Stats & Info: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Kevin Harvick is driver to beat at Michigan

June, 14, 2014
Jun 14
4:12
PM ET
Here are our projections for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Michigan.

Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, prerace on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a 2-mile D-oval superspeedway) and time of year.

Harvick’s driving a rocket
Kevin Harvick's No. 4 Chevrolet has looked more like a rocket ship than a stock car this week. Harvick finished fourth, third, third and first in prerace workouts, and rolls off from the pole.

According to Jayski.com, Harvick is running chassis No. 842 this weekend. He last raced this car at Kansas, where he won the pole and finished second.

Before that, the car led 224 of 312 laps en route to winning at Phoenix. Combined with the fact that Harvick finished second in both Michigan races last year makes him the driver to watch.

Earnhardt looking for back-to-back wins
Dale Earnhardt Jr. picked up the win last week at Pocono, passing Brad Keselowski with five laps to go when trash on Keselowski’s grill threatened to overheat his car.

Now, Earnhardt will try to do something he’s never done in his Cup career: win back-to-back races. Michigan could be his best bet. Two of his four wins since joining Hendrick Motorsports have come at Michigan.

Hendrick Motorsports going for fifth straight
Hendrick Motorsports has won the last four Sprint Cup Series races -- one apiece by Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt, and two by Jimmie Johnson.

Dating back to 1970, there have been only three win streaks of at least five races by a single NSCS team. Hendrick itself did it twice in 2007 and Petty Enterprises did it in 1971, when Richard Petty won five straight on his own.

Expect drama late in the race
Late-race drama is always in play at Michigan, as six of the last 12 races here have been decided by a lead change in the final 10 laps, including in the fall race here.

In that race, Joey Logano passed Mark Martin with four to go to pick up his third career Cup Series win.

Johnson projected to win at California

March, 22, 2014
Mar 22
5:30
PM ET

ESPN Stats & InfoSome of the best drivers could be in trouble Sunday if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Here are the projections for Sunday's Sprint Cup race at California. Our projection system takes into account, among other factors, drivers’ past performances at the current track, prerace on-track activity (practices and qualifying) and probability of finishing the race. All of the data is then adjusted for the track type (in this case, a 2-mile D-shaped oval superspeedway) and time of year.

• The Lap 1 leader has never won a Cup race at California in 24 tries. It’s the only lap of the race the eventual winner has never led. In 2008, Jimmie Johnson won from the pole, but AJ Allmendinger led the first lap.

This trend might continue through Sunday, as polesitters Matt Kenseth (inside) and Brad Keselowski (outside) are projected to finish fourth and 16th, respectively.

• Two of the past three California races have ended with a last-lap pass for the win.

This favors Jimmie Johnson, who owns the fastest average speed late in runs (170.1 mph) and Bristol winner Carl Edwards, who has gained the most positions in the final 10 percent of California Cup races (three per race, 45 total) since 2005.

• Johnson (our projected winner) is the all-time wins leader at California with five -- nobody else has more than three. He’s also the all-time leader in top-five finishes, laps led and average finish.

Johnson finished no worse than seventh in any practice, recorded the second-fastest overall qualifying lap and rolls off third.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled last week at Bristol but remains second in points, with a seventh-place average finish through four races.

Junior has never won at California but finished in the top three in this race each of the past two years.

• Kyle Busch captured Joe Gibbs Racing’s first NSCS California win last year -- his second win at the track.

Busch has led 67 percent of the total laps (356 of 529) in the past three California races, with a second-place average finish during that span.

Look for Johnson, Earnhardt in top 5

March, 8, 2014
Mar 8
8:58
PM ET

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent 95 percent of his laps in the top 15 of the field this season.
For the first time, we’re publishing the results of our NASCAR race projection system.

This system takes into account drivers’ past performance at the current track, pre-race on-track activity and probability of finishing the race, among other factors.

The projections for Sunday's NSCS Race at Las Vegas are in the chart on the right.


