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Friday, February 12, 2010
The Eliminator: Numbers favor JJ

By Matthew Willis

Ah, the Daytona 500. Oh how I do love the Daytona 500.

In fact, Valentine's Day might be a good time to finally tell the Great American Race how I feel. Is it too soon? Do I risk scaring her off? Have you already had second thoughts about reading this column?

Do not fear! Yes, the path might be winding, but I'm actually getting to something. The Daytona 500 is appealing partly because of its prestige, but also because of the "anybody can win and take the points lead to start the season" mantra. It's nearly impossible to call who's going to take this one.

Or is it?

Well, all week long you've been hearing a lot of pundits and soothsayers trying to predict who's going to take the 52nd running of the Daytona 500. Some have cited evidence, most have gone on hunches. But I'm taking it to the next level.

Regular readers might know how I do so, but I'll fill the newbies in. We love the fresh faces here at ... The Eliminator.

Yes, I'm going to pick a Daytona 500 winner, but I'm going to do it by instead picking 42 losers, using a series of statistics, trends and historical notes. By process of elimination (get it?), the one driver remaining at the end just has to be the eventual winner.

Get it? Got it? Good. Let's start.

First of all, I need some previous Daytona 500 success. Every Daytona 500 winner dating back to 1992 had a previous top-5 finish at Daytona. From our starting field of 43, 19 drivers have been eliminated from contention, so my math says 24 are left in the running.

Let's get a little more specific. Not only general success at Daytona, but success in the Daytona 500. In that same stretch, going back to Davey Allison's 1992 Daytona 500 win, every 500 winner had a previous top-10 finish in the Great American Race. We just trim the list this time, gently taking another five drivers off, leaving 19.

More Daytona goodness: 12 of the past 13 Daytona winners finished in the top 15 in their previous Daytona race. That model of consistency is enough to take out another 12 drivers, meaning we have just seven left.

Getting impatient? I hear that, so let's just finish this bad boy off. Restrictor-plate racing is a skill, and it shows. Five of the past seven Daytona winners finished in the top six in the previous restrictor-plate race. That's too much for six of those remaining, meaning we have just one.

It's an unpredictable race, but with a predictable winner. It may be boring, but The Eliminator's taking Jimmie Johnson to start his Drive for Five with his second Daytona 500 win on Sunday. Remember, the numbers don't lie.

Eliminator breakdown

• Every Daytona 500 winner since 1992 had a previous top-5 finish at the track (19 drivers eliminated, 24 remaining).

Drivers eliminated: Marcos Ambrose, Mike Bliss, Robby Gordon, Sam Hornish Jr., Kasey Kahne, Brad Keselowski, Travis Kvapil, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Paul Menard, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joe Nemechek, Max Papis, David Reutimann, Robert Richardson, Regan Smith, Scott Speed, Martin Truex Jr., Brian Vickers.

• Every Daytona 500 winner since 1992 had a previous top-10 finish in the 500 (five drivers eliminated, 19 remaining).

Drivers eliminated: John Andretti, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray Boris Said.

• Twelve of the past 13 Daytona winners had a top-15 finish in their previous Daytona race (12 drivers eliminated, seven remaining).

Drivers eliminated: AJ Allmendinger, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bill Elliott, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Ryan Newman, Michael Waltrip.

• Five of the past seven Daytona winners finished in the top six in their previous restrictor-plate race (six drivers eliminated, one remaining).

Drivers eliminated: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, David Ragan, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart.

• And your winner is: Jimmie Johnson.

Matt Willis is a studio researcher at ESPN.