Crunching numbers after Las Vegas

March, 2, 2010

Cold is such a relative thing.

On Saturday, during the Nationwide Series broadcast, they were talking about how chilly it was in Las Vegas, with temperatures in the high 50s and low 60s. On Monday, I put my windows down on my drive to work here in Bristol, Conn., because the temperatures hit 40. Spring is here!

But now that we're fully entrenched in the NASCAR season, and with MLB exhibition games and March Madness right around the corner, I feel the warmth surging through my system. I didn't even need a Snuggie or buffalo wings to get it done, but that doesn't mean I won't eat some if they're presented to me.

I thought after three races it would be a good time to point out some abnormalities in the points, seeing as we're more than halfway to setting the top 35 using the 2010 points, locking those 35 into the starting field week-to-week.

Although it's been disappointing for Denny Hamlin (22nd) and Juan Pablo Montoya (24th), they're safely inside the top 35. And luckily for Montoya, he has only one teammate out there riding around -- it probably was a fun Monday in the Earnhardt Ganassi compound.

No, I'm looking more at Ryan Newman (32nd) and Marcos Ambrose (33rd), both of whom are just an engine failure or a blown tire away from being on the outside looking in. Meanwhile, Scott Speed (16th) and Paul Menard (17th) -- both of whom were mentioned more often as punch lines last season than as legitimate threats on the track -- sit in the top half of the top 35.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the surprises and disappointments so far this season, and lookee here, you have a direct route to contact me. E-mail me at, or you can follow me on Twitter at @MattWillisESPN. I switched up the order of the "ESPN" just to make things interesting.

Now for the finest notes after Las Vegas, courtesy of all of us here at ESPN Stats & Information.

On the tight track

Jimmie Johnson made some history Sunday at Las Vegas, as was mentioned in the race broadcast. But I already had this note ready to go, because, you know, I'm a researcher and all. Johnson got his 15th career win at a 1.5-mile track, the most on those tracks in NASCAR Cup Series history.

Now a little disclaimer: There are two ways to take this note. One is just as a measure of how dominant Johnson is, especially at intermediate tracks. The second is as a commentary on the current makeup of the Cup Series schedule, and how it features far more of the 1.5-mile tracks now than in years past. Either way, Johnson is good at the tracks that make up the bulk of the current schedule.

Johnson broke a tie he held with Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, with Bobby Allison and Richard Petty tied for fourth with 11 apiece.

Trivia break! Besides Las Vegas, at what other two tracks is Jimmie Johnson the all-time wins leader?

It's not how you start

There was no doubting Jeff Gordon's domination of Sunday's race, but will we be looking at his subsequent third-place finish as a positive for his ability to run up front and flat dominate a race once again, or as a negative for his recent inability to win races in which he runs up front? Last year Gordon won one race, and finished as the runner-up eight times.

Gordon led 52 laps from the start of the race, a record at Las Vegas for the most laps led from the drop of the green flag. But judging by the past performances of drivers to lead 50-plus laps from the start of a Las Vegas race, he was lucky to bring it home in third, and in one piece.

Last season Jimmie Johnson led the first 50 laps and finished 24th. In 2003, Jeff Gordon also led the first 50 laps at Vegas and ended up with a 37th-place finish. In fact, much like at California last week, no driver has ever led the first lap at Las Vegas and gone on to win the race.

Trivia break! Who's the only driver to win at Las Vegas from the pole?

The Shell game

Kevin Harvick (in the Shell-Pennzoil car, hence the title), still leads the Cup series in points three races into the season, despite a pair of wins by a certain four-time defending champion.

Richard Childress Racing was down last season, failing to put any of its four (now three) teams into the Chase for the first time in four seasons. But truth be told, it's been a while since RCR had been atop the points.

Since 2000, Harvick is just the third RCR driver to lead the points after consecutive races. In 2006 and '08, Jeff Burton led the points for a four-race stretch. Before that, you have to go back to 1999 and Mike Skinner, who led from the second to the fourth races of the season. The last time Dale Earnhardt led for a multirace stretch was in 1996.

Trivia break! When was the last time Dale Earnhardt held the points lead for just one race?

Trivia break answers

1. Johnson is also the all-time wins leader at California and Phoenix.

2. Kyle Busch, last season. He won the pole at Las Vegas, but didn't lead the first lap.

3. The last time Earnhardt held the points lead was after his 1998 Daytona 500 win.

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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