Did You Notice? How poor performances before the playoffs don’t always mean something near the end of the regular season? Let’s delve a little deeper into this issue after Denny Hamlin’s last-place finish combined with Jimmie Johnson’s third-place run at Atlanta, leading everyone towards the following knee-jerk analysis:
“Denny’s championship Chase is over! There’s no way he’ll ever recover.”
“Jimmie Johnson’s back! How could we have ever doubted him?”
Are we jumping the gun on these two? To find out, let’s take a look at how the 2009 Chase field performed the last four races before the playoffs. Look at the chart below, sorted by their order of finish after the 10-race postseason concluded at Homestead:
2009 Chase Order of Finish
Driver Average Finish In Four Races BEFORE The Chase Laps Led
1) Jimmie Johnson – 22.0, 257
2) Mark Martin – 10.5, 269
3) Jeff Gordon – 9.0, 128
4) Kurt Busch – 20.8, 0
5) Denny Hamlin – 5.5, 322 (1 Win)
6) Tony Stewart – 19.5, 2
7) Greg Biffle – 11.8, 77
8) Juan Pablo Montoya – 16.5, 31
9) Ryan Newman – 10.0, 1
10) Kasey Kahne – 13.0, 60 (1 Win)
11) Carl Edwards – 18.0, 1
12) Brian Vickers – 6.8, 14 (1 Win)
How about that for a statistical anomaly? Brian Vickers, who used a red-hot streak in August and September to fight his way inside the 12-man field, actually had the second-best average finish the month before the playoffs, even though he went on to finish dead last. On the flip side, critics were inaccurately predicting Johnson’s collapse after a handful of mistakes down the stretch left him stumbling to a lowly average finish of 22nd.
Why did the regular season seem to tell us another story? The answer comes in how different teams choose to prepare for the Chase. For Vickers, there was no room for error, a team that had to run hard while making sure they never took a risk that left them with a deadly DNF. Ryan Newman, after dropping like a rock during July of that year, was pretty much stuck in the same boat. Now compare that to Johnson and Tony Stewart, men who had locked up their Chase bids and spent the month of August going for wins. For those teams, nobody cared about 33rd or 25th or 17th – because if it wasn’t first place, there was no 10-point playoff bonus and their race was absolutely meaningless.
If that’s the case, why did Johnson succeed and Stewart tank in last year’s playoffs? Simple: J.J.’s team had the experience not to lose confidence over poor performances, knowing it didn’t matter, while Stewart’s group didn’t have the “feel” of how to behave just before and during the Chase. Remember, while the driver was no playoff novice, he was wheeling it for a team that struggled to stay inside the Top 35 throughout most of 2008.
Through that basic analysis, two patterns emerge in figuring out who’s going to be a Chase favorite: 1) How many laps they lead in the month before the playoffs. Notice that four of the top-five finishers in last year’s Chase led at least 128 laps in August and early September, while the fifth, Kurt Busch, had drama right before the postseason (crew chief Pat Tryson announced his season-end departure) and took most of September and October to get his act together. 2) Experience. Three of last year’s top-five finishers are former champions, with Mark Martin and four-time Chaser Hamlin the others on the list. In comparison, first-time playoff participants Juan Pablo Montoya and Vickers slumped towards the bottom, while Stewart and Newman struggled in their maiden voyage with a “new” team in SHR.
With this information firmly in hand, let’s move forward and focus on some 2010 numbers – for comparison’s sake, I’ve included the last four races of this season:
Current 2010 Standings
Driver Average Finish In Last Four Races BEFORE The Chase Laps Led
1) Kevin Harvick – 14.8, 60 (1 Win)
2) Jeff Gordon – 15.3, 2
3) Kyle Busch – 10.5, 282 (1 Win) (All Laps Led At Bristol)
4) Tony Stewart – 10.3, 213 (1 Win)
5) Carl Edwards – 5.5, 32
6) Jeff Burton – 13.3, 0
7) Jimmie Johnson – 19.5, 197
8) Kurt Busch – 14.3, 10
9) Matt Kenseth – 9.8, 0
10) Denny Hamlin – 29.0, 86
11) Greg Biffle – 18.0, 66
12) Clint Bowyer – 14.0, 1
Again, we’ve got an interesting set of stats in front of us. Carl Edwards – who until this past Sunday had led fewer laps this season than Boris Said or Mattias Ekstrom – has the best average finish and on paper the most “momentum” with one race still remaining before the playoffs. On the other end, sitting there with the worst averages are this year’s two main title favorites: Hamlin and Johnson. The difference is Johnson has led in three of four races for 197 laps, while Hamlin has led just twice for 86 and endured not one but two consecutive mechanical failures.
So to wrap this all up in a nice little bow, here’s what we’ve learned: Johnson should be right near the top of your list, with Stewart a darkhorse contender and RCR, Edwards, and Matt Kenseth not quite as strong as you might expect. In theory, Hamlin should be near the top as well – but the worry remains centered around JGR’s postseason reliability. People think back to his California crash that took him from the lead to near tears inside the garage, but it was the two engine failures recorded after that which sealed the deal on his disappointing fate. Could history be repeating itself?
Did You Notice? Wal-Mart’s pulled out of negotiations to sponsor Jeff Gordon, but continues to work with NASCAR hot and heavy on a merchandising deal? OK, I know having the No. 1 discount department store in any capacity is a positive for the sport. Gordon isn’t exactly the perfect match for them as a sponsor – you wonder if he’s ever even stepped foot inside the store – and any merchandising arrangement under the sport’s new sponsorship will spread money towards all of the teams involved, not just the sanctioning body itself.
