Chase Elliott used it to take the lead at Michigan. He was fifth in line but the top four cars took the outside lane, so he took the inside lane and restarted next to leader Kevin Harvick. Elliott passed Harvick and led nine laps. Harvick retook the lead and went on to win the first of two races that weekend. Elliott fell to seventh.

For all the preparation teams might put into figuring what lane to choose based on what other drivers do, William Byron says it isn’t that complicated on what to do.

“I think Dover is fairly even on lane choice,” he said. “I know the bottom lane doesn’t accelerate as well on the restart zone. So if you’re maybe second, you might choose to restart fourth (outside lane row 2) instead of on the inside in second. I think it’s all just feel and how your car is handling. Obviously, the engineers can try to science it out as best they can. But typically, just common-sense plays into a rule like this for sure.”

4. Looking ahead

Car owner Jack Roush explained this week to reporters what he liked among the changes this season and one thing in particular that could be better for owners.

Roush is a fan of one-day races, echoing sentiments from others, including Stewart-Haas Racing co-owner Tony Stewart and JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty.

“We’ve demonstrated we can do one-day races and there may be a chance to go to some place we hadn’t otherwise planned to go to that maybe doesn’t have enough hotel room capacity,” Roush said. “Some of the other things would tend to rule out having one of our Cup events, so I think that we may be able to take some one-day races, that’ll be fun.”

He also noted another change he liked.

“The one thing that comes from the short tracks that I hadn’t experienced before, but the choice or opportunity to have every car and every driver make a choice if he wants to start inside or outside (on a restart) … that’s an interesting dimension of strategy and consideration that I think makes the racing more exciting for me,” Roush said.

On the challenges owners face, Roush said: “NASCAR is in a position to take a look at most of the money that comes into the sport and what it takes to run the racetracks or their affiliations with the racetracks, what it takes corporately to make their organization work. I’m not the person to comment on either, but for the money that gets portioned out to the teams it’s not enough to make it very exciting from a business point of view.”

5. Out of sync

If Kyle Busch fails to win either Cup race at Dover this weekend, it will mark the first time in his Cup career he has failed to win by race 26 in a season.

Busch has one win in the last 45 races. That victory came at Miami in last year’s season finale, giving Busch his second career series title. During that same time, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have 15 wins.  Busch has 56 career Cup victories, one ahead of Kevin Harvick.