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Powerless from the Pole

Tuesday, April 10, 2012
Kahne leads the field to green, but that's about it. Photo: Getty Images

Through six races in the 2012 season, Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards have won three of the Sprint Cup Series poles, and they've combined to lead a total of zero laps.  Not zero laps at the start of the race, mind you, zero laps, period!  That's right: neither has led a single lap this season.

That's pretty difficult to do when you assume that they theoretically had the fastest car at the track and started in the front row in half of the 2012 races.  Not only could they not manage to hold off the rest of the field to lead the first lap, but they never once got back up to the front at any point later in the day.

Interestingly, this trend seems to be holding up in most of the races this season and leads to questions on whether there is much advantage to starting on the pole.

In fact, only in the Ford City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway did the pole sitter lead a significant amount of laps.  In that race, Greg Biffle led the first 41 laps, but then fell back in the 500-lapper and never led again.

At Phoenix, Mark Martin took the pole and led just the first lap and Denny Hamlin accomplished the same feat (to use the term loosely) at the Auto Club Speedway.  Hamlin would later lead another single lap during a pit stop cycle, but he's the only one of the six 2012 pole sitters to ever make it back to the front.

In a blog post last week, I reiterated the question from our recent commercial as to whether we were qualifying or racing, and the question is again applicable in this case.  How does the pole sitter routinely fall off immediately and fade into a middling oblivion?

While the Daytona 500 has a complex qualifying system, the front row is still determined by speed, so Edwards clearly showed up with something in February.  However, teammate Greg Biffle took the lead from him on the first lap of the Great American Race and Edwards ended up finishing eighth.

Similarly, Martin finished ninth at Phoenix, Biffle wound up 13th at Bristol and Hamlin was 11th at the Auto Club after pitting during a rain delay that never ended.  Kasey Kahne's disaster of a season landed him 19th after his pole at Las Vegas and 38th after the same start at Martinsville, but luck hasn't been his thing this year (to say the least).

Still, for the most part it seems that the pole sitter finishes somewhere around the cusp of the top-10.  Kahne aside, the cars don't end up at cash for clunkers, but they aren't the same rides on Sunday as they are during qualifying.

I'm not a mechanic, so I can't tell you why this trend exists.  Perhaps a middling qualifying run allows a good team to make the necessary tweaks, while the top qualifiers hesitate to touch the car.  Perhaps the setup that works best with no other cars on the track isn't good for negotiating traffic (although you don't need to negotiate traffic sitting in the front row).  Perhaps the pole sitters simply haven't been good at hitting the gas when the green flag drops and have been pushed back.  Or, perhaps it's just a statistical anomaly that's taken place over a small sample size.

Regardless, it's interesting to see how little advantage the coveted pole position has had on the outcome of a race.  In the Sprint Cup standings, a driver gets a bonus point for leading a lap and both Kahne and Edwards have lost an easy point by losing first lap position.  At the risk of throwing a thorn in his side, Edwards should know the importance of a single point after finishing runner-up to the championship by such a margin last year.  In the fantasy auto racing world, Yahoo players get 10 bonus points for leading a single lap, so a past strategy has been to play the pole sitter for some quick points; that hasn't been very applicable this season.

While claiming the pole hasn't spelled good luck this season, it's still worth noting that drivers need to show up at the track with a fast car to have a chance at winning the race.  Five of the six races have been won by cars that started between fourth and ninth (only Denny Hamlin's 13th-place start at Phoenix won the race after starting outside the top-10).  Only time will tell if the actual pole sitter can shake the bad luck trend and take a fast car to Victory Lane.