But when faced with a sponsorship crisis the likes of which we haven’t seen in 30 years, I have serious worries about what Wal-Mart’s “diss” of Hendrick and Co. says to other possible business deals sitting on the fence. In a corporate boardroom where the only numbers that matter are the bottom line, declining ratings and attendance, combined with a lack of new faces and new places have made it difficult for new companies that have the money to dip their feet in and try NASCAR for the first time. Think about all the new sponsors we’ve seen hop on cars for the 2011 season. Oh, wait… that’s right, there are none. Among those still looking for backing are Gordon, Stewart and Sam Hornish Jr. – a who’s who of auto-racing superstars over the last two decades.
Add in a bad economy to this recipe, and companies are looking for sure bets on where to place their advertising money; rising sports like the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA. Right now, all the data they have on NASCAR gives the impression the sport is ready to cave in on itself – and that’s where Wal-Mart’s team sponsorship comes in. If such a big-time, Fortune 500 company said, “You know what we’d like to do right now? Sponsor a NASCAR driver,” it could single-handedly stem the tide and drag several others right behind on their coattails. Instead, they’re about to become an “official” NASCAR sponsor, in a sense, entering a world where even non-NASCAR folk thought they were already involved with the sport.
And considering NASCAR merchandise is already sold in Wal-Marts across the country – how does that help expand the brand? I’d love to see someone like Target come on board, someone that could sell those products while marketing to a larger clientele that knows little or nothing about the sport they committed to. And as for Gordon, a possible sponsorship renewal with DuPont is in the cards; that’s all well and good, but on Year 18 that brand isn’t exactly going to cause marketers to leave that contract signing brimming with excitement.
That’s why if I were NASCAR, I would beg, plead and plod Wal-Mart to go sponsor a program. Maybe Gordon isn’t their driver, so hey! Why not back a single-car team like Robby Gordon’s for a year at a bargain price, waiting patiently until the right match for the company becomes available? Something, anything would be better than feeding into NASCAR’s recent pattern of focusing so much on the sanctioning body itself at the expense of the hurting private contractors that participate.
Did You Notice? Some quick hits before we take off:
- If I had to label who needed a win at Richmond the most out of this year’s batch of 12 Chasers, I would go in this order: 1) Hamlin. 2) Edwards. 3) Jeff Gordon. 4) Jeff Burton. And if none of these guys have won by New Hampshire… I have serious doubts as to whether they’ll be able to pull off a championship miracle.
- Seriously, how bad could NASCAR’s luck get this year? Their best races have occurred with a two-hour pothole delay (Daytona), after a rain delay (Martinsville), and on a night where the race itself didn’t end until close to midnight on a Sunday (Atlanta). I know most Americans had Monday off, but I really have my doubts about ending an event that late on the east coast. Honestly, that event was an average length for a 500-miler; what if there was a red flag or a lengthy mid-race caution to slow things down? This start time definitively needs to get pushed up to about 6:30 p.m. ASAP. Or how about 5:45, just like the Coca-Cola 600!
- One more note about Atlanta. I have a message to send to fans within 100 miles of the speedway: Don’t make the same mistake that cost Rockingham fans their races. Ticket prices were low, the competition was great, the weather was picture-perfect… and attendance still dropped 16.2% just weeks after Atlanta got trimmed from two dates to one for 2011. Sure, the finish was a barnburner, but the bottom line in this business – now more than ever – is making money. Bruton Smith won’t be afraid to make a move in another year or two if attendance keeps declining at an alarming rate… can you say “Kentucky 500” on Labor Day Weekend?
- My take on Bruton Smith whining about Las Vegas not getting the season finale: ignore it. This guy pretends he’s powerless when all that’s needed at this point is a phone call, a formal protest and NASCAR loses half its tracks on the schedule. Make no mistake about it, he’s got the sport by the balls; if he wanted Las Vegas, he would have it. But everyone knows Homestead-Miami stayed where it was because ISC is worried sick that moving the date to February, March or elsewhere would kill the track’s profitability and already lackluster attendance. Bruton cut ISC a break, and while he won’t let them forget it, his business gets hurt indirectly if an ISC track ever folds. So Smith drunk the Kool-Aid of NASCAR crying poor; what he’s doing now is just stirring up the pot to get his fair share of national PR.
- I saw a commercial for NHL 2011 the other day, and got reminded of the fact NASCAR still doesn’t have a heavily marketed video game since EA Sports left. Isn’t that how you attract the younger generation, especially in a world where Facebook, Tweets and virtual technology consume their life? New NASCAR Marketing shish kabob acronym of people, please take note.
- I gave my take on the Todd Bodine – Kyle Busch” squabble over in my SI Mailbag yesterday. But there’s one important thing I left out: someone, somehow is going to get Kyle Busch good in the Truck Series between now and the end of the season. And how he handles that win-to-spin finish will have a direct effect on his slim chances to take home this year’s Cup title.
- The new life for Sprint Cup rookies: Landon Cassill will run his first full race on Sunday in the No. 71 Chevy after six start-and-park efforts (the car will be sponsored by the 9/11 Post-GI Bill). In the past, freshmen had to spend years in underfunded equipment before being given a chance by the big-time organizations in the sport. Now, you have to make money running a few laps and quitting before you’re even given an opportunity with an underfunded team willing to run you all 400 laps. NASCAR in 2010: Where going backwards is considered a good thing.
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