Jimmie Johnson looking to return to victory lane
Signs point to Jimmie Johnson as the driver to beat this week, as he leads all Cup drivers at Las Vegas in average finish (ninth), average running position (10th) and share of laps led (17 percent) since 2005.

Johnson has also posted the fastest average green flag speed (170.622 mph) and speed in traffic (169.603 mph) at the track over that span.

His worst position in this race last year was only 11th -- Sunday’s polesitter Joey Logano, who now holds the track qualifying record, never got higher than 11th in that race.

Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. keep it going?
Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes to Las Vegas on one of the hottest starts to a season in Sprint Cup history.

Through the first two races he’s run 95 percent of his laps in the top 15 -- destroying the Cup average of 37 percent.

However, he also had back-to-back top-fives to begin last season before finishing seventh at Vegas.

His consistent improvement throughout testing and practices this week (19th-19th-12th-ninth) leans toward the #88 potentially landing in the top five.

Austin Dillon poised for strong showing
Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon is projected to collect his second career top 10 in 16 NSCS starts.

Dillon’s only Sprint Cup experience at Vegas was last year’s 21st-place finish, but solid on-track activity this week has bumped him up in the projections.

Dillon finished second, sixth, 16th and second and rolls off fourth after a strong effort in the new knockout-round qualifying format.

Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDenny Hamlin has already won the Sprint Unlimited and his Budweiser Duel this year.
The most important part of SpeedWeeks, the three points races for the Camping World Truck, Nationwide and Sprint Cup series, are still yet to come, but the past week of action at Daytona has already made an impression.

Who has already made an impact, and who in line to make even more history?

It’s Denny Hamlin’s Week
Denny Hamlin put a bright spin on a largely downer 2013 season by winning the season finale at Homestead last year, and he carried that momentum into 2014, starting by winning last Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited, along with his Budweiser Duel race on Thursday.

Winning both of those races in a single season is not an unusual feat. In fact, it’s now happened in three of the last four years (2013: Kevin Harvick, 2011: Kurt Busch).

What would be unusual is if he went on to win Sunday’s Daytona 500. This is the 14th time a driver has won both the Unlimited and his qualifying race in the same season. None of the previous 13 went on to win the 500 that same year.

In fact, since 2000 it’s been done five other times, and more often than not the driver has finished outside the top 35 in the Daytona 500.

Due for a Second?
The 1993 Daytona 500 was one of the most memorable in event history. Dale Jarrett won in an upset, holding off Dale Earnhardt by 0.16 seconds for his second career Cup Series win, and the first for Joe Gibbs Racing, with his father Ned cheering him on from the broadcast booth.

Twenty years later, and Joe Gibbs Racing has grown to become one of the premier NASCAR teams, but it still has just the one Daytona 500 victory.

SpeedWeeks has gone excellently for Gibbs so far, as Hamlin won the Unlimited and his Duel, and Matt Kenseth won the first Duel race.

According to Racing Resources, JGR is the first team to sweep both Duel races in the same season.

Got a Second?
The theme with many drivers' Daytona histories focuses around second place.

Terry Labonte: the last-lap wreck in the second Duel race helped him get in. It’s his 32nd Daytona 500 start, second all-time to Dave Marcis (33). His best finish? Second.

• Kurt Busch: He’s a three-time Daytona 500 runner-up. That ties him with Terry Labonte for the most second-place finishes in the Daytona 500 without a win.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He’s finished second in three of the last four 500’s. His four career second-place finishes in the Daytona 500 are tied for second all-time behind Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Tony Stewart: A win in the 500 would not only give him a long-awaited victory in the Great American Race, but would make him the second driver with 20 career Daytona wins (in all major races, points and non-points). He’d be second to Dale Earnhardt (34).

Junior's popularity & other NASCAR awards

December, 6, 2013
12/06/13
1:36
AM ET

Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesFor the 11th straight season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver.
Jimmie Johnson may have rightfully earned the headlines after winning the 2013 Sprint Cup Series championship, his sixth career title, but he’s not the only driver hoisting hardware at the end of the season.

