Category archive: Denny Hamlin

There was a time when Denny Hamlin was an absolute lock at Pocono, and just about any flat track for that matter. But, as is often the case with NASCAR, the field has caught up.

Hamlin won his first two career starts at the Tricky Triangle, then was sixth or better in the next three. After two sub-par finishes, he won another two in a row.

Since then though, he hasn't finished better than fifth in four races, with a 15th and 19th sprinkled in there for good measure.

Once again, however, don't let those numbers fool you. Hamlin has led at least 19 laps in each of the past six Pocono races, and has been the fastest car on at least 17 laps in all six of those as well.

Dating back to the start of the 2009 season, Hamlin has been the fastest car on 225 laps at Pocono, 65 more than any other driver. In fact, only one other driver has even put up more than 100 fastest laps in that time.

That would be the hottest driver in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson, who has been the fastest driver on 160 circuits in that time. Johnson has finished fourth in each of the past three Pocono races, and 13th or better in each of the past 10.

However, don't entirely sign up on Johnson either, even though he just won at one of the most similar track to Pocono, Indianapolis. Despite the fourth-place run, Johnson is coming off one of his worst races at Pocono in recent memory.

His average position in the race was 15th, his second-worst mark in the past 10 races. He finished with just seven fastest laps, and a 101.4 driver rating, while impressive, was his lowest mark at Pocono since the spring 2007 race.

So, what did we learn today? Hopefully some sort of life lesson like don't go near downed power lines or don't wear socks with sandals. But also that Hamlin and Johnson have been the class at Pocono recently, but they are far from sure things.

Looking For Trouble

Every week, my fellow members in ESPN Stats & Information crunch the numbers and tell us what to watch for the following weekend. Here's what they found:

While some cautions at Pocono are caused by chicken, deer, people on the track or the ever-exciting unidentifiable debris, some are also caused by accidents.

Look for wrecks to be multi-car incidents in Turn 1. In the June Pocono race, we saw a streak of 15 straight wrecks with two or more cars snapped. That was the second-longest at any track since 1990.

Also dating back to 1990, there has been 48 accidents in Turn 1, opposed to 33 in Turn 2 and 32 in Turn 3. The extra speed carried down the superstretch being the favorite among the culprits.

The Eliminator: Pocono

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to predict a winner. It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you why somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, will be the race winner.

And for those of you looking for more details, I'll post the step-by-step eliminations on my Twitter account (@MattWillisESPN).

1. Sixteen of the past 17 Pocono winners did not finish in the top 10 in the most recent Pocono race (10 drivers eliminated, 34 remaining.)

2. The past eight Pocono winners finished in the top 10 in the most recent Sonoma race (30 eliminated, four remaining).

3. Seven of the past eight Pocono winners finished in the top 10 in the last Watkins Glen race (three eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Marcos Ambrose

As is my custom when I'm not traveling the Eastern seaboard, gallivanting about on vacation, I was participating in the chat during Sunday's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire.

When asked what I thought about Denny Hamlin's chances to win when he was putting a straight-up whuppin' on the field, I said he had the dominant car but that the dominant car often does not end up in Victory Lane.

Not exactly a dead-on prognostication, but I'm a bit of a soothsayer.

It's unfortunate to see a race decided on poor communication, but it did provide some drama watching Hamlin move through the field in hunt of Kasey Kahne and the lead, a fun reminder on how interesting racing can be when tires force more in-race strategy.

According to AccuScore computer simulations on, Kahne is essentially a lock to make the Chase. The big question: Is he on the short list of title contenders?

After his molasses-slow start, Kahne has put up the fourth-most points in the Cup series over the past 13 races, trailing only Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

Kahne is now third for the season in fastest laps run, trailing teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon.

Trivia break! How many drivers were ahead of Kahne on points after six races?

Hendrick power

Hendrick Motorsports started the season with an unforeseen 10 races without a win, the longest the team has gone without a victory to start a season since 1993.

Since then, Hendrick has returned to superpower status with five wins in the past nine races. Those five wins are the most by any team this season.

Not only has the team won more, but it also has been more consistent. In the first 10 races, the team had an average finish of 15.3 and a 52.5 top-10 percentage. In the past nine, it had an average finish of 10.3 and 66.7 top-10 percentage.

Trivia break! Which driver has led the most laps in a single New Hampshire race that he didn't win?

