Crunching numbers after Darlington

May, 11, 2010

I've heard this story before. All of a sudden, Denny Hamlin becomes the trendy pick to disrupt Jimmie Johnson's run of titles.

He isn't the first one. Jeff Gordon's been there a couple of times. We've talked about Carl Edwards and the other Roush Fenway drivers. Tony Stewart has been the talk with two different teams. And Kevin Harvick's the points leader.

But Johnson has continued to win titles.

Now, it doesn't mean I'm officially anointing Johnson as my championship pick. As I always say, if you gave me a choice of Johnson or the field, I'm taking the field every time. However, I don't want you to think that just because Johnson's finally having his run of bad luck, it means we can rule out the 48 from winning the title. I'm doing this for your own benefit, not to hear myself type. And I'm a loud typist.

Johnson seems to have a regular run of poor finishes in his championship seasons. Last year, in the six races before the Chase, he didn't finish better than eighth and had an average finish of nearly 19th. Was he experimenting with new setups and equipment? Perhaps, but that might not have been the only issue.

Let me hop in the wayback machine and travel to the late 1990s. Wheee!!!

If my memory serves me correctly -- and, really, it should -- or else I got ripped off on that wayback machine (luckily I can bill my editors), NASCAR was having the same talk about a decade ago when Gordon was playing the role of dominator.

NASCAR fans were talking about who would be the driver to end Gordon's reign of domination. Would it be the consistent veteran Mark Martin, his teammate and notable purple car driver Jeff Burton, or the new driver on the scene, Jeremy Mayfield? Mayfield got a lot of play after he knocked Dale Earnhardt out of the way to win at Pocono.

Giving the Intimidator a taste of his own medicine to get a win? Sacrilege!

But it is fun to play the what-if game and debate these things, so go nuts! Meanwhile, here are my favorite research-type notes coming out of Darlington Raceway:

Seducing the 'Lady in Black'

Although he has only one career win at Darlington, Hamlin is now the best driver in Darlington history. Let me explain.

Instead of judging by wins, especially given that the series races only once a year at Darlington these days (a travesty, if you ask this blogger), Hamlin now has a 6.6 average finish at the track "Too Tough to Tame," the best mark of any driver to make at least five starts at the track.

The driver he knocked out of the top spot? Johnson, whose average dropped to 9.3 with that wreck. The rest of the list? You got it!

Highest average finish at Darlington (minimum five starts)
Denny Hamlin: 6.6
Jimmie Johnson: 9.3
Bill Elliott: 9.4
Herb Thomas: 10.4
Nelson Stacy: 10.5
Jeff Gordon: 11.0

Trivia break! Who is the all-time leader in wins at Darlington? (Hint: He's not on the above list.)

Gentlemen, start your brooms!

There was a good old-fashioned sweep at Darlington last week, with Hamlin winning Friday night in the Nationwide race as well. Would you believe he's only the third driver to pull off a weekend sweep of the Cup and Nationwide races at Darlington?

Well, if you don't believe it, you're just wrong. Shame on you.

Hamlin joins Martin (1993) and Earnhardt (1987) as drivers to do it. Not bad company to keep.

Let's do a little lightning round on Hamlin. He's won three times this year, giving him a 27.3 winning percentage. Last year he won four times, or 11.1 percent of the races. From the start of his career through 2008, he won four races total, or 3.5 percent.

Trivia break! Jamie McMurray finished second from the pole. Who was the last polesitter to win at Darlington?

Tough luck

Gordon again led a ton of laps, a race-high 110 if you want an actual number and not just the word "ton." But he failed to get that first win of 2010, extending his winless streak to 40 races.

Well, fellow NASCAR researcher Andrea Williams informed me that Gordon has the most laps led in the series this year, a whopping 709. Kurt Busch has the second-most laps led with 470, and Kyle Busch is the only other driver with more than 400 laps led.

Gordon now has one win in the past 12 races in which he's led 100 or more laps. But those 110 laps led were enough to pass Cale Yarborough for the fifth-most laps led by a driver in Darlington history. It was also his seventh straight top-5 finish at the "Lady in Black."

Trivia break! Who holds the Sprint Cup Series record for most laps led in a season without a win?

Trivia break answers

1. David Pearson leads all drivers with 10 Darlington wins.

2. No driver has won from the pole at Darlington since Dale Jarrett in 1997.

3. Handsome Harry Gant led 1,169 laps in 1981 without a win. Gordon ranks third on that list.

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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