“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”
So reportedly said Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister of Great Britain from 1874 to 1880. It’s a well-known quote that is attributed to other writers as well, including Mark Twain; but regardless of its exact point of origin, it’s a citation the drivers placed outside the top 12 would do well to remember these days.
The stats, you see, show that 80% of the final Chase field is set after the first Richmond race. In other words, if you’re the on the outside looking in today – you’ve got the odds stacked high, wide and handsome against you. The data shows that of the 54 total Chase spots awarded in the five iterations of Big Bri’s NASCAR “playoff” lottery, 43 were ultimately taken by men already in the top 10 (2004-2005) or top 12 (2006-2008) leaving the historic Virginia track in May.
As ever, though, the stats don’t tell the complete story – and all is far from lost for those wandering in the non-Chase berth wilderness. Whether your favorite is Dale Earnhardt Jr., David Ragan or Casey Mears, they all have more time to get their act together than you might think.
For starters, there’s the Matt Kenseth Factor. One of only two drivers to make every Chase field, Kenseth has twice recovered from dreadful post-Richmond deficits. In 2008, after a horrible start, Matt sat a whopping 204 markers out of the Chase field, mired all the way back in 22nd place. But with his back against the wall, he went on a tear the next five races, finishing sixth, seventh, fourth, seventh and third to vault himself back into contention. In fact, when the checkered flag flew for Kyle Busch the following weekend at Sonoma, Kenseth’s eighth-place effort had completed a remarkably swift turnaround; the Wisconsin native left the road course in 12th, albeit by a mere two points from Kevin Harvick. In short, it’s not too late for consistency to suddenly reappear just before we hit the halfway point – or for a driver to land a scorching hot streak that makes a huge difference in just a handful of weeks.
Back in 2005, Kenseth’s situation was more dire than it was in 2008, however. An even more sluggish start saw him 238 points back in 24th place after 10 events. With only 10 drivers making the Chase field, in what was at that time the second year of the Chase, Kenseth looked to be facing the proverbial Mission Impossible: “he was done,” was the popular opinion. But over the next 15 races, Kenseth recorded a win, four more top fives and three top 10s – enough to squeeze him into the field with one race to go.
Now, some of you are probably saying: “It’s Matt Kenseth, he’s a veteran champion,” but it’s not just the driver of the No. 17 Ford Fusion that has staged strong surges into the Chase field. In 2004, Mark Martin was 115 points out of the all-important 10th-place cutoff, while Jeremy Mayfield was an even larger 144 points back. Charging from 55 points adrift at the drop of the green flag in the deciding race back at Richmond, a stunning race victory for Mayfield after three years without a win helped ensure an unlikely Chase berth. A top five did likewise for Martin. In 2006, Denny Hamlin recovered from a season-opening slump and an 83-point hole after Race 10 to comfortably make the Chase. The following year, in just his second full year of competition at the Sprint Cup level, Martin Truex Jr. was 131 points back exiting Richmond, but by the time he won his maiden race at Dover, three weeks later, he was back in the top 12 – a position he would not relinquish.
So, a diverse list of drivers with a range of experience from rookies to veterans have overturned the odds this early on in the year. Who knows; if he keeps it up, Marcos Ambrose (120 points back) might just be the name this year. Stranger things have certainly happened in NASCAR; and with speedways that suit his flat track, road-course background to come, Ambrose might yet eclipse Juan Pablo Montoya as the first non-American to make the Chase.
Another important factor to consider this season for those hunting Chase spots is the relative competitive balance. Yes, you have the return to form and full-time racing of Martin, the Kurt Busch redux, and the surprisingly solid form of the two Stewart-Haas cars – not to mention Clint Bowyer. But the basic fact is that no one team or one driver is truly dominating these days. The wins have been spread around in 2009, as seven different drivers have won races – and although at times Kyle Busch has looked unbeatable, he’s 117 back from his hitherto forgotten sibling. The lesson here, then, is that for the nine drivers less than 200 points out of a Chase spot (David Reutimann -31, Montoya -35, Martin -61, Brian Vickers -69, Kasey Kahne -81, Earnhardt Jr. -87, Ambrose -120, Mears -138, Truex -198, and we’ll throw in Harvick back over 208 points) there’s plenty of racing to be done and no reason to panic quite yet, (yes, even you Junior nation).
The competitive balance in the standings is also reflected in the upcoming schedule. We have, amongst others on the slate, both road courses, the tire-challenged threat of Indianapolis Motor Speedway; the dubious double delight of the tricky triangle that is Pocono, restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and the unique inimitable challenges of Bristol and Dover… and I haven’t even mentioned Darlington under the lights this Saturday. There’s plenty of variety ahead, which means it’s not all going to be about how well you get around the 1.5-mile circuits alone – although that also will, naturally, be a factor.
So, despite the overwhelming evidence of the “numbers,” there are more than enough reasons to believe those outside the Chase still have a chance exiting the track that has staged the fourth highest number of races in NASCAR history (106, to be precise). There’s absolutely no reason why Truex, a smidge under 200 markers back, can’t make it all the way back into the Chase Valhalla; as we’ve seen time and again, anything can happen in stock car racing, and not just at Talladega. And for the likes of Montoya (-35 pts) and Reutimann (-31 pts), whose fine form has them less than a top-10 finish at Darlington out of the all important field of 12, there’s even more reason to believe their strong performances will ultimately translate into a shot for the championship.
Yes, there is statistical likelihood that the field, as of now, is essentially set – but there is no statistical certainty that those placed beyond 13th should abandon hope. The names in the top 12 do have a familiar ring to them; but with thousands of points still on the table over the next four and a half months and the way things are shaping up, we might just see the closest and most competitive Race for the Chase ever.
Three quick notes to finish, once again, this week.
ANOTHER ATTA BOY FOR SAM
Sam Hornish Jr. followed up his solid appearance on Friday night in the best NASCAR show on television (Trackside Live) with a second top 10 in three weeks, his highest ever finish in Sprint Cup (sixth). It might just be a flash in the pan, but I don’t think so. I reckon the triple IRL champion and Indy 500 winner might look back on these past couple of weeks as the stretch when his career in the 3,400-lb monster cars finally took off.
It wouldn’t be right to end without a quick nod to yet another horrible end for Hamlin at his home track. The senior driver at Joe Gibbs Racing has now led an astonishing 529 laps (out of a possible 800) in the last two spring races at Richmond but has finished 24th and 14th, respectively, in those events. This time around, it was a pit-road snafu that saw Hamlin fall from the lead to 10th place exiting pit road. He never got going after that and would up with another disappointing finish. Hamlin has displayed some real internal fortitude to some bad luck this season, but you wonder how much more he can take before he blows his top and has a “Michigan last season” style venting session to the press.
BEAM ME UP, STREMME
With the custom Star Trek paint scheme of David Stremme’s No. 12 car all wadded up, Mike Joy intoned: “The Star Ship Enterprise is a mess.” DW’s instant comeback was “No power, Scotty; no power.”
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