The Frontstretch: Going By The Numbers: As NASCAR's Cookie Cutter Crumbles by Thomas Bowles -- Tuesday March 5, 2013

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Going By The Numbers: As NASCAR's Cookie Cutter Crumbles

Thomas Bowles · Tuesday March 5, 2013

 

The Cookie-Cutter Chase. For many, it’s a phrase that defines NASCAR’s version of the playoffs, a method of title madness that traditionally draws more criticism than cheers from its fan base. But it also has a literal definition, too; five of the ten tracks we’ll see this postseason, like every year since the format came to be in 2004 are 1.5 miles in length. That “midpoint” in distance, between the bump ‘n’ bang half-mile of Martinsville, VA and the 2.66-mile giant known as Talladega has led to the term “cookie cutter” for these mostly new, mostly uninspiring facilities. At the time, when some of these tracks were being constructed NASCAR execs were subscribing to the Goldilocks theory: not too big, not too small, but just the right amount of challenges, speed, and competitive balance (as well as plenty of seats!) for a fan base they felt craved new speedways. As a result, nearly 40 percent of the full, 36-race schedule is contested on these types of facilities, causing the same theory to be trumpeted every year: “These ovals will make or break your bid for the championship.” Expect to hear it oh, about 50 times between the start of the FOX pre-race show and the end of Sunday’s checkered flag in Vegas, round 1 of these ovals in 2013 which act as a constant test session, amongst the top teams to flush out what we’ll see come September and the playoffs.

Clint Bowyer… 2012 Sprint Cup champion? If only all the races were run on 1.5-mile ovals…

But is their focus a bit misguided? A quick look at history allows the “cookie-cutter” championship theory crumbles rather quickly in the face of cold, hard facts. Since the Chase era dawned, in 2004 the driver who scored the most points at those intermediate tracks, during the postseason has won just three of nine titles. Here’s a quick look at 2012, as an example:

Most Points Scored At Cookie-Cutter Ovals, 2012 Chase
(Chasers Only – Tracks 1.5 Miles In Length)
Clint Bowyer – 201 (Points Finish: 2nd)
Brad Keselowski – 190 (Champ)
Martin Truex, Jr. – 181 (11th)
Jimmie Johnson – 179 (3rd)
Tony Stewart – 175 (9th)

Those numbers give you two clues. One: we now know why Bowyer was able to claw his way to the runner-up spot by Homestead. Michael Waltrip Racing did their track position homework, along with a focus on fuel mileage that left their top driver lucky at the 1.5-milers. But it also meant Keselowski, despite a win at that type of oval in the Chase (Chicagoland) had to outpoint Bowyer by a total of 12 points or more everywhere else. To do that, the difference became BK’s strength on three shorter, one-mile ovals; the Martinsville paperclip; and the Talladega superspeedway where he picked up his first Cup Series win, years ago. Sure, he was relatively decent on the “cookie cutters,” but his two worst finishes of the Chase came on them (11th at Charlotte, in October and then 15th in the Homestead season finale). If that’s where all the races were run, well, the Miller Lite crew would not be reigning champions today; Keselowski showcased more versatility than he was given credit for.

That type of pattern is nothing new, producing some results through the years that are really startling. Like 2005; that year, Chase champ Tony Stewart finished with 191 less points than Mark Martin on intermediate ovals. So how did he win the championship, by 105 points over this particular veteran? Simple: when Martin faltered, at his Achilles’ Heel of Talladega along with Martinsville Stewart ran near the front in both to seize control. It just goes to show you, that despite all the criticism the Chase still has a diverse enough array of tracks that you have to be consistent throughout all types in order to take home the trophy.

So, then, why do we have this idea in our heads that the Cup Series champion, every year has to be an intermediate expert? For the answer, we go no further than the driver who’s dominated the format. Jimmie Johnson’s titles in 2006, ’07, and ’10 are the only ones captured by a driver who posted the most points on “cookie-cutter” ovals in the Chase. In theory, it should have happened all five times; a Texas wreck, not of Johnson’s making in ’09 combined with a “take it easy” approach after entering Homestead with a big ’08 lead prevented the sweep. For whatever reason, the characteristics that define Charlotte, Las Vegas, Texas, and so many of these “in between” facilities fit right into Johnson’s driving style strengths. A quick look at the Chase era shows how “Five-Time” has been able to rise above his opposition…

Most Wins At Intermediate Ovals (Tracks 1.3 – 2 Miles In Length)
Chase Era (2004-Present)
Jimmie Johnson – 23
Greg Biffle – 13
Carl Edwards – 13
Tony Stewart – 13
Kasey Kahne – 9
Matt Kenseth – 9

Those are numbers that clearly establish the No. 48 in a league of their own. No wonder why the running theory goes, then that 1.5-milers are the place you have to shine; it’s the tracks where you have to stop this team in order to give someone else a chance at the title. But with JJ coming off first and second-place performances, respectively to start his season you’ve got to think Vegas won’t be the place he slows down.

The sport’s supposedly most generic driver is matched up perfectly with its most generic tracks. Who would have thought?

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