Here are three of the other notable winners, with some of the history they’ve made.

Most Popular Driver: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For an 11th straight season, Earnhardt Jr. captured the Most Popular Driver award, voting on by the fans. Earnhardt Jr. finished the season fifth in points, equaling his best finish since he was a career-best third in 2003.

Domination of this award is nothing new, as Earnhardt Jr. picked up right where Bill Elliott left off. The two have now combined to win the award in 22 of the last 23 seasons, with only Dale Earnhardt Sr. winning the award posthumously in 2001 to break up the dominance.

The award goes back to 1956, well before the start of both Elliott and Earnhardt Jr.’s careers, yet the two have still combined to win 27 of the 58 total awards given.

Earnhardt’s lack of titles hasn’t stopped him from winning the award, as in the 58 total years the trophy has been awarded, only six times has it been given to the driver who won the title in the same season, and not since Elliott won his only championship in 1988.

Rookie of the Year: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
It was basically a two-driver race for the award, as Stenhouse was going up against Danica Patrick, and Stenhouse took it home, despite not putting up a top-10 finish until September at Richmond, and only recording a single top-five finish, at Talladega in October.

Stenhouse finished the year 19th in points, which doesn’t seem like much, but he’s the first Rookie of the Year to finish better than 20th in points since 2006, when Denny Hamlin won twice and finished third in points. The three drivers to win Rookie of the Year previous to Stenhouse finished 41st, 33rd and 35th in points.

Hamlin’s run was the final one in a successful run of rookies. From 1999 to 2006, the eight drivers to win rookie of the year never finished outside the top 20 in points, with four of them finishing in the top 10.

Nationwide Series Champion: Austin Dillon:
Dillon, who is likely coming to the Sprint Cup Series next season, will be the second straight defending Nationwide Series champion to run for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year the following season, joining Stenhouse Jr.

Before that, it had been awhile since the Nationwide Series champion had moved up to the Cup Series, as the champions were either already-established Cup drivers, or were running their rookie Cup season while simultaneously winning the Nationwide title.

Before Stenhouse, the last driver to move up a series after winning a Nationwide title was Martin Truex Jr., who finished 19th in points in his Cup rookie season.

Before that, it was fairly common, but success was somewhat limited. The best points finish for a rookie Cup driver after previously winning a Nationwide Series championship was 16th, that coming from Earnhardt Jr. in 2000.

Value of 1st race to Chase is significant

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
8:23
PM ET

John Harrelson/Getty ImagesMatt Kenseth won the Geico 400 at Chicago Sunday night, his sixth Sprint Cup win of the season.
How important was Sunday’s Chase opener in Chicago in previewing the whole Chase?

For Matt Kenseth – A Win at Chicago Bodes Well for a Title
This is the third time that there’s been a Chase race at Chicago.

All three times it’s been the Chase opener.

In each of the previous two years, the driver who won the Chicago race went on to win the title.

In the previous seven Chases, the opener was held at New Hampshire, and only one of the seven winners went on to win the title: Kurt Busch in 2004.

Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick
Should Feel Good Too

The top six finishers Sunday were all Chasers. In seven of the previous nine Chase openers, the eventual Chase champion finished in the top six.

The only driver to recover from a finish outside the top six in the opener to win a Chase championship was Johnson, who did so in 2006 and 2010.

It Doesn’t Look Good for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Joey Logano
NASCAR’s most popular driver and the driver with the chance to become the youngest Cup Series champion both struggled, finishing 35th (Earnhardt Jr.) and 37th (Logano) after having engine issues.

Both are more than 50 points off the lead.

Since the Chase field expanded from 10 drivers for the 2007 season, the six Chase champions have a combined one finish outside the top 25 in 60 combined races.

That was a 38th-place finish by Jimmie Johnson at Texas in 2009, a race he entered with a lead bigger than the amount of points a driver could make up in a single race.

In fact, no Chase champion has had more than one finish outside the top 20 since the field expanded from 10.

