Crunching numbers after Phoenix

April, 13, 2010

Heading to work on "NASCAR Now" on Monday, the first topic we discussed was the nature of Ryan Newman's win on Saturday at Phoenix. Although he had just moved into the top five, he seemed destined to finish around fifth before Scott Riggs brought out the final caution, erasing Kyle Busch's two-plus-second lead.

The question: Was the win cheapened by the fashion it came about? The answer: Absolutely not.

As I've stated before, and, I'll say again, mostly because I like hearing myself talk ... or type, NASCAR is a team sport. From the driver to the crew chief, pit crew and the guys back at the shop, a win is a win for the whole team.

So, while it might seem inconclusive, and maybe even a little bit unfair to not have dominant cars such as the ones driven by Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya get the win, the simple fact is that when the checkered flag waved, Newman was the first across the finish line. In my book, copyright pending, that's good enough for the win.

Let's face it, Saturday night's race had gotten to be a little bit of a snoozer until the last caution came out and brought pit strategy and a double-file green-white-checkered restart into the mix. The recent rules changes have encouraged exciting finishes, and if you don't like exciting, then you wouldn't have clicked on my blog, where excitement rules!

And that sort of excitement has become the norm in NASCAR. Martinsville had the thrilling finish with Denny Hamlin cutting his way through the field on just one healthy ACL, and Bristol saw Jimmie Johnson take the high line to the front while Kurt Busch, who had dominated, was stuck behind cars that took only two tires.

Yes, indeedy, NASCAR strategy is getting a whole new wrinkle. Now, teams have to consider speed in a late-race shootout on no, two or four tires. When a quality ride comes open, owners might have to consider how good a driver is on a restart, along with his overall driving skill, ability to take care of the car and his gracefulness with sponsors.

Me, I'll just take care of the post-Phoenix stats.

A close call

Long gone are the days of multi-lap victories and even just two or three cars on the lead lap. More and more, we're not even seeing victories decided by seconds, just tenths of seconds.

What's next, victories decided by microseconds or some unit of time not even invented? Or, if we really develop intergalactic races, victories by light years. Wait, that's not that close at all! Wait again, a light year is a unit of length, not a unit of time!

What am I talking about?

Anyways, in each of the past four Sprint Cup races, the driver leading 10 laps before the finish didn't end up winning the race. Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer were all leading with 10 to go, including green-white-checkered laps, and none were able to take the checkered flag home in any of those races.

In fact, the only driver to win this season when leading with 10 laps to go is Jimmie Johnson, who won both at Las Vegas and California.

Trivia break! That begs the question, who was leading at the Daytona 500 10 laps before the finish, only to see Jamie McMurray win?

The numbers game

You know I'm all about the numbers game. Well, that and Hungry, Hungry Hippos. And 39 is a number! Darn tootin' it is.

Well, Ryan Newman won in the said No. 39 car. You might've heard on the TV broadcast that he is the first driver in the No. 39 to win a race. Well, that got me to researching, being that it was my job and I was working on "SportsCenter" that night.

You might be thinking, what could he be up to? Well, I found out all the drivers who had previously finished second driving in the 39 ... list time!

Driver -- Race
• Ryan Newman -- 2009 Charlotte
• Scott Pruett -- 2003 Watkins Glen
• Friday Hassler -- 1971 Islip

And you thought Friday Hassler wouldn't make it into my column this week.

Trivia break! Hassler may not have won in the 39, but he did once make NASCAR history. How so?

Follow the leader

Saturday's race was expanded to 375 laps, or 600 kilometers (for some reason), so it could end at night. Montoya led much of the early race, Johnson the midrace and Kyle Busch the later stages. All led more than 100 laps. Obviously, none of them won.

It was just the third time in Phoenix history that multiple drivers led more than 100 laps but none of them won. The other two just had two different drivers, happening in 2006 (Mark Martin and Greg Biffle) and 2002 (Kurt Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

However, none were close to the most laps led at Phoenix by a driver who didn't go on to win. That was set in 2005 by Biffle, who led 189 laps. In fact, none of those three drivers on Saturday night broke the top five. So, don't go telling us your sob stories.

Trivia break! Newman did, however, set the record by fewest laps led by a Phoenix race winner, breaking whose record?

Trivia break answers

1. Clint Bowyer was leading at Daytona with 10 laps to go.

2. Friday Hassler was the relief driver who took the checkered flag in place of Charlie Glotzbach when he won the only caution-free race run at Bristol.

3. Kevin Harvick led only 10 laps when he won at Phoenix in 2006.

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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