Crunching numbers: No sure thing at PIR

February, 24, 2011

Let's all take a deep breath -- we're getting back to normal.

I love the Daytona 500. The prestige, the excitement, the tight pack racing and the occasional phenomenal stories it produces, such as 20-year-old Trevor Bayne winning a much-needed race for the legendary Wood Brothers team.

But let's not get carried away and think that what we saw at Daytona is indicative of the rest of the season. It doesn't seem likely that Bobby Labonte and JTG/Daugherty Racing will be weekly contenders. And I think Bayne is the real deal, but the 21 car isn't a race-to-race contender, not yet at least.

I mean, the Cup season used to start at a road course in Riverside, Calif. And awesome as it might be, you couldn't crown Boris Said and Ron Fellows as title contenders if they got the win there. Love my man Boris, though.

So let's turn our attention to Phoenix International Raceway, a combo short/intermediate track that'll put us back in the comfort zone.

Hot in the desert

Jimmie Johnson has four wins at Phoenix; no other driver has ever won more than twice there. Those four wins have come in his previous seven races at PIR, and his past nine starts at the track have all resulted in top-5s.

But there are some cracks in the armor, small as they might be.

The fall 2009 race at Phoenix might've been Johnson's best. He had a driver rating of 149.6, an average running position of 1.3 and was passed only six times under green the entire race.

Last year in two races, both amazingly non-wins, Johnson's average position was 3.2 in the spring and 7.2 in the fall. He was passed a combined 32 times in the two races, and his driver rating was under 135 in both races.

Excellent numbers for sure, but down from where they were.

The most telling number is his fastest laps run. He had only nine in the most recent Phoenix race, tied for seventh-most in the field, and he failed to lead in the race. He averaged over 47 fastest laps run in his previous eight Phoenix races.

Johnson's still a favorite at Phoenix, but he's no longer the surefire pick he once was.

The Eliminator: Phoenix

Continuing The Eliminator revival for this season, let me briefly explain the rules.

Most people pick winners, but I pick losers. I'll find reasons everyone in the field but one driver cannot win, judging by past performances, statistics and trends. Here we go …

1) No driver has gotten his first win at Phoenix since 1996 (16 drivers out).

2) The past 10 and 19 of the past 20 Phoenix winners finished 11th or better in their last New Hampshire race (18 drivers out).

3) The last 11 Phoenix winners had a top-15 in their last Martinsville race (four drivers out).

4) Every spring Phoenix winner had a top-7 finish in their last race (six drivers out).

Your winner: Carl Edwards.

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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