Stewart's bad break impacts race for Chase

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
12:20
PM ET

Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesTony Stewart will miss his 1st Sprint Cup Series race this weekend after breaking his leg on Monday.
Tony Stewart broke his right leg and required surgery after a race Monday night at Southern Iowa Speedway. The injury will cause Stewart to miss at least Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen, a severe blow to his Chase hopes. Stewart is currently 11th in points and leading the Wild Card standings.

If there was ever a race Stewart didn’t want to miss, it’s Watkins Glen, where he’s won five of the last 11 races and holds the track record for NCSC wins.

In addition, this will be the first Sprint Cup Series race that Stewart will miss since his debut in the 1999 Daytona 500. That is currently the third-longest active consecutive starts streak.

Monday’s wreck was the third sprint car crash Stewart has been involved in in the last three weeks. On July 16, Stewart went uninjured in a 15-car wreck, but a 19-year-old girl suffered a compression fracture in her back. On July 29, he was also uninjured after flipping five times in a race in Canada.

Impact of Missing Races on Chase
Since the Chase started in 2004, no driver has ever missed a race during the “regular season” and gone on to make the Chase. Two drivers did make the Chase and then miss races inside the Chase.

In 2005, Kurt Busch missed the final two races after being removed from the car by his team. Busch finished last among the 10 Chasers. In 2012, Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed two races due to a concussion and finished last among a dozen Chase drivers.

Career Perspective
Stewart’s credential’s already put him among the legends of the sport.

• He’s one of only nine drivers to win at least three Sprint Cup Series championships

• First driver to win a championship as an owner/driver since Alan Kulwicki in 1992 (only two to do so since 1980)

• Tied for 13th-all time in Cup Series wins (48), second-most among all drivers since the start of the 1999 season (Jimmie Johnson, 64)

Johnson up for more Pocono domination

August, 3, 2013
8/03/13
1:15
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Earlier this season at Pocono, Jimmie Johnson dominated in picking up his third career victory at the “Tricky Triangle,” leading 80 percent of the race (128 of 160 laps), the most laps led in a Pocono victory since Kurt Busch led 175 of 200 laps in 2007.

His victory wasn’t just dominant from a Pocono perspective, it was one of the most dominant wins at any track in recent memory.

Johnson’s average running position throughout the race was 1.2, which marks the third-best in a single race since NASCAR began tracking the statistic in 2005. He spent 128 laps in first, 27 laps in second, four laps in third and a single lap in fourth.

The win improved his average finish at the track to 8.7, the best all-time among drivers to make multiple starts at the track. In fact, only two other drivers in series history with multiple starts at Pocono have an average finish there better than 10th, Davey Allison and Tim Richmond. The next-best mark by an active driver is Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon (10.2).

The Hendrick Motorsports Angle
The win was the 14th by Hendrick Motorsports at Pocono, the most in Cup Series history, and five more than any other team. In fact, only two other teams are within even 10 wins of Hendrick at Pocono, as Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske Racing each have 9.

Johnson’s biggest competition Sunday afternoon could come from within his own team. Last year in this race, Hendrick Motorsports had a non-Johnson 1-2 finish, with Jeff Gordon winning and Kasey Kahne finishing second.

That marked Gordon’s sixth career Pocono victory, breaking a tie with Bill Elliott for the most in track history. Gordon also needs just 35 laps led to become the first driver in series history to lead 1,000 laps at Pocono. Sunday will be the 72nd race there in series history.

Despite the dominant win in June, by one measure, Johnson wasn’t the fastest driver on the track. That honor belonged to Kasey Kahne, who was the fastest driver on the track for 51 laps, compared to 36 for Johnson.

However, Kahne finished the race 36th, 19 laps down, due to an early-race vibration that sent him to the pits. But his total of 51 fastest laps run was the most by a driver at Pocono over the last four seasons.

