Thoughts on Danica, AJ, Dale Jr. and the 43

February, 9, 2012

You haven't heard from me in a couple of months, but it's not like I haven't been hard at work.

I've been off in the Himalayas, pondering, reflecting and crunching the numbers in search of a fine year in NASCAR statistics and analysis.

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A.J. Allmendinger
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesAJ Allmendinger will pilot Penske Racing's No. 22 Dodge -- a car that made the Chase in 2011.

OK, that's not entirely true. I've been mostly working from my desk. Horrible wireless connection in the Himalayas. Plus, work kept wanting me to come in and do things.

But I have managed to crunch the numbers in reaction to some of the offseason's storylines. We can easily break these down into four easy-to-follow categories.

Something I know I know:
Drivers who can make history

Danica Patrick likely will dominate the early season headlines, especially after she makes the Daytona 500 field. Thanks to a points swap between Stewart-Haas Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, she'll become just the third woman to run the Daytona 500, joining Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson.

Meanwhile, Aric Almirola takes over the storied 43 car. Which, despite its lack of success recently, remains the winningest car number in Cup series history, with 198.

However, one Denny Hamlin win would tie the 11 with the 43. Since Richard Petty last won in 1984, the 43 has three wins -- two with Bobby Hamilton, and most recently with John Andretti in 1999.

Something I think I know: The Dinger's opportunity

Let's face it: AJ Allmendinger was the big winner of the offseason car swaps. Coming off career bests of 10 top-10 finishes and a 15th-place finish in points, he'll now head to a Penske Racing car that was in the Chase last season.

But that's not as good of an omen as you'd think.

This is the sixth time a car has become available that was in the Chase the previous season. Of the previous five drivers who filled the seat, only one made the Chase, Dale Earnhardt Jr., in 2008.

Chart time!

Something I know I think:
It's Kahne's year

We've known for quite some time that Kasey Kahne would be driving for Hendrick Motorsports this season, and recent history has shown that this will be moving time for Kahne.

The last three drivers to join Hendrick Motorsports on the Cup side each had their best year with Hendrick in their first year there, then dropped off dramatically the second:

• Casey Mears won his only race and finished 15th in points in 2007; dropped to 20th in 2008.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s his last win came in his first year with Hendrick, in 2008, with 10 top-5s and 16 top-10s; had two top-5s and five top-10s the next year.

• Mark Martin finished second in points with five wins in 2009, but did not win or make the Chase in either of his next two seasons.

Something I think I think: a Nationwide rebound

There's been an outcry against Cup regulars dominating the Nationwide Series recently, and I've largely been supportive of it. But Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards announcing they won't run as many Nationwide races next season might be the best thing to happen there in quite some time.

The series has struggled with its identity. Over the past six seasons, only 17 of 209 races have been won by Nationwide Series regulars who were not also Cup regulars. That's about 8 percent.

Expanding to just non-full-time Cup drivers, it jumps only to 25 of 209, or 12 percent.

The clearest offenders were Edwards, Busch and Brad Keselowski, who combined to win 44 of 69 Nationwide Series races over the past two seasons (63.8 percent).

The absence of Cup regulars from the Nationwide Series hopefully will allow other drivers to make names for themselves, which will attract sponsors and benefit the long-term health of all of NASCAR.

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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