Race Weekend Central

Stat Sheet: How Often Does the Trailing Car Win a Photo Finish?

NASCAR fans were in for a treat in Saturday’s (April 13) Andy’s Frozen Custard 300 at Texas Motor Speedway, as Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer had a fierce last-lap battle that saw Mayer prevail by no more than a couple of inches.

The final margin of victory? Two one-thousandths of a second: tied for the second-closest finish in NASCAR Xfinity Series history. Given Texas’ unpopularity with both fans and drivers alike, a finish like Saturday’s was just what the doctor ordered.

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While Mayer scored his fifth career win in Xfinity and turned around what had been a disastrous start to 2024, it was a heartbreaker for Sieg, who was less than a blink of an eye away from his first-ever win in his 342nd Xfinity start. Even more so, considering that he looked to have an insurmountable lead as the laps ticked down … that is, until Mayer made up serious ground in the final sets of circuits, pulled even on the backstretch in the final lap and nipped Sieg at the line.

But Saturday’s finish poses an interesting question: how often does the driver running second at the white flag successfully complete the pass in a photo finish, and how often does the lead car successfully fend off the challenge?

In other words, how many photo finishes also featured a last-lap pass?

To start, I will be looking at all the finishes in NASCAR Cup Series, Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series history that were decided by an official margin of victory of 0.030 seconds or less. No given interval denotes what is and what isn’t a photo finish, so I had to draw an arbitrary line at 0.030 to not completely drown this article in what is already a huge table of stats and numbers.

For this study, I will be excluding photo finishes that occurred at Daytona International Speedway, Talladega Superspeedway and the current Atlanta Motor Speedway configuration. Photo finishes on drafting tracks are more frequent and an entirely different animal, so I wanted to keep this confined to unrestricted ovals. The next time we have a photo finish on a drafting track, however, I might do a similar study for said finishes.

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Anyway, 29 races have been decided by 0.030 seconds or less on unrestricted ovals in the history of NASCAR’s top three series. One occurred on a road course, four occurred on short tracks and the remaining 24 happened at ovals between one and two miles in length.

Below are said finishes, complete with the margin of victory, the series, the track and the top two finishers. If the winner led the white flag lap, they were the Leading car. If the winner did not lead the white flag lap, they were the Trailing car.

DateTrackSeriesOfficial MOVWinnerRunner-Up
July 11, 1995ColoradoTrucks.0001Butch Miller (Leading)Mike Skinner
March 16, 2003DarlingtonCup.002Ricky Craven (Trailing)Kurt Busch
July 7, 1996MilwaukeeXfinity.002Buckshot Jones (Leading)Mike McLaughlin
April 13, 2024TexasXfinity.002Sam Mayer (Trailing)Ryan Sieg
June 14, 2008MichiganTrucks.005Erik Darnell (Leading)Johnny Benson Jr.
May 15, 2015CharlotteTrucks.005Kasey Kahne (Trailing)Erik Jones
March 11, 2001AtlantaCup.006Kevin Harvick (Leading)Jeff Gordon
September 7, 1995RichmondTrucks.006Terry Labonte (Leading)Geoff Bodine
March 18, 2005AtlantaTrucks.008Ron Hornaday Jr. (Leading)Bobby Labonte
February 22, 2004RockinghamCup.010Matt Kenseth (Leading)Kasey Kahne
March 13, 2016PhoenixCup.010Kevin Harvick (Leading)Carl Edwards
November 15, 1998HomesteadXfinity.010Jeff Burton (Trailing)Jimmy Spencer
DateTrackSeriesOfficial MOVWinnerRunner-Up
August 29, 2010MontrealXfinity.012Boris Said (Leading)Max Papis
June 17, 2017MichiganXfinity.012Denny Hamlin (Trailing)William Byron
May 16, 1999Pikes PeakTrucks.013Mike Wallace (Trailing)Jack Sprague
November 16, 2012HomesteadTrucks.014Cale Gale (Trailing)Kyle Busch
May 21, 2016Charlotte (All-Star Open)Cup.015Kyle Larson (Leading)Chase Elliott
November 20, 2005HomesteadCup.017Greg Biffle (Leading)Mark Martin
August 26, 2011BristolXfinity.019Kyle Busch (Leading)Joey Logano
September 20, 2008Las VegasTrucks.020Mike Skinner (Leading)Erik Darnell
DateTrackSeriesOfficial MOVWinnerRunner-Up
March 17, 1996HomesteadTrucks.022Dave Rezendes (Leading)Jack Sprague
November 8, 2002PhoenixTrucks.022Kevin Harvick (Leading)Ted Musgrave
March 16, 2013BristolXfinity.023Kyle Busch (Leading)Kyle Larson
August 11, 2018MichiganTrucks.025Brett Moffitt (Trailing)Johnny Sauter
May 29, 2005CharlotteCup.027Jimmie Johnson (Trailing)Bobby Labonte
April 4, 2004TexasCup.028Elliott Sadler (Leading)Kasey Kahne
March 20, 2005AtlantaCup.028Carl Edwards (Trailing)Jimmie Johnson
October 8, 2005KansasXfinity.030Kasey Kahne (Trailing)Greg Biffle
November 6, 2021PhoenixXfinity.030Daniel Hemric (Trailing)Austin Cindric

Here are the official tallies. Of the 29 photo finishes up for review, 17 were won by the leader successfully holding off a challenge from second place. The other 12 were won by the second-place car that successfully completed a pass on the leader at the checkered flag.

SeriesRacesLead Car WonTrailing Car Won
Total291712
Cup963
Xfinity945
Trucks1174

Does that come as a surprise? From my perspective, no. One would expect it to be a 50-50 split right down the middle, but the leader has the advantage of clean air. Even if the second-place car is clearly faster than the leader, they’ll still be running at a deficit as long as the leader has a clear track ahead of them. Thus, the leaders holding off second place in approximately 59% of the photo finishes look right to me on paper.

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But of course, all of this is arbitrary due to the sample size and the cutoff point that I chose. What would the results be if I changed the concept of a photo finish to ones decided by 0.100 seconds or less? How would the results change if I included superspeedway races? How many of those photo finishes didn’t even involve the driver leading at the white flag?

Also interesting are the places that had the most photo finishes through the years. From this preliminary study, it appears that 1.5-mile tracks are the most likely places to have a photo finish outside of superspeedways.

TrackTotal Photo FinishesCupXfinityTrucks
Homestead4112
Atlanta (Old)321
Charlotte321
Michigan312
Phoenix3111
Bristol22
Texas211
Colorado11
Darlington11
Kansas11
Las Vegas11
Milwaukee11
Montreal11
Pikes Peak11
Richmond11
Rockingham11

But of course, how would that rundown change if I included finishes decided by a tenth or less? What would change if I gave a handicap to road courses or short tracks, places that aren’t necessarily known for razor-thin margins?

Perhaps that will all be in a follow-up article down the road.

About the author

Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch, and his weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” Stephen also writes commentary, contributes weekly to the “Bringing the Heat” podcast and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage. A native of Texas, Stephen began following NASCAR at age 9 after attending his first race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Follow on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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