But Kahne’s record at Pocono doesn’t inspire much confidence. Besides his second-place finish at the track last August, he hasn’t finished any better than 12th at Pocono in six other races since the start of the 2010 season. He has led just a single lap in those seven races.

The fourth driver at Hendrick, Dale Earnhardt Jr., could also be a factor, despite his recent unremarkable stretch. In the last 15 Sprint Cup Series races, he has only a single top-five finish, and it came with a third at Pocono.

Martinsville missing Hamlin's dominance

April, 4, 2013
4/04/13
9:16
AM ET
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesDenny Hamlin will be sidelined at least 6 weeks because of a compression fracture in his lower back.
Martinsville Speedway will be missing one of its most dominant drivers this weekend, as Denny Hamlin recovers from a compression fracture suffered in a wreck at California on the final lap.

Hamlin could miss five races with the injury, and Mark Martin will be in his No. 11 machine at Martinsville.

Hamlin has been one of the most successful drivers in Cup, especially over the past couple of seasons. Since the start of 2010, no driver has more than his 14 Cup wins.

He’s also been relatively consistent. Entering this season, Hamlin has a streak of seven straight years with a Cup win.

There haven't been many recent examples of Cup drivers missing time due to an injury suffered on the track, but two of the most notable include Dale Earnhardt Jr. last fall due to a concussion and Sterling Marlin in 2002 with neck injuries after a wreck at Kansas.

Marlin was in the midst of a strong season, and was in realistic contention for the championship at the time.

It’s early in the season, but potentially missing five Cup starts would make it very difficult to make the Chase. In that scenario, the most realistic route would be to remain in the top 20 in points and take one of the two Wild Card positions for the most wins by a driver 11-20th in points.

Why is a top-10 position in the standings unrealistic?

In the current points system (since 2011), it’s taken an average of 795.5 points to get 10th in points after 26 races.

Hamlin has already run five races and earned 145 points. If he misses the next five, he has 16 races left to pick up 650.5 points (40.7 per race, or between a 3rd- and 4th-place finish on average).

As for 20th, that is significantly more realistic. He needs to average about 32 points per start, or a 12th-place finish in those 16 races.

It’s an especially difficult stretch for Hamlin to miss, as three of the next five tracks on the schedule are among Hamlin’s most successful venues, as you can see in the table.

What’s more, his 4.2 average finish in spring races at Martinsville since 2007 is the best in Cup.

Hendrick power on display in 2013

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
11:05
AM ET

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson's dominance at Fontana is one reason Hendrick's strong start in 2013 should continue.
Hendrick Motorsports, arguably the strongest team in the Cup Series, has jumped out to an impressive start this season.

In 2012, Hendrick didn’t earn a victory until Darlington, which was the 11th event of the season. This season the team already has claimed two of the first four races.

Kasey Kahne's win last week in Bristol only helped strengthen Hendrick's 2013 season. The combination of Kahne, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon have led 451 laps through four events compared to just 167 at this time last year.

What’s more, California is one of Johnson’s strongest venues. His 5.4 average finish at California is not only the best in track history, but the best by any active driver at any track (minimum 15 starts).

Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. is off to the best start in his Sprint Cup Series career. This is the first time he’s started a season with four straight top-10 finishes.

For Starters
Qualifying won’t likely be imperative in Fontana. In the past 57 Cup Series events (dating back to the 2011 Brickyard 400) only three drivers have won from the pole. In fact, drivers starting 15th have won more often (5), than those drivers who started on the pole.

California has also not been kind to the early leader, as no lap-one leader has ever gone on to win at the track. It’s the only lap that an eventual race winner at California has never led.

Gibbs Winless at Auto Club
Joe Gibbs Racing has 101 Cup Series wins, but has never won at California. It's the only active track where his team has not won Cup Series race. However, with a win this weekend, Joe Gibbs Racing will become the first team to win at least once on every active track. It’s ironic that Gibbs hasn’t won a Cup event at California because they have won a series-record eight straight Nationwide events at California.

