Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chasing down the Final Four formula to determine NASCAR's next champ


So we're down to the Final Four in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and in this case that means two things. It means there are four races left in the 10-race Chase for the Championship as the Sprint Cup Series heads into Martinsville this weekend. And in this case it also means there are just four drivers who have a shot of winning the Sprint Cup title.
But trying to figure out who is going to win the title is a little more complicated than adding 2 + 2.
Before looking at the numbers at driveraverages.com, I pretty much thought Denny Hamlin had no chance as he is 20 points out. That would also exclude Clint Bowyer, who is in fourth at 25 points out.
However, when looking at the last four tracks and the history of both points leader Brad Keselowski and second-place Jimmie Johnson, the numbers say it's not quite time to rule out Hamlin and Bowyer. Well, at least Hamlin anyway. But if we're going to say Hamlin is still in this thing, and Bowyer is just five points behind Hamlin, then we have to say that Bowyer is still in it, too. If not in theory, at least just to be nice to a guy whose had a big season with three wins for Michael Waltrip Racing.
So, I took at look at the history of these four drivers on the last four tracks, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami. On the first three tracks, we just looked at the last five races, as it takes into account how drivers have done with the newer cars and on tracks that have had repaves in recent years, such as Phoenix. However, since the Sprint Cup circuit visits Miami just once a year, we counted each driver's career stats there.
Then I came up with a bit of a different scoring system, sort of like a cross country meet, where the low score wins (or you could say golf, but hey, cross country is a race, so we'll go with that analogy). At each of these last four tracks we totaled a driver's average finish, how many wins he had and how many laps he has led. The best score for a category received one point, the second best two points and so on.
And here's what the numbers told us: Based on recent past history, Hamlin still has a realistic shot. His total number in the three categories was four, while Johnson was second with a six, and Keselowski and Bowyer tied for third with 10 points each.
So, since Johnson is seven points behind Keselowski, and Keselowski has a poor record at the remaining tracks with an average finish of almost 15th, with no wins and only 47 laps led, maybe Hamlin needs to focus more on beating Johnson. And if that's the case, he's 13 points behind Johnson.
And that just might be doable.
While Johnson has a slightly better average finish at these final four tracks, Hamlin is the only of the four to have a win at any of them. But he doesn't have just one win, he's got five of them. And Hamlin has led 693 laps in recent races at these four tracks compared to Johnson's 525.
The other thing in Hamlin's favor is that he's got last year's champion crew chief on his pit box in Darian Grubb. And while he's had some ups and downs this year (like taking four tires at Dover when he clearly should have called for two), he proved last year he could make the right calls under pressure. For sure, he doesn't have the same history as Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus and their five titles, but he does have recent success on his side.
The other variable in this slightly complicated math problem is that Johnson's record is not good at Homestead-Miami because five-timer has often entered that race in points protection mode, merely trying to miss accidents and come home safely for the title. So, as a result, he has led just three laps there in his career.
The other variable here is Keselowski. He's broken a lot of barriers in his career this year and he's a legitimate contender for the title, no doubt. But he's going to have to keep breaking those barriers down. He's led just 47 laps in recent years at these last four tracks.
So, he's either going to have to lead a lot more of them, or lead at the right time.
And as is the case in every sport, timing just may be everything when it comes to deciding this year's Sprint Cup champion.

THIS WEEK'S PICKS
It's Week 7 of the Chase and as the Sprint Cup series heads into Martinsville and with four races this seems to be looking more and more like a two-horse race. Sure, Denny Hamlin is within striking distance of the lead at 20 points, and Clint Bowyer is next at 25 out and even Kasey Kahne at 30. But for these drivers to have a realistic shot of getting into the title hunt they'll need leader Brad Keselowski and second-place Jimmie Johnson, who is seven points back, to do something they haven't done all year - have two bad races in these last four and it's not likely to happen to either one of them, let alone both of them.
With that in mind, here's a look at this week's picks:
1. Denny Hamlin. He may need to do what Tony Stewart did last year to win the title, and that's win three of the last four races. He's won two of the last five races at Martinsville, so he does have a chance this week.
2. Jimmie Johnson. He's on Keselowski's tale and he hasn't won a race in the Chase yet. He has three career wins at Martinsville, so it makes sense to pick him here because he's due for a victory and he's had success at Martinsville.3. Jeff Gordon. He very easily could have, and maybe should have, won the spring race here. He led 329 laps before a late accident relegated him to 14th.
4. Brad Keselowski. He's still a must pick pretty much every week, especially because his bad days are still top 10 finishes. So, that means a good day will put him in the top two or three.
 5. Clint Bowyer. It seems more and more that a lot of these races are coming down to which car gets the best fuel mileage. And if that happens again Sunday, look for Bowyer to be in the mix as the No. 15 seems to get better mileage than anyone else. And yes, like Hamlin, he really needs a win to have a shot at the title.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda: Dale Earnhardt Jr. So, he's coming back after a two-race hiatus due to a concussion.. This wouldn't be a bad place to pick him because he'll want to show he's healthy and he also has a good track record at Martinsville with an average finish of 6.8 and four top 10 finishes in the last five races.

ACCOUNTABILITY GROUP
Here's a look at how last week's picks fared in Week 6 of the Chase at Kansas.
Brad Keselowski  - 8th. Never a factor to win it, but avoided enough wrecks for an OK day.
Jimmie Johnson  - 9th.  Actually had a shot to win, but a meeting with the wall ended those hopes.Denny Hamlin   - 13th. Got caught  in pits during a yellow, so had to battle back from that.
Clint Bowyer  - 6th. Was up front a couple of times and good finish kept his title hopes somewhat alive.
Carl Edwards  - 14th. Took a shot with a non-Chaser here and was reminded there's a reason he's not in the Chase.
Here's a look at my results after 32 races and 160 picks.
15 wins
49 top 5s
73 top 10s
Grade for the week: C-. Not a disaster in terms of having some decent finishes, just couldn't get anyone in the top five.
One last thing: Not that he's close to a Dale Earnhardt Jr. type losing streak, but Edwards hasn't won since the Las Vegas race of last year, a span of 65 races..

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