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Behind the Numbers: Just how important is a great start?

Winning the first race of the year is important, but is it more important than winning any other regular-season race?
22 Feb 2018
Jacob Sundstrom, NHRA National Dragster Associate Editor
Behind the Numbers
Winnernationals

Matt Hagan kicked off the 2018 season with four win lights. That should sound familiar. Hagan won four times on Sunday to start the 2017 season, too.

In fact, it’s the third time in four years the Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car driver earned the Winternationals Wally. As is tradition after the first race of the season, much of the talk surrounded how important it is to get off to a good start; that talking point wasn’t restricted to Funny Car, of course. It stretched to Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel and Bo Butner in Pro Stock.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that Hagan did not win the Funny Car championship in 2015 nor in 2017, despite winning in Pomona to start both of those seasons. He did not win the Winternationals in either of his championship seasons (2014, 2011), and as for 2018 … well, I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see.

In the Countdown to the Championship era (which began in 2007 -- when Tanner Gray was a second grader), only 18.2 percent of the champions (six of 33) have won the season opener in Pomona. That includes, of course, only the three Professional classes that run the Winternationals. That’s true of all the data in this post; to keep everything apples to apples, Pro Stock Motorcycle was not included.

Before you get the wrong idea, I’m not suggesting winning the Winternationals is some sort of a curse. In fact, the percentage of champions who also won the first race of the season (18) is the same as the second race of the season, the sixth, the 10th, the 12th, and the 17th. Below, you can see a graphic of the whole 24-race schedule broken down by percentage.

graphic.jpg
A couple of things should jump out right away: A lot of champions win the 19th race of the season (traditionally the Countdown opener). That’s probably worth its own investigation in it of itself. My two cents: Teams race very aggressively to open the playoffs. Once a team has established a lead, it can race a little more conservatively while the teams in the chase race to catch up. That can make the winners a little more democratic but may not impact the championship chase too much. I’m open to theorizing.

Truthfully, the most interesting races are the ones in the regular season because the Countdown is a damn mess for statistics (listen, it’s a fun mess, and I love it, but it’s a damn mess for my numbers, OK?) The average percentage is 24, which is very close to the middle band of races (races five, nine, and 15 are all won by 22.7 percent of champs). If you look at just the regular season races, the average is 19 -- that's right, just about dead-on the percent of champions who bring home the Wally from the season-opener in SoCal. That at least indicates that we’re on to something here.

That thing we’re on to is this: Winning the first race is vital to winning a championship but so is winning the second race, the third race, the ninth race, and the 15th race. Things get wacky once you get into the Countdown to the Championship (of course), but there’s not a special magic to starting the season off with a win. Champions tend to win a lot of races; that might sound obvious, but it goes against a truism that pops up in both stick-and-ball and stick-and-clutch sports.

Getting that first win of the season is great for Hagan and company, but they know it’s a long season. There are 23 more of these suckers to come, and he’d like to win every single one of ’em — you know, just to be sure.