Who could capture the checkered at California for JGR? New arrival Matt Kenseth seems like a possible candidate, he’s won four Sprint Cup and three Nationwide series races at the two-mile oval.

But a better bet could be Kyle Busch, who has a record five Nationwide Series wins at the track. His first Sprint Cup win also came at the track in 2005, when he was still driving for … Hendrick Motorsports.

Busch has led more than 70 percent of the total laps in the last two California races, but finished second and third, respectively, in those races.

Johnson poised for jackpot in Las Vegas?

March, 8, 2013
3/08/13
9:33
AM ET

Jeff Zelevansky/Nascar via Getty Images
Jimmie Johnson will try to keep his momentum going in a place where he's enjoyed plenty of success.

It’s hard to start a season any better than with a Daytona 500 win, but Jimmie Johnson has kept up the momentum with a second-place finish last week at Phoenix.

Now, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Las Vegas, a track where Johnson has won four times, twice the total of any other driver.

In five of the last eight Sprint Cup Series races at Vegas, Johnson has finished in the top two. If he makes it six of nine this Sunday, Johnson could become just the fifth driver in the modern era (starting in 1972) to start a Cup season with three consecutive top-two finishes.

The last to do it was Johnson himself in 2006, the only driver to pull off the feat in the last 15 seasons. In that season, Johnson went on to win the first of his five consecutive championships. Three of the four drivers to pull off the feat in the modern era went on to win the series title that year.

Las Vegas is one of seven tracks where Johnson is either the outright wins leader or tied for the track record in victories. The Sprint Cup Series has 23 different tracks on its schedule this season.

If Johnson and the 48 team picks up a fifth win at Vegas, it would give Johnson at least five wins on five different tracks. In Cup Series history, there are only eight drivers to have won at least five times on five different tracks. Seven of those eight are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and the eighth, Jeff Gordon, is a lock to be enshrined at the end of his career.

Even if Johnson finishes third, fourth or fifth, he can join some select company. Over the last five Sprint Cup Series seasons, only one driver has started a season with three consecutive top-five finishes: Greg Biffle last season en route to a fifth-place finish in points.

Other Strong Contenders

But Johnson is not alone in that quest. Both defending series champion Brad Keselowski and 10-time defending Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. have also started the season with back-to-back top-five finishes.

He will have a couple big challengers for the win, including Tony Stewart, who has finished second and first in the last two Las Vegas races. In those starts, he’s led 290 laps. No other driver has led more than 70.

Last week’s winner, Carl Edwards, also figures to be a factor. He’s finished sixth or better, with two wins, in four of the last six Las Vegas races. After each of Edwards’ last three Sprint Cup wins, he’s finished in the top two in the next race.

Four storylines as Sprint Cup season begins

February, 22, 2013
2/22/13
1:30
PM ET

AP Photo/Terry RennaDanica Patrick became the first woman to win the pole in a Cup Series race.
The Daytona 500 will usher in the start of the Sprint Cup season Sunday, with several storylines taking center stage. Here's a look at a few notable drivers and key stats for them heading into the Cup season:

BRAD KESELOWSKI
Miguel Cabrera
Keselowski
Brad Keselowski looks to defend his Cup championship, but it will not be an easy road. Since 2000, only one first-time Cup champion has gone on to win the Cup the very next season (Jimmie Johnson). Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte all attempted it in that span, but none finished in the top five of the standings the following season.

Keselowski performed at his best last season at just the right time, posting an average finish of 6.1 in his final 12 starts. That was three positions better than any other driver in that span.

DANICA PATRICK
Danica Patrick
Patrick
Danica Patrick will be competing in her first full season in the Cup series, and although there will likely be a learning curve, she's gotten off to a nice start by claiming the Daytona 500 pole. She’s the first woman to win a Cup pole and she'll seek to become the first Daytona 500 pole winner to win the event since 2000 (Dale Jarrett).

