This weekend provides a rare off day on the jam-packed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but that doesn’t mean analysis will stop. After five races, there is a litany of story-telling statistics in a series that continues to one-up itself, to the delight of news desks everywhere.
Secondary to all the controversial opinions, fighting and crashing, the most popular driver in the sport is the one sitting atop the NASCAR mountain. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the point standings, which, as you will read below, is well deserved.
4.4 and 2.3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team lead full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors in average finish (4.4) and finish deviation (2.3).
What does this mean? Earnhardt is the most consistent driver in the series right now — a zero deviation would mean the same finish over and over — while bringing home tremendous results. Junior Nation should be rejoicing, because that isn’t just the sort of thing that gets a driver to the Chase; what Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led race team are doing are habits of potential champions.
+54.2% Earnhardt’s finishes are an increase of 54.2 percent over his average running position with 10 percent of a race to go.
That plus-54.2 percent position retainment difference is another habit of a title contender. That increase is worth about 26 positions — think of that as 26 extra points — earned in the waning laps of each race. On fresh tires, Earnhardt navigated through a firestorm of activity last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, driving from 13th to second in the final 20 laps for his most lucrative home-stretch run of the season.
100% Four teams in the Cup Series have finished in the top half of fields in all five races for a relevance percentage of 100.
“Relevance” is finishing in the top half of fields (21st or better in the Cup Series). This is important because hitting the 80 percent mark through the 26-race regular season all but lands a team one of the 10 automatic Chase spots. Of the four driver-team combinations currently with perfect relevance percentages, two of them aren’t surprises (Earnhardt and the No. 88 team and Greg Biffle with his No. 16 team) and two sort of are (Paul Menard and the No. 27 team and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the new-look No. 17 team). It is no coincidence that all four teams are currently inside the top 12 of the point standings at this juncture.
41 The No. 16 team with Greg Biffle has gone 41 races without registering a DNF (Did Not Finish, a status frequently used in NASCAR box scores to indicate why a driver finished so poorly).
In today’s NASCAR, with Chase implications attached to every position gained or lost, consistency matters. That starts with finishing races, which is something Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia have done in their sleep over the last year. Their most recent DNF was an engine failure in the 2011 season finale at Homestead, so credit the Roush Yates engine department for holding strong behind one of Ford’s best entries. Biffle himself deserves a tip of the cap for being able to avoid accidents well enough to go 76 races without an accident-related DNF.
Casey Mears (ASP, Inc.)
3 Casey Mears and the No. 13 Germain Racing team have scored three top-15 finishes through five races this season.
That is an intriguing factoid considering this driver-team combo only secured one top-15 finish all of last year. The improvement should be attributed to Mears, who is finishing in the top 15 at a rate 54 percent higher than the amount of laps he is running in the top 15. This time last season, the No. 13 ranked 28th in average green-flag speed. They currently rank 27th on this year’s average speed chart, making it difficult to see any discernible improvement in regular on-track performance.
13.3 The average finish of AJ Allmendinger and the No. 51 Phoenix Racing team, through three starts, is 13.3.
It’s a nice upgrade from the 26.1-place finish the team averaged in 2012 with Kurt Busch behind the wheel for the majority of the races. The team is currently ninth in the Cup Series owner point standings, after Regan Smith finished seventh at Daytona and Austin Dillon secured a 21st-place finish at Las Vegas. Is it early-season luck for the plucky crew out of South Carolina? Or do results change when the team isn’t crashing in just under half of the races as Busch did last year?
0.80 David Gilliland has a series-high 0.80 crash frequency.
The season has gotten off to a rough start for Gilliland, who has crashed four times in five races. He holds a -0.250 Production in Equal Equipment Rating (ranks 34th of 35 drivers), has a best finish of 24th (Bristol) and has his No. 38 Front Row Motorsports team ranked 35th in the owner standings. If car counts for future events expand and his 27th-place average starting spot gets worse, he could be in danger of missing races.