Loudon clear

Hamlin had the fastest car at New Hampshire. He ran the fastest lap 85 times out of the 301 circuits. The next-highest total was 44 from Kahne, followed by Johnson with 31.

Furthermore, those 85 fastest laps run were the second-highest total at New Hampshire dating to 2005, when NASCAR began tracking the stat. The only driver with a higher total was Clint Bowyer in 2010 with 89. Oh, Bowyer won that race. Hamlin didn't.

Trivia break! Who are the only drivers this season to lead more laps than Hamlin?

Trivia break answers

1. Thirty drivers were ahead of Kahne, as he was 31st, 133 points out of the lead.

2. Gordon led 257 laps in November 2001 but finished 15th.

3. Johnson and Greg Biffle are the only drivers to lead more laps than Hamlin this year.

We're at Pocono Raceway, and this is the point of the year when I usually have two main points to make:

1. Triangle racing is more interesting than it's given credit.
2. Denny Hamlin flat owns this place.

Don't let last year's lackluster finishes fool you; Hamlin's still the man there. Despite two finishes outside the top 10, Hamlin still had the second-most fastest laps run (behind the absent Kurt Busch), and he averaged a top-5 running position.

It's easy to go on about Hamlin, but I wanted to take some time, words and Internet space to analyze the curious case of Jeff Gordon.

Gordon is 21st in points, but doesn't deserve to be. I wrote in Tuesday's blog that he's second in fastest laps run this season, but it doesn't stop there. He's also fifth in overall green-flag speed, much faster than your average 21st-place driver.

This slow start is actually reminiscent to last year, when he was 13th in points after 13 races. Check out the chart!

The good news for 24 fans is that in the next 13 races of last season, nobody was better than Gordon. He had 508 points, 43 more than any other driver, with 10 top-10s in 13 races.

He also was much improved on those loop-data numbers, with a 108.1 driver rating, nearly 20 points higher, and 335 fastest laps run, compared to 184 in the first 13 races.

Looking for Trouble

Every week, my fellow ESPN Stats & Information staffers crunch the numbers and tell us what to watch for this weekend. Here's what they found:

Pocono is called the "Tricky Triangle" due to its three distinct turns, making it almost like a road course.

Some believe that the "Tunnel Turn" (aka Turn 2) is the trickiest of the three, but with the highest banking coming in Turn 1 (14 degrees) and drivers hitting 200-mph plus on the frontstretch, that area of the track leads to the most accidents.

Since 1990, there's been 48 accidents in Turn 1, compared to 31 in Turn 2 and 30 in Turn 3.

The Eliminator: Pocono

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to forecast a winner.

It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, will be the race winner.

And if you want to see who was eliminated in each step, I'll post the info on my Twitter account (@MattWillisESPN).

1. The past 16 Sprint Cup Series winners finished 16th or better in the previous race at the track (29 eliminated, 15 remaining).

2. The past seven Pocono winners had a top-20 finish in the most recent Sonoma race (five eliminated, 10 remaining).

3. The past seven Pocono winners had a top-10 finish in the most recent Watkins Glen race (five eliminated, five remaining).

4. Fourteen of the past 15 Pocono winners did not finish better than 15th in the previous year's running of that Pocono race (four eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Brad Keselowski

On Sunday at Kansas Speedway, it was Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. battling for the win -- a race win and a symbolic win.

See, one of the subplots of the season has been the emergence of Michael Waltrip Racing and whether it has surpassed Joe Gibbs Racing as the headline Toyota team in the Sprint Cup Series. Although Truex ranks higher than Hamlin in points, Hamlin has a pair of wins, and he won this head-to-head matchup.

As for the other two cars on each team, the advantage seems to go to Waltrip. The 55 and 15 cars are 11th and 12th in owner points, with JGR's 18 and 20 cars right behind in 13th and 14th.

Kyle Busch has especially been a disappointment, with just one top-5 finish in eight races. Each of the past four seasons, Busch has won at least three races with at least nine top-5 finishes.

The problem? Some might say it's the distraction of his new Nationwide Series team to go with his Trucks team. I don't want to analyze what's going on in Busch's head, but I can analyze his on-the-track performance.

The biggest issue might be that these long green-flag runs NASCAR has had don't work in Busch's favor. Not only is he among the best on restarts in the sport, but he also tends to fall off in long runs.

This season, Busch has the third-fastest average speed early in runs but the 13th-fastest speed late in runs.