Patrick had a trying 2012 season but did show improvement down the stretch. In her final two starts, she completed 99.8 percent of laps run, compared to just 90.2 percent in her first eight starts. Patrick (10) will likely break the record for the most Cup starts by a woman this season, a mark currently held by Janet Guthrie. Guthrie had 33 starts between 1976 and 1980.

JIMMIE JOHNSON
Jimmie Johnson
Johnson
Jimmie Johnson will be making his 400th Cup start at Daytona, and could certainly be considered the favorite to win the championship this season. Although he came up just short last year, he was a factor until the very end and it is easy to see why.

His five wins were tied for the most in the Cup series, and he also led all drivers in top fives, top tens and laps led last season. If he were to win his sixth Cup championship in 2013, he would be just one shy of the record held by both Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Miguel Cabrera
Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a resurgent 2012, even leading the Cup standings during the summer for the first time since 2004. He was sidelined during part of the Chase while recovering from a concussion, but his overall season was stronger than both his 2010 and 2011 campaigns. The key? Earnhardt Jr. put himself in better contention for wins.

In 2012, he had an average running position of 11.6 (an average of a driver’s position on every lap), compared to 16.1 in 2011 and 18.9 in 2010.

Johnson, Hamlin strongest at Martinsville

October, 26, 2012
10/26/12
11:11
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Rob Grabowski/US PresswireCan Brad Keselowski hold off Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville to maintain his Chase lead?
The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup rolls into Martinsville Sunday (ESPN, 2 ET) with Brad Keselowski pacing the field. He leads Jimmie Johnson by a slim seven-point margin and Denny Hamlin by 20, but that championship lead could vanish at the shortest venue on the Cup schedule.

History has shown that drivers need to have a good run here in order to win the Chase title. Of the eight prior Chase champions, four won the Martinsville Chase event, two finished second and no eventual champion finished worse than fifth.

That’s great news for Johnson and Hamlin, who have dominated recently at Martinsville. Among drivers with more than five starts at the track, only Hall of Famer Lee Petty has a better average finish there than those two drivers.

Johnson is Martinsville Master
Johnson’s 5.8 career average finish at Martinsville is the fourth-best in Cup Series history by a driver at any track with at least 20 starts. He’s also posted a 2.0 career average finish in Chase starts at Martinsville, and has four wins in eight events.

Since 2006, no one has been quicker at Martinsville than Johnson during the Chase. In that span, he's posted the fastest lap 425 times, 126 more than any other driver (fastest laps run are the amount of laps in which a driver was the fastest on the track).

Hamlin Holds Edge Recently
Similar to Keselowski, Hamlin is seeking his first career Cup title; but unlike the points leader, Hamlin has been very strong at Martinsville. He’s won three of the last six Martinsville races, and has 12 top-10 finishes at Martinsville in 14 starts.

Hamlin has also led 892 laps at Martinsville since 2009, the most among any Cup driver. Keselowski, meanwhile, has never finished better than ninth in five career Martinsville starts and has led only two laps.

Both of Keselowski’s wins in the Chase, however, have come at tracks where he had never won in Cup before (Chicago and Dover). He’s also posted eight victories since the start of 2011, which is tied with Tony Stewart for the most in Cup.

Earnhardt Jr. Returns
After being sidelined for two races with a concussion suffered at Talladega, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been cleared to return to Cup this weekend. His 10 career top-5 finishes at Martinsville are his most at any Cup track, and he has finished seventh or better in his last four Martinsville starts.

Earnhardt Jr. excelled on upcoming tracks

October, 11, 2012
10/11/12
3:32
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Rainier Ehrhardt/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. was looking forward to the 1.5-mile tracks at Charlotte and Kansas.
It was announced Thursday that Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss both Charlotte and Kansas after being diagnosed with a concussion this week, snapping his streak of 461 consecutive Cup starts, which was the fifth-longest active streak.

Earnhardt Jr. enters this weekend 11th in the Chase standings and 51 points adrift of the leader, meaning he had virtually no chance at a title even before it was announced he would not compete in the next two events.

NASCAR.com projections gave him just a 1.7 percent chance of claiming the championship, the worst of any Chase driver.

