Crunching numbers for Martinsville

October, 21, 2010

The name's Matt Willis, researcher by trade. Or at least that's what the business cards they gave me say. I don't know why I have so many, I think I've given away a dozen of these in my life.

Sometimes, it's a tough job. Well, mentally, not physically. There's very little lifting involved, although I do have a lot of books at my desk. Impressive-looking ones that make me look like I know something (just kidding, I actually do know some things). We here in the Research Department often dig deep for the factoids that make it on air and out of our anchors' mouths.

On the other hand, sometimes it's downright easy, and the facts just jump right at us. They'd smack us right in the face if we weren't so agile.

Well, the Martinsville race is one of those times when the notes are easy to come by, and I like passing them along to my readers, loyal and true.

Take Jimmie Johnson, for example. Dude's got 16 straight top-10 finishes at Martinsville, which is the longest streak in track history. In fact, only Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty have longer streaks. Both put together 18-race runs at North Wilkesboro.

How about Jeff Gordon? He's got an equally unreal streak of 11 top-fives at Martinsville. With one more, he'd join Petty, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Benny Parsons and Rex White as drivers with at least 12 top-5s in a row at a track.

Now there's Denny Hamlin, who has won the past two Martinsville races. You'd think many people would have won three in a row at the Paper Clip, seeing as it's a specialty track, but it's been done only four times in NASCAR's modern era, starting in 1972. Hamlin will look to join Johnson, Rusty Wallace, Waltrip and Cale Yarborough.

So many fantastic stats (also fun to say) that I've gone and run myself right out of room in my opening section. Without delay, here are my favorite "non-those guys" stats heading into the weekend:

Don't forget Smoke

Tony Stewart hasn't led a lap in the past six Martinsville races. He finished 26th there in the spring and the fall 2008 race. But don't let that sway you into thinking he's not a serious contender.

Scanning through the key loop data categories, Stewart's name is right there with Johnson, Gordon and Hamlin, occasionally topping one of those drivers.

He ranks fourth in driver rating and total number of fastest laps run in the past six seasons at the Paper Clip, and third in average position and overall speed.

And there are no weak spots either, as Stewart ranks in the top four in speed in every situation: early in runs, late in runs, restarts and in traffic. Plus, Smoke needs another good run to stay within shouting distance of the Chase points lead.

Virginia is for Burtons

And since Ward Burton's no longer gracing us in the Sprint Cup Series, let's talk about Jeff Burton.

He had a very strong race earlier this season at Martinsville but finished 20th, the last car on the lead lap, after a late-race cut tire. In fact, do I dare say that Burton may not be winless this season if not for that blown tire? Perhaps I dare.

Burton's 3.5 average position in that race was tops among all drivers, as was his overall green-flag speed. His 79 fastest laps run were also second-highest, behind winner Hamlin. That total also was nearly nine times the amount Johnson had in the race.

And watch out for Burton if this race goes to a series of green-white-checkered finishes late. He had the fastest car by a wide margin early in runs, by over a half a mile per hour. How big was it? It was more than the amount that separated second from seventh in speed early in runs in that same race.

Happy's still Chasing

We've been doing a lot of focusing on Johnson and Hamlin, first and second in points, heading to Martinsville. And with good cause, as they've combined to win the past eight races there. It's also reasonable we haven't been talking about Kevin Harvick, since he's never had a top-5 in 18 career Martinsville starts.

Harvick has had a quiet yet solid Chase. His average finish is a 7.6, and his driver rating is just shy of 100. His average running position in the first five Chase races was 12.3, which is all the more impressive when you consider his average start in that time was 25.8.

If Harvick stays within firing range at Martinsville, it could get a big step forward for him at Talladega, where he won earlier this year.

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

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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