Crunching numbers for Phoenix

April, 8, 2010

Did you miss me during the off weekend? I know I missed you. Because I'm the sort of blogger who loves his readers; you don't get that from Marty Smith. And if Marty is reading, first of all, hi, Marty! Second, prove me wrong.

Well, I missed the writing, so much so that I broke out the handy Eliminator method to pick a winner for this weekend's Masters Tournament. Allow me to give myself a cheap plug, and click on this link.

You can read it before you continue reading the column, or wait until you're done. Just please, for my sake, read the column! Take it outside and enjoy the unseasonably warm weather. I did a nice little double take this week as the thermometer hit 90 in Hartford, Conn. I'm serious. It's April.

Transition time! And since it's April, that means March Madness is over. Unless you're participating in my NASCAR bracket, in which case the excitement continues. And what a wild second round we had at Martinsville. Upsets ruled the day as Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson all were knocked out. So who does that leave? Quarterfinals preview!

Petty Bracket
(4) Brian Vickers vs. (6) Martin Truex Jr.
Vickers has just one top-10 in 11 career races at Phoenix, while Truex has finished eighth or better in four of the past five Phoenix races. This one's a no-brainer.

France Bracket
(5) Carl Edwards vs. (7) Marcos Ambrose
The numbers are lopsided in favor of Edwards, but I like some historical context, too. Edwards will try to become the fourth driver to win in his 200th career start.

Earnhardt Bracket
(1) Matt Kenseth vs. (2) Mark Martin
The only chalk matchup features mentor and mentee, and I like the mentor. Remember he's the defending race winner.

Allison Bracket
(1) Greg Biffle vs. (3) Jeff Gordon
Biffle's been Mr. Consistency this season, with all top-10s. And Gordon's numbers have been downright pedestrian at Phoenix over the past few seasons.

Now what you've come here for, some statistical preview going into Phoenix:

Hot in the desert

It doesn't take much digging to figure out that Jimmie Johnson is good at Phoenix: He has won four of the past five races there, and his teammate Mark Martin won the other race.

Johnson hasn't just been lucking into all those wins, however. No, Johnson has been dominating in all facets; just look at the prerace driver ratings at Phoenix. Look at them!

Jimmie Johnson -- 123.0
Kurt Busch -- 104.6
Mark Martin -- 103.8
Jeff Gordon -- 99.8
Greg Biffle -- 99.8

That is domination. And if Johnson wins, it'll be the fifth NSCS track where he has won at least five times. Only eight drivers in Cup Series history have done that.

Mr. Perfect

In the five-plus seasons that loop data has existed, in only 10 races has a perfect 150 driver rating been achieved. And there are only two tracks where a driver has twice put up a perfect rating. It's happened at Pocono and, of course, Phoenix. And, with thanks to NASCAR's Sultan of Stats, Mike Forde, let me break down those two perfect races:

In 2005, Kurt Busch won with an average position of 1.9, 219 laps led and 76 fastest laps, and he was passed only seven times under green.

Kevin Harvick laughed at that performance in the next season. He won with an average position of 1.2, 252 laps led and 76 fastest laps, and he was passed only twice under green.

It will take quite a performance Saturday night to have the most dominating race in track history.

The Shell game

But don't look just at that one perfect race in thinking that Kevin Harvick is among the favorites at Phoenix. Truth is, his performance has slipped rapidly since the advent of loop data in 2005. Check out his per-year driver rating at Phoenix.

2005 -- 94.5
2006 -- 134.9
2007 -- 101.5
2008 -- 90.9
2009 -- 51.2

That's right, a 51.2 last season, a failing grade if I've ever seen one. Finishes of 30th and 24th will do that to you. But it's a whole new season for Harvick and the entire RCR team, so let's find out together if he can pick it back up Saturday night.

That's all I have for you this week. Enjoy the race!

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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