As for the upcoming schedule, the two tracks Earnhardt Jr. will miss are both 1.5 miles. That’s significant, because no driver had a better average finish on 1.5-mile venues this season than Earnhardt Jr. (7.4). He finished seventh at Kansas in the spring and sixth at Charlotte.

Keselowski Up Against the Odds
Elsehwere, Brad Keselowski enjoys a 14-point lead over Jimmie Johnson in the Chase standings as the series heads to Charlotte, thanks in part to a top-10 finish in all four Chase starts this year. He’s the only driver to notch four top 10s in the Chase, and his 3.8 average finish in that span is by far the best in Cup.

He’s on top despite leading just 94 laps during the Chase while both Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin have led over 200 each. He was able to add to his points lead at Talladega, however, by avoiding major damage in the final wreck and finishing seventh. Keselowski picked up 11 spots on the final trip around, while Johnson finished 17th after failing to gain any positions on the final lap.

Five-time champion Johnson is still very much alive, however, and heads to one of his strongest venues. His six wins at Charlotte are tied with legends Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for the most all-time, and he has been very strong on 1.5-mile tracks this season, which comprise four of the final six events, including Charlotte.

Johnson has an 8.6 average finish on 1.5-mile tracks this season while Keselowski’s is just 12.7.

Hamlin is certainly another title contender as he trails the leader by 23 points. He is the only driver to have multiple wins on the remaining tracks this season (won at Phoenix and Kansas), and among Chase drivers, his 4.4 average finish this year on remaining tracks is also best.

Raw speed makes Johnson Chase favorite

September, 14, 2012
9/14/12
8:00
PM ET
Last season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup came down to a final-race, down-to-the-closing-lap battle between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Stewart won the title in unprecedented fashion: a tiebreaker over Edwards.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson
Not pictured in that thrilling finish was Jimmie Johnson, who finished a career-worst sixth in the points. But if the first 26 races of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series season are any indication, Johnson will be right in the midst of the title chase because he’s been showing more speed than any driver this season. That’s best shown by looking at how he’s distanced himself from the field in fastest laps run.

Fastest laps run is a measure of who is the fastest driver on the track on every green-flag lap. This season, Johnson has been the fastest driver on more than 12 percent of all laps. The next highest is Denny Hamlin, at 8 percent. However, Hamlin has turned his speed into four wins, Johnson has three.

Johnson also has the advantage of driving for the fastest team, Hendrick Motorsports. Johnson’s teammates Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rank third, fourth and sixth, respectively.

Dating back to 2006, when NASCAR began tracking the statistic over the course of the season, only two drivers have finished a season running more than 12 percent of the total fastest laps run: Johnson at 14.8 percent in 2009, and Edwards at 12.1 in 2008. Edwards finished second that season to Johnson in the points.

Although Johnson’s three wins this season aren’t eye-popping, his consistency has been taken up a notch. Johnson enters the 2012 Chase with 12 top-five finishes, the most he’s had entering the Chase since 2007.

He also has 17 top-10 finishes in 26 races entering the Chase. The only time he’s had more at this point since the Chase began in 2004 was 2006, when he had 18 top-10 finishes en route to the first of five consecutive championships.

Not only has Johnson been fast this season, but he’s also been tough to pass. In the first 26 races, Johnson was passed 1,479 times under the green flag on the racetrack; that seems like a high number until you consider that it’s 238 fewer than any other driver.

Johnson also has a +202 green-flag pass differential this season, simply meaning he’s passed drivers 202 more times than he’s been passed on the track. Only three other drivers are even over +100 this season and Johnson is 65 spots ahead of second-closest driver, Tony Stewart, who’s at a +137.

The Chase schedule also sets up very well for Johnson. Half of the 10 races will be held at 1.5-mile tracks, including Sunday’s opener at Chicago (1 ET on ESPN). In Sprint Cup Series history, no driver has won more at these tracks than Johnson, with 16 victories in 106 career starts.

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