What better place to break this slump than Richmond? Dating back to 2005, Busch has had a driver rating over 100 in 12 of the 14 races there, and one of those that he didn't was a 99.2.

This year? Busch has had a driver rating over 100 in just two of eight races.

His teammate Hamlin might also be among the favorites there. Over the past eight races at Richmond, Hamlin has been the fastest car on 305 laps, Busch on 237, both the most in the series. In fact, only two other cars have even 100 fastest laps run, and nobody else is over 200.

Want more evidence that JGR is the team to beat? I got this.

Hamlin already has led 1,188 laps at Richmond, in the top 10 all time there, and his per-race average of 99.0 laps led is the tops of any driver to race at Richmond.

Busch's 5.0 average finish at Richmond is tops among any driver who's made at least 10 starts there. He's at his best in the spring race there, too. Seven races, seven top-5s and a 2.3 average finish. Oh yeah, he's won this race the past three years.

The Eliminator: Richmond

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make a pick.

It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the projected race winner.

And don't doubt the system: The Eliminator hit Kyle Busch last spring at Richmond.

1. The past 11 Sprint Cup winners finished 16th or better in the previous race at the track (30 eliminated, 16 remaining).

2. The past 17 Richmond winners had a top-3 finish earlier that season (six eliminated, 10 remaining).

3. The past 13 Richmond winners entered the race in the top 10 in points (four eliminated, six remaining).

4. Six of the past seven Richmond winners finished in the top three in the previous year's race (five eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Denny Hamlin

Hamlin stepping up again

April, 24, 2012

Working on ESPN2's "NASCAR Now" has a certain number of perks that come with it. One is the chance to talk NASCAR, and other assorted random topics, with our reporters and analysts. Monday, Ricky Craven was in house and on the show.

The main topic was Denny Hamlin and his comeback season, as well as his place in history so far.

In 2010, he had a series-leading eight wins. Last year, just a single win as he just snuck into the Chase via the brand-spanking-new wild card.

This year, he has not only the two wins, but four top-10 finishes. In 2010 through eight races, he had two wins, but no other top-10s, leaving him 11th in points. That year, he went on a tear through May and June that netted him three additional victories.

Hamlin has 19 Sprint Cup wins, making him one of 40 drivers to reach that mark. That's it.

Those wins have come in 231 starts. If Hamlin wins one of his next two starts, he will have reached 20 wins faster than Cale Yarborough. If he gets there in 12 more starts, he'll be faster than Dale Earnhardt.

Trivia break! Who are the two drivers who reached 20 wins in less than 100 starts? Hint: Hop in the Wayback Machine.

Kansas Know-How

It looked like Martin Truex Jr.'s day. Mired in a 174-race winless streak, he led more than half the race before being passed by Hamlin with 31 to go.

But Truex still had one of the more dominating performances in recent memory.

Truex's average position throughout the race was a 1.685, the second-best in a race over the past two seasons by any driver at any track.

In a strange twist, any driver with an average position of second or better in a race over the past two seasons didn't go on to win that race.

But Truex's driver rating for the race was a 142.6, within sniffing distance of a perfect 150.

Over the past six seasons, only Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon have had a better driver rating in a race that they didn't go on to win. Busch did it three times, while Gordon did it once.

Trivia break! Who had the best average position in a race over the past two seasons?

Wreckless Racing

We had track records for fewest cautions and caution laps and highest average speed for the second straight race.

Whether you like the long green-flag stretches we saw first at Texas and then Kansas or not, cautions are at a historic low this season.

Through eight races, we've had only 43 cautions, 25 in the first three races. That's the fewest cautions over the first eight races of the season since 1979, when there were just 37.

Trivia break! Let's see how close you get with a guess. What's the mark for the most cautions in the first eight races of the year since 1980?

Trivia Break Answers

1. Herb Thomas got to 20 wins in 98 races; Fred Lorenzen in 99.

2. Kyle Busch had a 1.515 average position last year at California.

3. In 2005, there were 86 cautions in the first eight races, twice as many as this year.

The men's and women's college basketball tournaments are down to just four teams each, but here in my NASCAR Bracket of Massive Significance, I'm not ready for that yet. Our quarterfinals have left us with some very intriguing matchups:

Earnhardt Bracket

Greg Biffle versus Martin Truex Jr.: Biffle's numbers at Martinsville are less than stellar. He's never had a top-5 finish there. Truex just has one top-5 but was eighth there last fall, so he's my pick.

