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Thursday, April 23, 2009
Crunching numbers for Talladega

What have I done??

Well, it's not that serious. I just forgot to update my loyal readers on the NASCAR brackets after Texas. I swear, I'll never let you down again.

Who loves his readers? I do, that's who. So much more than Terry Blount.

Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished 1-2 at Texas, advancing them to a semifinal showdown in the desert. There, Johnson advanced to the final.

In the bottom half of the bracket. Tony Stewart beat his former teammate Denny Hamlin, and his runner-up finish at Phoenix was enough to beat Clint Bowyer in the semis. Bowyer had eliminated Bobby Labonte in the quarters.

So, how about this for a final? Stewart and Johnson, the winners of the past four Sprint Cup Series championships. Both have won at Talladega before, and both probably are not aware that they're in the final for this bracket.

I mean, I have complete confidence that a wide range of Sprint Cup drivers read my blog. Sigh, let's just get on with the best in NASCAR's loop data heading into Talladega.

Expect the unexpected

As I used to note when I wrote the weekly Eliminator last season, it's hard to predict a Talladega winner. So much can happen, and a driver can come out of nowhere to grab the checkered flag.

Just look back to this past fall, when Regan Smith was a NASCAR ruling away from winning his first race. Not just his first win -- his first top-10 finish in the Sprint Cup Series.

A driver doesn't even have to necessarily be good in this race to win it. Taking a look at the box score from the Fall 2008 Talladega race, four of the top 10 finishers had a negative green-flag pass differential. That means they were passed more often than they passed others on the track.

They were highlighted (or maybe lowlighted) by seventh-place Scott Riggs, who was minus-46, and runner-up Paul Menard, who was minus-39.

Anyone's game

But the unpredictability doesn't mean we can't peek at the statistics to see who could be fast, maybe unexpectedly so.

Scanning through the numbers, going back over the past four seasons, we see a multitude of names atop different categories. Here are the leaders in some assorted categories who wouldn't shock me with good to great runs. These are among the drivers who will be at Talladega this weekend:

Loop-data leaders at Talladega the past four seasons
Average running position -- Tony Stewart
Green-flag speed -- Michael McDowell
Pass differential -- Jeff Burton
Fastest laps run -- Michael Waltrip
Fewest times passed -- Jeff Gordon*
*Among drivers who ran all eight races

McDowell came in the MWR No. 00 car that David Reutimann will run this weekend. So, MWR cars were atop the list on green-flag speed, fastest laps run and speed in traffic.

Due for a win

If you had to guess which active driver had the best average finish at Talladega, whom would you go with?

It's Kurt Busch, despite his never winning at the track. He had a rough year at the track in 2008 but before that had recorded seven straight finishes of eighth or better.

And Mike Forde, NASCAR's sultan of stats, tells us that the elder Busch has the fourth-best average running position and second-best laps in the top 15.

More importantly, however, Busch also ranks second in quality passes, which are green-flag passes among the top 15 drivers. That shows me that he not only can run up front but also pass the other cars running up front.

That's it for me this week. Enjoy the race. I'm off to work on my drafting.