Crunching numbers for Darlington

May, 6, 2010

How great is this stretch of the schedule? We get restrictor-plate action at Talladega, followed by Saturday night short trackin' at Richmond. Now this week it's the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, and then the following week it's off to one of my personal favorite tracks, Dover. Then a smooth transition to the All-Star Race.

Add to that the warmer weather and longer days, leading to increased grilling and backyard activities such as whiffle ball and cornhole (if you don't know what it is, look it up), and you've got one happy Matty.

Oh yeah, here at the Worldwide Leader, I tend to get called Matty a lot. That or just Willis. Very rarely Mr. Willis or Your Majesty. But I'm hoping those stick at some point.

Now, I'm going to bring it down for a second and get serious, something I rarely do in this column. After all, we're here to have fun. But I'm also here to respect NASCAR and its past.

Coming up next week is the 10-year anniversary of Adam Petty's death, which came in the same year as the deaths of former Cup Series rookie of the year Kenny Irwin Jr. and Truck Series driver Tony Roper.

NASCAR has come a long way in those 10 years in terms of driver safety. The current car might not have raced well right away, and tweaks are still being made. But we've seen some scary-looking wrecks in this car, flips and hard impacts, and drivers keep walking away uninjured.

So I'll take the bottom section of my intro to praise NASCAR on the work done on behalf of driver safety, and to remember the three drivers whose deaths might have helped save other lives.

Now, trying to pick it back up, let's get to the finest of pre-Darlington notes.

Hitting on the Lady in Black

Over the past five years at Darlington, Greg Biffle has a pair of wins but a very pedestrian 13.6 average finish. The average finish is dragged down by a last-place finish due to a blown engine in 2008; however, Biffle led 95 laps in that race. Last year, Biffle finished a disappointing eighth, disappointing because he led 117 of the 367 laps.

The Biff's two wins at Darlington were very impressive. How impressive? Since 2005, when NASCAR began tracking loop data, those two wins account for the best single-race driver ratings at Darlington. He also has the fifth-best driver rating at the track in that time. Digging a little deeper, we find that nobody has had the fastest car on the track at Darlington more often over that time than Biffle.

Biffle might need a good finish at Darlington to get his season back on track. He's cooled off following a hot start, as evidenced by this.

First 5 races: 7.0 average finish, 103.8 average driver rating
Past 5 races: 16.2 average finish, 72.2 average driver rating

Doesn't take a researcher to tell you that the first five were much better than the past five.

Out of nowhere?

Although Kyle Busch and Mark Martin might seem like experienced winners, their wins in the past two Darlington races came as somewhat of a surprise when you look at the prerace numbers.

Mike Forde, NASCAR's Sultan of Stats, alerted me that, in 2008, Busch had the 13th-best prerace driver rating at Darlington but won. Last year, Mark Martin was 12th in prerace driver rating before he got the win.

So, maybe we need to dig a little deeper and prepare for the unexpected. So who is 12th and 13th this year entering the Southern 500?

Would you believe it's Kasey Kahne and Busch? Sounds like a pair of guys I can get behind.

Big bad Brad

Last year, Brad Keselowski was just a part-time driver, splitting his time between a fifth Hendrick Motorsports car and the Hendrick-affiliated Phoenix Racing, getting much-needed seat time in preparation for running a full season this year.

Something about Darlington and rookies don't mix well, but for some reason, Keselowski had one of the best cars in the field and came home in seventh. Check out his ranks from last year's Southern 500.

Pass differential -- +29 (first)
Quality passes -- 31 (T-second)
Speed late in run -- 164.482 (fifth)
Speed in traffic -- 163.205 (eighth)

Those are some impressive numbers. Keselowski managed to keep his tires together and run fast late, and could run fast when around other cars, not easy tasks at Darlington. He also managed to get by some of the best in the field, since quality passes measures passes in the top 15 under green-flag conditions.

So, consider Keselowski my dark-horse pick for Saturday night's race at the track too tough to tame.

And 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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