Crunching numbers: Is Junior back?

April, 7, 2011

Here we are, down to the last four in this little NASCAR bracket that has become so dear in all of our hearts over the past few weeks.

But I'll refrain from calling it the Final Four, since I'm not willing to deal with any lawsuits. You have to pick your battles, and I'm sure there'll be some copyright infringements I'll really want to make somewhere down the road.

So, I'll call this the Fast Four. Yeah, that's pretty catchy.

The quarterfinals all featured matchups that were decided by at least eight positions, but did give us an upset. Kevin Harvick knocked out Jimmie Johnson, whose streak of 17 straight Martinsville top-10s was snapped.

He'll go on to face Matt Kenseth, who, in typical Kenseth fashion, has quietly rattled off solid finishes on his way to the semis. Kenseth now will go to Texas, where he's been in the top three in six of his past 11 races. I'll take him over Harvick, despite Harvick's mark of four top-10s in his past five Texas races.

In the other semi, it's the matchup we all wanted to see. After knocking off Kurt Busch at Martinsville, Dale Earnhardt Jr. now will try to make it a Busch sweep against Kyle Busch. Earnhardt's had some great runs at Texas, but not lately, with just a single top-10 in his past eight races. Give me Kyle Busch, who was third in this race last year.

But now on with the Texas preview!

Junior's comeback year

OK, Junior Nation, it's time for me to weigh in on Junior's season, with some numbers to back it up.

I've noticed two big themes with Earnhardt this year. The first is how he's not falling off late in the race, the other is how racy he is with cars at the front of the pack. Now, numbers will be my friends.

Earnhardt moved up five spots over the final 10 percent (or 50 laps) of last Sunday's race at Martinsville. He now has a positive pass differential for the season over the last 10 percent of the race.

Last season, Earnhardt was a minus-28 over the last 10 percent of races. That was good for 70th out of 75 Sprint Cup Series drivers.

Also notable is that Junior has made 447 "quality passes," which are green-flag passes inside the top 15. That's the most of any driver this season, in a category that he ranked 17th in last season.

The Eliminator: Texas Edition

Most people just pick winners, some by hunches, some by stats, some by just picking a name off the top of their head.

I don't pick winners; I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

1. The past 16 and 19 of 20 total Texas winners came from 18th or better in points entering the race (26 eliminated, 18 remaining).

2. The past nine Texas winners had at least nine prior Cup wins (six eliminated, 12 remaining).

3. Eleven of the past 12 Texas winners finished ninth or better in the last California race (five eliminated, seven remaining).

4. The past five Texas winners finished eighth or better in the most recent Texas races (five eliminated, two remaining).

5. Seven of the past eight Texas winners had a previous top-2 finish at the track (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kenseth.

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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