Crunching numbers after Bristol

March, 23, 2010

Much like a heroic character in a western, this past weekend the rear wing rode off into the sunset, never to be seen again. Maybe the wing wasn't quite a hero, not the John Wayne-type, but a Bristol race isn't a bad way to go out.

It was a fitting farewell for the wing, a Jimmie Johnson win. Say what you will about Johnson, but he adjusted to the new car, complete with the rear wing, better than any other driver. In fact, Johnson won 22 of the 93 Sprint Cup Series races run with the rear wing, nearly a quarter of them. Not a bad little percentage.

So, how will we remember the wing? Will it be like New Coke (although I'm too young to truly get that reference, let's go with Crystal Pepsi instead, since that terrible little number took place during my childhood), a blunder that other blunders can be compared to? Did it just get an undeserved bad reputation, just a punching bag?

Or will you remember it like me, a nifty little device that made racecars get airborne when turned backward? Truly a feat of modern engineering.

What will the return of a spoiler do to the racing? Could it slow down the 48's reign of dominance? Will it allow for more side-by-side racing? Would it ruin the last episode of "Lost" for you? Wait, that's the wrong kind of spoiler, but I've yet to watch an episode of "Lost" anyway, something I probably take a little too much pride in.

So what will the spoiler do? Don't ask me, I'm just a researcher, but not that kind of researcher. The science stuff is lost on me. I'm better off with NASCAR statistics, and isn't that why you've clicked next to my picture today? Or that could be just one of the reasons.

Either way, here's the best of the post-Bristol notes I and the rest of the research department came up with for this week.

A nifty 50

As you might've heard throughout the race, Jimmie Johnson won for his first time at Bristol, leaving just five active Cup tracks where he's never won. Only one of those is a track the series goes to twice a year; Michigan. For those keeping track at home, which I hope is all of you, the other tracks Johnson's yet to win at are Chicago, Homestead, Sonoma and Watkins Glen. If you want to dig even deeper, (why wouldn't you?) he also never won in five starts at Rockingham.

Johnson hit a very prestigious milestone at Bristol, notching his 50th career win, becoming just the 12th driver in series history to reach that mark. He wasted no time in getting there, needing only 296 starts, the fourth driver to reach 50 wins before his 300th start, the full list!

Fastest drivers to 50 wins, Cup Series history
Jeff Gordon -- 232
Darrell Waltrip -- 278
David Pearson -- 293
Jimmie Johnson -- 296

Richard Petty, he of the 200 career wins, needed 338 starts to hit 50 wins, but then he sort of shifted into another gear to add another 150. It sounds pretty good to be on a Pearson-esque pace, though.

Triva break: Which two drivers did Johnson tie for 10th all-time with 50 career wins?

Taking the lead

Kurt Busch led 278 laps and seemed like a sure thing to take his sixth career Bristol win. But, as it often seems to go, late pit strategy decided the race, and Busch had to settle for third. He got stuck behind a line of cars, took only two tires on the last pit stops and couldn't get going on the restart. But take that sob story elsewhere, I've heard it all before.

Going back to 2006, there's been a driver to lead at least 240 laps in each of the last nine Bristol races, and those drivers have gone on to win all of one of those races. Kyle Busch took home the trophy in last year's spring race.

Previous to Kyle Busch's win in that race, Tony Stewart was the driver victimized repeatedly. In 2006, he led 245 laps and finished 12th. In 2007, 257 laps led and a 35th to show for it. Two years ago, he led 267 laps, and brought it home in 15th. I'm sure he was pleased with that second-place finish yesterday.

Triva break: You can avoid that pesky problem by leading all 500 laps. Who is the only driver to do that at Bristol in NASCAR's modern era?

Hang 10s

Nobody's been as consistent this season as Roush Fenway Racing drivers Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. Each has a top-10 finish in all five races this season. It's been unspectacular, but it's a fairly uncommon occurrence over the past decade or so.

Since 2000, only three drivers besides Kenseth and Biffle have started the season with five consecutive top 10s.

Mark Martin, who had five in a row to start 2000
Sterling Marlin, five straight to start 2002
Jimmie Johnson, seven straight to start 2005

Of course, none of those drivers went on to win the title. The last driver to start the season with five straight top-10 finishes and go on to win the championship was Dale Earnhardt in 1990. But wait, there's more!

In NASCAR's modern points era, going back to 1975, this is just the fourth time that two drivers each started the season with five straight top-10 finishes. More bullet points!

1992: Davey Allison and Terry Labonte
1990: Dale Earnhardt and Morgan Shepherd
1977: Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip

Triva break: Since 1975, who had the longest stretch of top-10 finishes to start the season?

Trivia break answers

1. Johnson tied two legends with 50 wins, Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson.

2. Cale Yarborough led wire-to-wire at Bristol in 1973.

3. Morgan Shepherd started the 1990 season with 11 straight top-10 finishes, but had only five more in the next 18 races and finished fifth in points.

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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