Crunching numbers after Atlanta

March, 9, 2010
03/09/10
1:05
PM ET

Walking back into work Monday morning after a cozy little three-day weekend, I knew what the main NASCAR topic would be after Atlanta. There's no shortage of articles out about it, if you want to read them. Before you do, read my blog, because we need you here. I want you on this blog. I NEED you on this blog!

On the other hand, there is a shortage of articles about the race winner. Call me antiestablishment (do it; it makes me feel like a rebel), but I think I'm going to focus on the actual race and not so much on a good, old-fashioned feud. I do love feuds, however, especially if they're hosted by Richard Dawson.

Which reminds me, I asked 100 NASCAR fans what they thought I should analyze for my post-Atlanta blog. Well, not really; I don't have that much time. I do have a regular, full-time job as a researcher here at the Worldwide Leader. Hey, just because I saw Darth Vader at work and talked burritos with Lomas Brown doesn't mean I wasn't working hard. Mmm, burritos. (Insert potential sponsor opportunity here.)

But while answering questions for analysts for "ESPN First Take" on Monday (some of them weren't related to food or space villains), I chatted with Ricky Craven, and talk did turn to the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident. That seems to be where the eyes of the NASCAR world are turning this week, and with a bye week on the horizon, we'll have plenty of time to react and figure it out.

The race is still red-hot in my mind, though. So let's take at least one more opportunity to look back at three other things I took away from Sunday's race at Atlanta.

Spring into action

Toward the end of the race, I heard the broadcast mention that Kurt Busch was the first driver to win back-to-back spring races at Atlanta since Cale Yarborough in 1968 and '69. Well, that's just half the story, so I did the research that I would do only for you, my loyal, devoted fans.

Turns out you can pencil in Busch's name as the winner of the 2011 spring race at Atlanta, because any driver who has won back-to-back spring Atlanta races went on to win the third straight the following season. Cale Yarborough won from 1967 to '69, and Fred Lorenzen won from 1962 to '64.

Busch moved into a tie for 28th all time in Cup series wins along with, among other drivers, Jeff Burton, Benny Parsons and a driver who had a ton of success at Atlanta, Bobby Labonte.

Trivia break! Who is the only driver in NASCAR's modern era to win back-to-back fall races at Atlanta?

Menard on a roll

You also may have heard at the end of Sunday's race that Paul Menard had a career-best finish of fifth, except that note was incorrect -- he finished second at Talladega in 2008.

Menard's fifth-place run was good enough to move him up to ninth in points. Although we're just 11 percent into the season, he has to be labeled as one of the surprises of 2010. The question is, can he keep it up?

Menard has had a top-20 finish in all four races so far, but Atlanta was his first top-10 finish of the season. His average finish of 13.3 is more than 20 positions better than where he stood at this point last season. Let's look at Menard's standing after four races since he started running full time in 2007:

• 2010 -- 13.3 average finish, ninth in points
• 2009 -- 34.5 average finish, 38th in points
• 2008 -- 22.5 average finish, 25th in points
• 2007 -- 27.7 average finish, 37th in points

Will he stay up there through the season? The loop data notes don't look good. Menard ranks 22nd or worse this season in average position, driver rating, fastest laps run and green-flag speed. Some pretty key stats, if you ask me.

On the other hand, Menard is turning it on when it matters, ranking third in the series in positions gained in the last 10 percent of each race this season. I just provide the evidence; you tell me what you think he can do. I'm just here for your help.

Trivia break! Who has gained the most positions in the last 10 percent of races this season?

The Chase is on

It's actually not really all that close to the Chase, but the upcoming off week made me pause, albeit briefly, and wonder how important it is to be in the Chase field this early on.

Well, as of recently, it's not that important. In the first two years of the Chase, only two drivers made the Chase after being out after four races. In 2006 and 2007, the number increased to only three in each year.

However, in each of the past two seasons, no fewer than five drivers who were outside the Chase field after the first four races went on to make the Chase. Oh, wait, it gets better. Last season, Mark Martin was 34th and Ryan Newman 32nd after four races, but both of them rebounded to make the Chase.

In the first four Chase seasons, the eventual winner was no lower than seventh after the first four races. However, in each of the past two seasons, Jimmie Johnson was 13th in points and went on to win championships.

The driver currently 13th in points? Dale Earnhardt Jr. Rejoice, Junior Nation!

Trivia break! Who is the only driver to lead the points after four races and not go on to make the Chase?

Trivia break answers

1. Bobby Labonte won back-to-back Atlanta fall races in 1996 and '97.

2. Another Dale Jr. reference: He has gained 33 positions in the last 10 percent of each race this season.

3. In 2007, Mark Martin led after four races but didn't run the full season and missed the Chase.

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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