Allison Bracket

Dale Earnhardt Jr. versus Matt Kenseth: These two have a history dating back to the Nationwide Series before it was the Nationwide Series. Junior has been excellent at Martinsville lately; I like him to reach the semis.

France Bracket

Kevin Harvick versus Tony Stewart: Fun matchup between last year's Martinsville winners. Stewart won his last start, but his three before that were all 24th or worse. Harvick has three straight top-5s at the Paper Clip, so he's my man.

Petty Bracket

Clint Bowyer versus Paul Menard: The only non-1-versus-2 matchup in the bracket. Bowyer's Martinsville numbers aren't great, but Menard has never had a top-10 there.

Three-man show?

In the previous 10 races at Martinsville, three drivers have separated themselves from the pack: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.

Those three all have an average finish of 5.1 or better in that time. No other driver has a mark better than 10th.

So, looking inside the numbers, who's the man to beat? Or who's the guy to pick up if you can have only one on your fantasy team? That depends on how you look at it.

In terms of how many times these drivers have been passed the previous 10 races, Johnson has been passed the fewest at 292. And he does the best of staying up front with an average position of 5.4. The other two each have been passed more than 300 times in those races, with average positions between sixth and seventh.

But if you look at pure speed, Gordon has been the fastest driver on the track most often. He's run the fastest lap on 559 circuits over the 10 races. Johnson's at 491, and Hamlin 420.

At the end of the race, a tight finish also favors Gordon. Over the final 10 percent in each of those 10 races, Gordon has a plus-2 pass differential, while Johnson and Hamlin have put up negative numbers.

However, not much separates these drivers, and all three will be heavy threats up front all day Sunday.

Looking for trouble

Every week, our stats and analysis team compiles a breakdown of the wrecks at the next track on the schedule. Here's this week's takeaway:

For everybody who missed the slam-banging action at Bristol two weeks ago, you might be in luck.

Since 2004, when Martinsville was repaved, no track has featured more accidents than Martinsville with 154. The next highest is Charlotte with 108, then Bristol at 103.

And when deciding what end of the track to focus on, pick Turns 3 and 4. Since 1990, there've been 130 accidents in Turns 3 and 4, opposed to 86 in Turns 1 and 2.

The Eliminator: Martinsville

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make my race pick. It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you why one guy will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the race winner.

1. Eleven of the past 12 Martinsville winners finished in the top 20 in the previous week's race ( 26 eliminated, 19 remaining).

2. The past seven spring Martinsville winners finished ninth or better in the previous Martinsville race (12 eliminated, seven remaining).

3. The past nine Martinsville winners had a top-10 in the most recent Richmond race (three eliminated, four remaining).

4. The past seven Martinsville winners had a top-5 finish in the previous New Hampshire race (three eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Tony Stewart

What's in a number? Frankly for me, quite a bit, seeing as I'm employed as a researcher and a statistically themed blogger.

Driving a car with the No. 11 on it didn't make Denny Hamlin great, but he helped add to the legacy of a number that has been driven by some of the greats: Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Ned Jarrett. Even Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt won races in the 11.

Hamlin's victory Sunday at Phoenix was the 198th by a driver in the NASCAR Cup Series driving the 11, tying it with the legendary 43 car for most by any car number. No other car number is within 100 wins of those two.

But, the 11 does have some advantages over the 43 when comparing the two. The first is recent success, as Hamlin has won 14 Cup races over the past four seasons, more than any driver not named Jimmie Johnson. The 43 has won just three Cup races since the start of the 1985 season, two by Bobby Hamilton and one from John Andretti, the last in 1999.

The other is the variety of drivers in the cars. The 43 is dominated by Richard Petty; 192 of his 200 career wins came in that car. The other six wins have come from Hamilton, Andretti, Jim Paschal and Lee Petty.

Hamlin is the 13th driver to win driving the 11 car, and his 18 wins in the car rank fourth in that car's history, behind Yarborough's 55, Jarrett's 49 and Waltrip's 43. Junior Johnson also won 11 races in the 11.

They don't retire numbers in NASCAR, and that's for the best, because it only gives opportunities to add to the legacies that have been laid by legends.

Trivia break: Before Hamlin, who was the last driver to win in the 11?

