Crunching numbers after Texas

November, 9, 2010

Every race is a learning session. Not only for teams and drivers, but for humble NASCAR researchers too. Geez, I sound like one of those NASCAR commercials now. In fact, I wouldn't mind supplementing my income if anybody with any sway is reading this.

What I learned this week is that you better stay on your toes.

It doesn't matter if I've won four straight Blogger of the Year awards (I have in my own mind, which is the only place that really matters for me -- hooray self-delusion). My editors might replace me at any time with Tom McKean just for doing something as simple as misspelling Keselowski, or randomly dividing all my numbers by three. Hey, we all have bad days.

(In all seriousness, you should be reading Tom's F1 blog. It's endless fun!)

Also, you never would guess who might wreck you under caution, or may take a quick swipe at you on the racetrack. No, I'm not talking about those two jockeys at the Breeders' Cup, but you're close. I never had Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon pegged for an on-track brouhaha at Texas Motor Speedway. Oh, and I checked the numbers. They both weigh in at about 150 pounds, and are listed at 5 feet, 7 inches. I'll call it a bantamweight matchup.

What I could've told you is don't give the finger to somebody in a position of power. Certainly don't give them two. Actually, I should be more specific. Other fingers are in play. A double-barreled thumbs-up might actually provide preferential treatment somewhere down there road. Giving somebody a thumb/index finger pistol in a playful manner is a lot of fun. Middle fingers? Best to just think unhappy thoughts, and scowl with your sun visor down.

On to the postrace stats!

Eight is great

Or is it? Let me explain.

Denny Hamlin got his eighth Sprint Cup Series win of the season, an impressive feat when you consider that he entered the season with just eight wins in his four previous Cup seasons.

The eight wins also tie the most in a season by a Joe Gibbs Racing driver, matching the number Kyle Busch put up in 2008. Busch, however, fizzled come Chase time, and finished 10th in the points.

Going back to 2000, this is the sixth time a driver has won eight Cup races in a season. Only one of the previous five went on to win the title. That was Jimmie Johnson in 2007, when he won a career high 10 times.

Trivia break! Besides Hamlin, Johnson (who did it twice) and Busch, who are the other two drivers to win eight races in a season since 2000?

Unfamiliar territory

"I've lost plenty of championships in the past," Johnson said after the race, "and you are not going to get what you want every single year and every single weekend."

However, it takes some serious mulling to remember the last time Johnson didn't have an edge at this point. This is the first time he hasn't led the points with two races to go since I've started at ESPN (fall of 2006), and if Johnson's going to get his fifth title, he has a lot of history to overcome.

The Chase leader with two races to go has never failed to win the championship. In the modern points era, dating back to 1975, only twice has a driver overcome a points deficit with two to go.

In 1990, Dale Earnhardt overcame a 45-point deficit, and in 1992, Alan Kulwicki came from third place, 85 points back, to win his first and only championship.

Trivia break! What drivers did those two have to pass to win their titles?

Phoenix rising

Hamlin might need every bit of that points lead heading to Phoenix International Raceway (this is a note so good it's causing me to break my usual postrace notes only rule for the Tuesday blog).

Johnson has a 4.9 average finish in his career at Phoenix, not only the best there all time, but the best average finish for any active driver on any active track in the Sprint Cup Series.

The next-best mark is Kyle Busch's 5.3 mark at Richmond. Mere decimal points behind is Johnson at California and Johnson at Martinsville, both of which are also rounded off at a healthy 5.3.

Trivia break! Who is second all time behind Johnson in average finish at Phoenix? Hint, he's no longer active.

Trivia break answers

1. Carl Edwards won nine in 2008 and Ryan Newman won eight in 2003.

2. In 1990, Dale Earnhardt passed Mark Martin. In 1992, Alan Kulwicki passed Bill Elliott and Davey Allison.

3. Kulwicki had a 5.2 average finish at Phoenix, by far his best track.

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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