Crunching numbers: A three-man show

November, 11, 2010

We got what we asked for, a tight Chase for the championship involving multiple drivers that's coming right down to the wire. Hey, we didn't need eliminations, or a mid-Chase points reset, or any sort of artificial sweetener to make it close, either.

And what a cast of characters we've got. Three drivers who have taken totally different career paths to get where they are now -- you might know them -- but allow me to reintroduce the men who'll make the next two weeks very interesting for people like me and you.

First, we have the current leader, Denny Hamlin. Eight wins in 2010, after just having eight in his career coming into the year. We've seen his maturation process live and in color, from calling out his pit crew and getting in wrecks with teammates, to his battle through the adversity of ACL surgery. He'll try to make his owner, Joe Gibbs, just the second owner to win a title with three different drivers, joining Rick Hendrick. That gets me to …

Mr. Four-Time, Jimmie Johnson. He's been on a dominant run like nobody else in Cup Series history. Sure, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt each won seven titles, but they never won four straight championships. Heck, they never won three in a row. People seem to root against Johnson, for the sole reason that there's not any key reason to root against him, if that makes any sense. He's so squeaky clean; beautiful wife, cute little baby. He doesn't seem to have any lasting rivalries on the track, except maybe with his teammate and fellow Mr. Four-Time, Jeff Gordon.

Finally, don't sleep on Kevin Harvick, whose consistency led him to the points lead after 26 races. Harvick was thrust into the spotlight as a rookie after Dale Earnhardt's death when he took his seat at Richard Childress Racing. Since then we've seen him suspended, in battles on and off the track and even this year his rants at his pit crew led to a swap of crews with Clint Bowyer (sound familiar?).

Last year he was 19th in points, nobody ever has come from a full season that low in points and won the title the next year. He does have what Hamlin doesn't have, however, a NASCAR National Series championship. Two of them, in fact.

Hey, you can't tell your players without a program. And you can't get ready for Phoenix without my pre-race blog!

Phoenix Rising

Johnson didn't win at Phoenix in the spring race. Let the shock wear off on that one.

Overall, he's won four of the past six Phoenix races, and he's never finished worse than seventh in a Chase race at Phoenix. His 4.9 average finish is the best of any active driver at any active track. But I'm gushing.

Going inside the numbers, it's not just that he's first in everything, it's the margin between Johnson and the rest. Let me show you the numbers going back to 2005.

Oh, and his speed? Fastest in every situation you can imagine.

The Good Gets Better

Harvick emerged as a championship contender you might not have expected. From what I could find, he opened the year with 30-1 odds to win the title. You can't get those odds now.

Harvick showed massive improvement as the year went on. Thought first to be a top-10 guy who could win on restrictor-plate tracks, Harvick was a contender week in and week out. He's improved in the Chase, too.

With thanks to NASCAR's Sultan of Stats, Mike Forde, I found out that Harvick had a 7.5 average finish and an average driver rating of 96.7 in the first four races. In the past four races, a 4.8 average finish, and his average driver rating in those four event was a 109.4

Sizing Up the Field

OK, so we know that Johnson is the leader at Phoenix going back to 2005 in speeds in all situations. But looking at the other two Chase contenders, we find that they have strengths and weaknesses.

Hamlin, for example, is fourth in speed early in a run and sixth on restarts. But he's 14th in traffic and 19th late in runs. Better save those tires.

Harvick, on the other hand, is third in traffic and fifth late in runs. But he's 10th early in runs and 14th on restarts.

That's all I have for you this week, enjoy the race!

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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