Warm Cup Of Joe

Joe Gibbs Racing put all three of its cars into the top 10 at Phoenix. Hamlin's win was supplemented with a sixth from Kyle Busch and a 10th from Joey Logano.

It's the first time the Coach has had all three of his cars in the top 10 since the 2010 Chase race at Martinsville, but back then, it was a common occurrence.

That Martinsville race, also won by Hamlin, was the fourth time in a seven-race stretch that JGR had all three cars in the top 10.

Trivia break: What driver got JGR's first top-10 and win?

Streak Bustin'

In my Eliminator for Phoenix (got a third out of Biffle), I noted that Phoenix has been a great place to end winless streaks, and that held true Sunday, as Hamlin ended his modest 22-race winless streak.

Each of the past five Phoenix winners broke winless streaks at least that long. In fact, before Hamlin, the previous four Phoenix winners had winless streaks of at least 66 races: Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards and Ryan Newman.

Trivia break: Who holds the Cup record for most starts between wins?

Trivia Break Answers

1. Bill Elliott was the last driver before Hamlin to win in the 11.
2. Dale Jarrett gave JGR its first top-10 at Bristol in 1992, and first win at Daytona in 1993.
3. Elliott went 226 starts between wins from 1994 to 2001.

Occasionally all this number digging and stat crunching pays off. I know our "NASCAR Now" analysts appreciate it, but let's be honest, it's nice when I sound smart.

Nearly two months ago, before the Kentucky race, I wrote that despite being third in the Sprint Cup points, Kyle Busch had been the strongest driver, making him my championship favorite. A couple of wins later, Busch is leading the points and primed to be the top seed in the Chase.

What has been impressive is how Busch has reacted to poor finishes this year. He's statistically the top driver in the series on restarts but faltered on one last week at Watkins Glen. The next week, he blew away the field on the final restart at Michigan.

This was the fourth time this season Busch had entered the race as the points leader. In the first three, he finished 38th, 16th and 36th and lost the lead all three times. But all three times he rebounded to get back to the top.

Let's take a deeper look at Busch's performance:

Big gains

In 2008, Busch entered the Chase as the points leader, but a few bad finishes to start the playoff derailed his title hopes.

The next year, Busch didn't even make the Chase. At this point in the 2009 season, Busch had five top-5s and an average finish of 17.6.

In 2010, he made the Chase, but his performance wasn't near his 2008 level. After 23 races, he had five top-5s and an average finish of 13.8, and he was eighth in points.

This year, Busch has more than twice as many top-5s -- 13 through 23 races -- and his 10.5 average finish is much closer to his 2008 mark of 10.1 through 23 races.

Trivia break! Which active driver did Busch tie on the all-time wins list?

Across the shop

Meanwhile, Busch's teammate Denny Hamlin switched from a Joe Gibbs Racing engine to a Toyota Racing Development engine for Michigan. I'm sure the move made him some friends in the shop.

Hamlin had a rough day, finishing 35th, dropping to 14th in points but hanging on to the second Chase wild-card spot.

Since winning in June at Michigan, a win that everybody thought signaled his turnaround, Hamlin has one top-10 in eight races, a third at New Hampshire. He's 26th in points during that span.

Trivia break! Who has the most points in the past eight races?

Variety adds spice

If you're a regular reader of my blog (why wouldn't you be?), you know that I love variety -- love to see different winners and a whole mess of guys running up front.

Naturally, I love Michigan.

Busch on Sunday became the 15th different winner in the August race at Michigan, the longest active streak of any race in the Cup series.

If you're curious, the last driver to win this race twice was Dale Jarrett, with wins in 1996 and 2002.

Trivia break! What race has the second-longest string of different winners?

Trivia break answers

1. Kyle Busch tied his brother Kurt with 23 career Cup wins.
2. Jeff Gordon is the points leader in the past eight races.
3. The Daytona 500 has had 10 winners in the past 10 years.

For us NASCAR statistical bloggers, of which I believe I'm the only one, there are certain nightmare situations.

Like having all your notes written, and then an engine failure or a late-race caution completely destroys your race recap. Or when your calculator overheats, since I don't keep an abacus at my desk anymore.

But, the ones that keep popping up are these darn restrictor-plate races.

Don't get me wrong, I love the wildness and the anyone-can-win style of racing. It's just that trying to break down these races and giving you, my adoring fans, some fine statistical preview is just a lot more difficult than the typical week.

