Crunching numbers for New Hampshire

September, 16, 2010

Hello, and welcome to the Chase. Despite Denny Hamlin's 60-point head start over several drivers, the title is literally anyone's to win. Well, at least among the 12 playoff contenders. I still don't recommend taking Dale Earnhardt Jr.

We've heard from all the pundits (me included) about how this is a wide-open Chase without a clear-cut favorite. I agree, but it's still my duty as a NASCAR blogger and an American to make a pick. And you, my NASCAR-loving peeps, depend on me to throw a little statistical analysis in there, since it's sort of my schtick.

So what did I decide to do? The only thing I could do. I brought back an old friend of mine, the Eliminator. If you don't already know how this bad boy works, I find statistical reasons why drivers won't win the championship, as opposed to just using an arbitrary opinion to make a pick.

First of all, consistency wins the Chase, specifically in the form of top-10s. Each of the last five Chase winners had at least 14 top-10s during the regular season. That takes Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin out of contention.

You also need to avoid starting in a hole, so a prior good run at New Hampshire is a must. Every Chase winner finished ninth or better earlier in the season at New Hampshire. Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle are all done.

Much has been made of the possibility of a winless champion. Well, no driver has won the Chase without at least two wins during the regular season. Tony Stewart and Clint Bowyer are out of the running.

Finally, a strong regular season is also important. Each of the last five Chase winners were fourth or better in points entering the Chase. That rids of us Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch.

That leaves one. My pick to win the Chase for the Sprint Cup is Kevin Harvick.

In a side note, Harvick walked into the studio as I was writing this. That's definitely a first -- and hopefully a good omen.

Now for some race preview notes heading to New Hampshire, with a load of help from NASCAR's Sultan of Stats, Mike Forde.

The old guard

Every year, handsome people like me try to come up with the next challenger for Johnson's throne, only for Johnson to win another title. This year, I've done the exact same thing.

There's a lot of evidence to like Johnson again in this thing. He's coming off back-to-back third-place finishes. On the other hand, in the previous seven races, his best mark was a 10th at Pocono.

There's more positive than negative, though. Johnson has a 111.0 career driver rating at the 10 tracks that make up the Chase, easily the best. Second is Jeff Gordon, way back there at 98.8.

Despite those tough runs in the last 10 regular-seasons races, nobody put up a better driver rating than Johnson in those races. His bad luck only masked his strength.

Tortoise or the hare?

As I mentioned earlier, it's important to get off to a good start in the Chase, and that fact could hurt the Roush Fenway cars, all of which seem to struggle at Loudon.

Edwards has emerged as a championship contender, despite his lack of wins, because nobody has more points than Edwards over the past 10 races. However, earlier this season, he finished 25th at New Hampshire.

His career numbers there aren't any better. Among all drivers, he ranks 14th in driver rating, 17th in green-flag speed and has a negative pass differential. Doesn't indicate a good start for the 99 team.

The other guys

You've heard my thoughts on several drivers, but here are some thoughts on who could jump to the top at New Hampshire.

Both Stewart and Gordon have fallen off the A-list as far as title favorites, but with one win they could be right there at the top. Over the past five-plus seasons at New Hampshire, Stewart has the top driver rating and overall green-flag speed. Gordon has the best average position. Take a look at how those two, along with Johnson, dominate the fastest laps run:

Most fastest laps run over the last 11 races at New Hampshire
Tony Stewart, 305
Jimmie Johnson, 284
Jeff Gordon, 264
Dale Earnhardt Jr., 186
Kasey Kahne, 143

That's all I have for you this week. Enjoy the race and the Chase!

Matt Willis | email

ESPN Staff Writer
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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