Winless Jimmie Johnson setting the pace

May, 3, 2012

Here we are at the quarter-pole mark of the season, and this space is usually reserved for me telling you what I think you should watch for in Sunday's race.

But the truth is, it's my blog, my rules, and I feel like looking back over the first nine races of the season and pointing out some things I've noticed that are worth learning.

How about Jimmie Johnson? Despite being winless this year, Johnson leads the series in pass differential with a plus-94 mark. He has led more laps than any other driver and has been the fastest on the track far more often than any other driver.

Johnson has paced the field on 334 laps this season; the next-highest mark is Matt Kenseth's 166. Plus, Johnson is the fastest car in the second, third and fourth quarters of the race, so his key to victory might be getting off to a faster start.

Now let's go lightning style on three other drivers who have caught my eye:

• Mark Martin -- People are waiting for him to win a race and are wondering if he'd be a Chase contender if he were running full time. I'd say contender, yes, lock, no.

The issue? Falling off late in races. Martin is about 0.75 mph faster than the average green-flag speed in the first quarter of races he runs this season, but that mark drops every quarter of the race.

• Kevin Harvick -- While Hendrick Motorsports has garnered attention this year for not winning, Richard Childress Racing is also winless this season. Harvick is the most notable of those drivers to be winless.

His problem, like Martin's, has been adjusting as the race goes. No car is faster than Harvick on average in the first quarter of the race, 1.3 mph quicker than the average speed. But his speed drops even lower than Martin's, down to just 0.35 mph faster than the average car in the final quarter, which puts him about 14th in the series.

• Carl Edwards -- Edwards has been a disappointment early on in the season, but the truth is that his points position has been better than his performance. He's 14th in the series in average position and driver rating this year but ninth in series points.

The key to his success are late-race runs. He leads the series in pass differential in the final 10 percent of races with a plus-31. Second place is just at plus-19.

Looking for Trouble

The past few races have been noteworthy for their lack of accidents and overall cautions. But this week we go to Talladega, where it doesn't take much to trigger a 15-car pileup. This is what the bright minds over at ESPN Stats & Information have to say:

Since 1990, when we began compiling complete data, this is by far the longest the Sprint Cup Series has gone without an accident -- not counting a spin or brush with the wall that brings out a debris caution.

But at Talladega, it's not over 'til it's over.

Since 1990, we've had six last-lap wrecks at Talladega, twice as many as any other track in that time.

The Eliminator: Talladega

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make a pick.

It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the projected race winner.

And even though it's Talladega, I'll still try my best here.

1. The past 12 Sprint Cup Series winners finished 16th or better in the previous race at the track (29 eliminated, 15 remaining).

2. Eleven of the past 12 spring Talladega winners finished in the top 12 in the most recent Sprint Cup Series race (nine eliminated, six remaining).

3. The past six spring Talladega winners finished 15th or worse in the previous year's spring Talladega race (two eliminated, four remaining).

4. Six of the past seven Talladega winners were winless on the season entering the race (three eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kasey Kahne

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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