The Frontstretch: Going By the Numbers: The Cup Season's First Off Week, Before and After by Kevin Rutherford -- Tuesday March 26, 2013

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After these last few weeks, perhaps a breather is the best thing for the Sprint Cup Series.

Two straight weeks have resulted in post-race feuds and, on Sunday, a spectacular finish from which Denny Hamlin had to be taken to a local hospital.

Now, the series (as well as the second- and third-tier Nationwide and Truck series) faces an off week, giving the teams a week to regroup from the west coast trip to California in preparation for what promises to be an action-packed Martinsville race.

The first off week of the season always comes early on, usually in either March or April. It marks the first respite from an otherwise hectic year, allowing teams an opportunity to fix various problems and for drivers to perhaps shake some bad vibes or attempt to continue good ones.

For some, the break is a welcome trip away from the race track due to poor luck, poor finishes or a combination of the two. It might be an excuse to find a way to crawl out of an imposing hole one might have gotten themselves into at the beginning of the season — six 20th-plus-place finishes, for instance.

Tony Stewart may have even less to smile about after the break. Traditionally his performance drops off sharply after the Spring off-week.

But there’s also the question of momentum. Four top-10 finishes to start the year shows a team firing on all cylinders and then some, but a pause in the action could kill most — if not all — of that momentum, with average-to-mediocre results following.

In fact, in terms of the latter, a guy who’s probably not looking forward to the off week is Tony Stewart. Yeah, maybe the rest will give him a chance to simmer down after his spat with Joey Logano at California, but over the last three years, Stewart holds the largest drop in results between the races before the first off week and five races following. Prior to the break, he has an average finish of 10.31 — which is the better such average of anyone in the sport since 2010. After? 17.4, which isn’t a horrible stat, but is still a drop of seven places on average.

Though Stewart’s average is the largest such increase of full-time drivers in the series, he’s not the only one who tends to have a better time before the break than after it. Paul Menard, who we talked about last week in a similar fashion, has experienced a jump in average of 3.78 (14.62 to 18.4), and nearby is Bobby Labonte, whose stat increased by 3.27.

Conversely? Though he enters the off week on a high note after winning at California, Kyle Busch is set up for a great next five races. From 2010-2012, his average finishes in the races before the off week was 17.85. In the five races following, he’s up to 9.13, finishing almost nine places higher on average (8.72 is the precise stat). David Ragan is second in this category (5.4), followed by Jimmie Johnson (5.38).

As mentioned, Stewart is the best in the sport before the off week since 2010, followed closely by Kevin Harvick and Matt Kenseth, who are tied with an average finish of 10.54. In the five races following, it’s Johnson who comes out strong with an average of eighth. He’s followed by Busch’s 9.13 and Dale Earnhardt, Jr.‘s average of 9.2.

So that’s encouraging for the No. 88 team and Junior, who currently lead the points standings. If the last three years are any indication, there’s a good chance we could still be seeing Earnhardt at the top of the pile come Darlington.

Of course, don’t count out his current runner-up, Brad Keselowski. If last year is any case, prior stats be damned, so it’s hard to even try to say, “Hey, this is what he’s done the past few years!” (for the record: an average of 3.67 positions better after the break).

And in third place right now? Jimmie Johnson, owner of an eighth-place average finish in the five races after the off-week.

In other words, get ready for an exciting few races once the season revs up again — and not just because of a few driver spats we’ll be forgetting in a few weeks.

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