After a Daytona 500 that catered to the more intelligent teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage — track position and strategy reigned supreme — one of the two duels this season in the Arizona desert greets America’s best drivers on Sunday.
There are a lot of unknowns with the Gen-6 car taking to a surface and configuration at Phoenix International Raceway that is just three races old. What we do know, and what we could anticipate, is revealed in the numbers.
78.8% Following his win in the Daytona 500, Jimmie Johnson currently has a 78.8 percent chance of making the Chase, the highest percentage in the series through one race.
And that’s a conservative figure based on past averages. If Johnson and the No. 48 team out-performs their past selves at a few tracks during the 26-race “regular season,” then they are even more of a lock to clinch a playoff berth for the 10th time in 10 years. One such track is Phoenix, where, when we last saw Johnson, he crashed in the penultimate race of last year’s Chase that served as the first blow of the self inflicted 1-2 punch that knocked him out of contention for the championship. He is followed by Brad Keselowski (68.7 percent) and Greg Biffle (53.1 percent) in the current race to the Chase.
7.500 According to PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating), Denny Hamlin, the winner of last year’s race, is the most productive driver at Phoenix, heading into the weekend with a 7.500.
Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb scored a win in their second race together as a driver-crew chief combination, leading the last 59 laps en route to the win in 2012. Additionally, he finished second there last fall after leading 46 laps and averaging a third-place running position.
Kevin Harvick (Photo by ASP, Inc.)
3.21 In the March Phoenix race last year, Kevin Harvick finished second but had the race’s best average running position, 3.21.
Ironically, it was the fall race, in which he averaged an eighth-place running spot, that Harvick won. It’s pretty clear that, in the brief time we’ve seen this iteration of the Phoenix layout, Harvick has figured out something to his liking about this one-mile racetrack.
1,658 There were 1,658 green-flag passes in the most recent Cup Series race at Phoenix, which included eight passes for the lead.
This is actually a drop from the prior two races on the current surface. In the first race (fall 2011), there were 1,680 total green-flag passes, including 10 for the lead. In this race last season, the green-flag pass total increased to 1,995 with 26 passes for the lead.
+30 Brad Keselowski passed 30 more times than he was passed in last fall’s Phoenix race.
That plus-30 pass differential was as good as gold in a race in which, by comparison to preceding events, passing came at a premium. Keselowski and the No. 2 team endured six pit stops — Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Ryan Newman and Kasey Kahne only pitted four times — so his ability to move forward on a track that rejected such a thing was a life saver, helping him earn a sixth-place finish.
3.78 Through three races on the new Phoenix surface, Mark Martin has the smallest finish deviation among the track’s top 10 drivers in PEER.
What does this mean? Martin has been a reliably high finisher in the last three races, with scores of 16th, ninth and 10th, so it’s a good bet that he’ll find his way into the top 10 of the final running order at the end of Sunday’s race. If he’s not able, then it might serve as indictment on Michael Waltrip Racing’s Gen-6 mile-track program.
289 Kyle Busch led 289 laps (of 631) across two Phoenix races last year.
After blowing an engine in 2011’s race, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was a force with which to be reckoned in 2012, leading 52 laps in the February event, eventually finishing sixth. He finished third last fall after leading a race-best 237 laps and averaging a running position of 1.56. Busch’s 289 laps-led tally is far and away the best of the series in the last three races; Tony Stewart has the next-best mark with 169.
1.167 A serviceable producer according to his 1.167 PEER in three races on the new PIR surface, Bobby Labonte could fare well for himself if all is good with his ride.
Labonte’s finishes there have increased from 21st to 16th to 15th dating back to the fall 2011 race. If JTG-Daugherty Racing brings a drivable setup and a fast Gen-6 to the desert, the 2000 champion is a candidate to secure a decent finish. This is a possibility; over the offseason JTG-Daugherty quintupled its roster of engineers (going from one to five) and focused on enhancing its relationship with Toyota. We’ll soon find out whether this investment for improvement pays immediate dividends.