Crunching some numbers for Daytona

February, 14, 2009

Feeling loopy

This year, before each race, I'll paw through NASCAR's statistical information and give you some of my favorite nuggets going into each race. This could focus on what's being overlooked, drivers to watch over the weekend or just something that's downright neat.

The loop data seems like a dizzying amount of numbers and information, and it is. But I live a good portion of my life in some sort of dizzy state, so this is just the norm for me.

Smoke Near the Water?

New team, new manufacturer, but same old Tony Stewart behind the wheel. And that same old Tony Stewart has shown that he's a whiz at Daytona.

He hasn't won a Daytona 500 … yet, but he has won two July races, two Duel races, three Budweiser Shootouts, three Nationwide races and a pair of IROC races there. He's probably even taken a partridge in a pear tree at some point. By my unofficial count, that's a dozen checkered flags for the Rushville Rocket.

Over the past three Daytona 500s, Smoke has put up a driver rating (think QB rating) of 105.4, best among any driver over that time. He's also shown to have an extremely wide bumper in these races, getting passed a series-low 750 times in those three Daytona 500s. To compare, Stewart has a pass differential of plus-179, also the best in the series.

Any doubts about Stewart not being as competitive in a new car were put to rest Thursday, when Stewart battled Jeff Gordon down the stretch for the win. He'll start fifth.

It's a team thing

Ryan Newman has a vehicle structural engineering degree from Purdue, so maybe he can tell you why he's so fast at Daytona.

Or maybe I should stop questioning the speed of a driver nicknamed Rocket Man.

Either way, Newman's Daytona 500 victory last year was no fluke. Newman was third in the 2006 Daytona 500, and over the past four seasons at Daytona, only Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch have a higher average running position.

Newman has also made 1,077 quality passes, or passes inside the top 15 under green flag conditions. That's the most in the series in those eight races.

Will leaving Dodge make a difference for Newman? Dodges haven't been impressive in Speedweeks to this point. The fastest in last Sunday's time trials was Reed Sorenson, 28th fastest overall. And no Dodge finished in the top five in either Duel race; Kurt Busch's sixth was the best showing.

But Newman did show a lot of speed when in a Dodge. Over the past four seasons, he had the second-fastest green flag speed (strangely, only trailing former teammate Sam Hornish Jr.). And with tires being a possible issue Sunday, nobody was faster late in a run over that time than Newman.

Everybody loves the Biff

Greg Biffle might've had the roughest night in the Budweiser Shootout. Well, that is, besides the guy who has to pick the grass out of the No. 16 Ford after the race.

Involved in a trio of incidents, Biffle eventually took a DNF and finished in 17th place.

However, Biffle's night wasn't as bad as you'd think, especially if that team can carry over some of its notes to Sunday's Daytona 500.

In the Shootout, nobody had a better pass differential (plus-20) than Biffle, and nobody ran the fastest lap more often than the No. 16's nine. The second-highest was Gordon's five.

Biffle was also fastest in a couple of key situations in which a lot of positional change can happen. Of the 28 cars in the Shootout, Biffle was the third-fastest late in a run, and the fourth-fastest on restarts.

Biffle's first career win came back at Daytona in 2003 in a fuel-mileage-related upset. But this Sunday, Biffle might take the 500, and you won't be shocked at all.

Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.

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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