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Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Crunching numbers after California


It's getting close to the end of the season, in both NASCAR and Major League Baseball, and you know what that means.

Time to program the numbers for the local pizza place into your phone?

Well, that too. But what I was really talking about is how it's time to knuckle down, toughen up and get to the end of the season.

In baseball, that means ignoring the nagging injuries and plunging temperatures because, I'm told, there's only one October. In NASCAR, crewmen have to fight through the aches and drivers have to take what might not be the best race car to get maximum points for it.

For us writers, we have to fight through hardships as well. For yours truly, it means typing with an undisclosed finger injury after taking a pass off the middle finger courtesy of ESPN anchor Jonathan Coachman in the ESPN flag football league. Oh yeah, it was in warm-ups, but I still played.

And not to make Kyle Busch look like a pansy, but here I sit, sipping on the cold beverage that is also helping keep the swelling down, and calling Crayola to get them to name a crayon after the color my finger's currently turning. No, David Gilliland's not writing my blog today.

So, I throw myself on your mercy, ESPN.com editors. The finger is on the fertile ground of the c's, d's and e's of my column. If I miss a few of those letters, at least you know I tried.

However, I can still look up all the stats that my people love, and type them to you in sloppy fashion that makes me thankful for spell-check.

The restart's the thing

Although the first part of Sunday's race wasn't one of the more thrilling moments of the NASCAR season, the end of the race picked up with some daring driving and riveting restarts. At the end of the race, it was Jimmie Johnson lowering the hammer and outdueling his teammate (and four-time champion) Jeff Gordon on a pair of late restarts.

The double-file restart rule seems to play into Johnson's advantage -- he's one of the best in the business at restarts, no matter if he's high or low on the track.

On the final two restarts, Johnson's first lap times were a 41.6 and a 41.3. Gordon ran a 41.8 on both laps. Needless to say, the 48 went to Victory Lane once again in Fontana.

Trivia break! Johnson's 45th win moved him into sole possession of second place among active drivers. Who did he break the tie with?

Fives keeping him alive

I'll say it: Juan Pablo Montoya is a championship contender. I predicted before the season that he'd finally get a win on an oval this year, but I didn't pick him as a Chase driver. I should've reversed those statements, but the way he's been running, he'll end up in Victory Lane before too long.

Montoya has started the Chase with four straight top-5 finishes. You know how many drivers have started their Chase on a run like that? Just Juan.

(Get it? Juan sounds like the No. 1? Moving on ...)

Most top-5 finishes to start the Chase
Juan Pablo Montoya, four, 2009
Jimmie Johnson, three, 2008
Carl Edwards, three, 2008
Greg Biffle, three, 2008
Ryan Newman, three, 2005
Kurt Busch, three, 2004

Busch and Johnson went on to win titles. Edwards might have in any other season besides 2008.

Trivia break! This is to test both your memory and loyalty to reading my column. Jeff Gordon got his eighth second-place finish of the season Sunday. That ties who for the most in a season over the past 30 seasons?

The Curse of Lap 1

Blog section title or Hardy Boys mystery novel title? You decide.

Denny Hamlin led Lap 1 at California, and I was not at all surprised when he wrecked out of the race later on. Why's that? Well, check out what the Lap 1 leader has done at California:

Races: 19
Wins: 0
Top 5s: Six
Average finish: 15.8

The average finish isn't bad until you consider that all of these guys started up front, so they obviously had the car to compete with the big boys.

Trivia break! What driver had the best finish after leading Lap 1 at California?

Trivia break answers

1. Johnson broke a tie with Bill Elliott, who has won 44 races.

2. Darrell Waltrip had eight in 1983.

3. Kurt Busch finished second after leading Lap 1 in 2002, the best mark so far.