Crunching numbers for New Hampshire

September, 17, 2009

Ed Hinton wrote an excellent piece for about the top six storylines heading into the 2009 Chase. I'll just let you read it instead of taking parts of it. But why don't you finish up my column first and then read his? I'll get so lonely if you leave me for Ed now.

And with my apologies to the drivers not among the top six storylines, even though Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Brian Vickers, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman all have their own stories to tell if they win a championship, there'll still be 43 cars on the track in the Chase races.

So here are some other storylines that one man (that man would be me, if you're curious) will be watching with one eye while the other eye watches the Chase. In an awe-inspiring, unprecedented move, I'll be using a third eye to watch the Jets-Patriots game. Hooray ESPN and its multi-TV setups!

Looking to bounce back: Kyle Busch was considered a title favorite heading into the season. Matt Kenseth was a popular pick after he won the first two races of the season. Flash forward to now, and neither is in the Chase. How will they respond, especially considering that their teammates in the Chase will be getting the pick of the equipment?

Non-Chase winner: In the first three years of the Chase, non-Chase drivers won 10 Chase races. That's one-third of the Chase races. Since the Chase field expanded to 12 drivers, only one of 20 races has been won by a non-Chase driver. But with Kyle Busch outside the Chase field, you have to figure that streak will be broken.

Run for 2010: Who's going to get a run of momentum heading into 2010? My pick is Kevin Harvick. He's had a nice comeback lately and is reportedly going into his free-agent season with Richard Childress Racing. With a possible third Stewart-Haas ride or fourth Joe Gibbs Racing ride to consider, could Harvick get back in Victory Lane for the first time since the 2007 Daytona 500 and prompt Childress to make an offer that can't be refused?

Silly Season continues: Martin Truex Jr. is heading to Michael Waltrip's car. Jamie McMurray could be moving to the No. 1 car. Richard Petty Motorsports merges with Yates Racing. There are some talented drivers out there without rides for 2010, so these last few races could be a proving ground.

The youngsters: Last year, we got a glimpse at Joey Logano. The year before, Sam Hornish Jr. Who'll be getting a taste of Sprint Cup Series racing who might make a Chase or two down the road?

Title favorite

It's boring and not a lot of fun to pick Jimmie Johnson to win a championship. But for the last three years, it's been the correct pick. And in the end, it's all about the victories.

And although I'm not making my official championship pick quite yet (time to break out the ol' Eliminator method on this one), it's hard to pick against Johnson when you take a look at the numbers.

In the 50 Chase races that have been run, Johnson has finished in the top five in more than half. Meanwhile, he leads all drivers with a 108.8 driver rating, an average position of 10.1. Oh, yeah, he's also run the fastest lap on the track over 10 percent of the time.

Impressive, yeah. And for the record, a four-peat is never boring.

Smoke signal

Getting off to a good start in the Chase is oh-so-important. In 2004, Kurt Busch wasn't the popular pick to win the Chase. But he put himself into the picture by winning the playoff opener at New Hampshire. Tony Stewart was second in the 2005 Chase opener -- the year he won his second Cup title.

With 12 drivers competing for the title, you may get only one chance to slip during the Chase, and even then you had better do everything you can to get that car back on the track to amass some laps.

But the surest way to announce your presence with authority is to thrive at Loudon, and Stewart might be on his way to turning around his recent poor runs and taking the checkered.

Stewart's numbers at New Hampshire since 2005:

Driver rating: 115.8
Times passed: 261
Pass differential: plus-140
Fastest laps run: 253

Stewart ranks first in all of those categories among drivers who have started all the races in that span. So if he's the fastest car on the track more often than anyone else and the toughest car to pass, you have to like that combo.

Warning signal

See the above statement about how important it is to start the Chase off on a good note. Its being a flat, 1-mile track makes it easy to get into trouble at New Hampshire. Ditto next week in the tight confines of the Monster Mile at Dover, Del.

So, who are some drivers who'll have to step it up at New Hampshire? Some notable names rank 15th or worse in driver rating there dating back to 2005:

Juan Pablo Montoya: 20th
Brian Vickers: 19th
Kasey Kahne: 17th
Carl Edwards: 15th

But this is a whole new season for Montoya and Vickers, one in which they've far exceeded their previous performances. The only way to know is to get them out there on the track. And I, for one, cannot wait.

Matt Willis has been a studio researcher at ESPN since 2006, working on "NASCAR Now" and "SportsCenter," among other shows. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2006 with a degree in journalism. While there, he worked on ICTV, on shows such as "Ya Think You Know Sports?" and "Sports Final." He also was a member of the IC Comedy Club and figures about half of the jokes he makes in his column are actually funny.



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