But I've done my best, combing through the numbers, and while I might not know what's going to happen Saturday night at Daytona, there are a number of things that I think I know.

First of all, there's a pretty level playing field. At the Daytona 500, out of the 43-car starting field, 40 drivers ran the fastest lap on at least one circuit. At Talladega, 37 of the 43 drivers had at least one fastest lap run.

The only driver who ran both races but didn't run a fastest lap in either one was Joe Nemechek. So if Front Row Joe makes the field, don't expect great things out of him.

I do know one thing, in both of the prior restrictor-plate races this year, Clint Bowyer topped the field in average running position (just the driver's average position by lap) in both races. He finished 17th at Daytona and second at Talladega.

In fact, expect the whole Richard Childress Racing team to run up front and be in the mix. Jeff Burton was second in average running position at Talladega, and Paul Menard fourth in both prior restrictor-plate races. On top of that, Childress-powered Regan Smith was fifth-highest in both races, and he showed he was among the best pushers in February at Daytona.

Two more? Kurt Busch was third in that category in both races, and nobody ran more fastest laps in the two races combined than Kyle Busch. He had 18; nobody else had more than 14.

But, that's just what I think I know.

The Eliminator: Daytona

Most people just pick winners, some by hunches, some by stats, and some by just picking a name off the top of their head.

I don't pick winners, I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

Last week, my pick was Jeff Gordon, and he finished second. I'm just saying.

1) The last 14 and 25 of the last 26 Daytona winners who had raced there before had a previous top-5 finish there (17 drivers eliminated, 28 left).
2) The last three July Daytona winners had a previous win at Talladega (17 eliminated, 11 left).
3) Six of the last seven July Daytona winners finished eighth or better in that year's Daytona 500 (nine out, two left).
4) The last five Sprint Cup Series winners this season finished in the top 20 in each of the previous three races (one out, one left).

Your winner: Kyle Busch

If there's been one prevailing theme to this season so far, it has to be the semisuccessful return of my weekly Eliminator pick.

Wait, no, that isn't it, but if that's what you've taken out of this season so far, then bless you.

No, what I'll remember, at least from the first 15 races, is the "out of nowhere" winners. I'm talking way beyond the unpredictable wins from Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Brad Keselowski.

No, it's a matter of drivers coming out of nowhere during the course of the race, the beneficiary of late-race shuffling due to accidents, pit stops, natural disasters or some sort of alien invasion.

It's a developing trend. In the first nine races of the season, the winner ranked among the top three in the race in overall green-flag speed. There were only two exceptions. The first was when Jimmie Johnson won at Talladega, a race where you can usually throw out the stats, since everyone's on a level playing field, more or less.

The other was Kevin Harvick's Martinsville win, when he was 13th in the field in overall speed. Harvick's victory was also the only race where the winner did not have a "top-10" car, meaning that the driver's average running position in the race was among the top 10 in that race.

But lately, the only criteria for a winner has just been an ability to stay on the lead lap. In half of the last six races, the winner has not been among the top 10 for a race in either green-flag speed or average running position. Take a look at that chart.

In five of the first nine races of the year, the winner had the top overall green-flag speed in the race. But it hasn't happened in any of the last six races.

Could we see the same late-race unpredictability at Sonoma? It sure does keep me glued to my TV.

The Eliminator -- Sonoma Edition

Most people just pick winners -- some by hunches, some by stats and some by just picking a name off the top of their head.

I don't pick winners, I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

And if you doubt the mighty Eliminator power, check out the U.S. Open Golf Eliminator I did early last week before the tournament. McIlroy!!!

1) Since 1987, every road course winner had a top-5 finish earlier that season. (18 drivers eliminated, 26 remaining).
2) There's only been one first-time race winner in 22 all time Sonoma races. (Five eliminated, 21 remaining).
3) Of the last 13 Sonoma winners, 12 who had previously raced at Watkins Glen finished in the top 14 in the last race there. (12 eliminated, nine remaining).
4) Of the last 18 Sonoma winners, 16 who had previously raced there had a top-15 finish in the last race (five eliminated, four remaining).
5) Each of the last four Sprint Cup Series race winners finished in the top 20 in each of the last three races (two eliminated, two remaining).
6) Of the last 12 Sonoma winners, 11 entered the race fifth or worse in the points. (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Jeff Gordon