|ESPN.com: Willis||[Print without images]|
Greetings, friends, countrymen and minions.
Now things are getting exciting. If you didn't think the wildness at Sonoma was enough, we're officially on our way to the Race to the Chase, the 10-race stretch leading up to the 2010 Chase premiere at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
I hope you're not too attached to the 12 drivers currently in the Chase field. That's because going back to the start of the Chase, we've yet to have a year in which the drivers in Chase positions at the 10-to-go mark all made the Chase.
In 2004-06, when only 10 drivers made the Chase, two drivers moved into the Chase field in the final 10 races, most notably Matt Kenseth, who made up a 271-point deficit in the final 10 races and had to pass 10 drivers along the way to do it.
In 2007 and '08, one driver each year (Kurt Busch in '07 and Kevin Harvick in '08) went from being out to in during that time frame. Last year, both Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers played the role of comeback kids at the expense of Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth.
So don't be so quick to start throwing away the hopes of some key drivers. Juan Pablo Montoya sits 20th, like Matt Kenseth in 2005, and has only a 161-point deficit behind 12th-place Carl Edwards. Kahne has looked strong over the past few weeks, and you know how he can get on a roll. Then there are drivers like Clint Bowyer and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who are just outside the top 12 and in top-notch equipment.
So, unless you're a Dave Blaney fan, I'm probably willing to give your driver at least a shot to make the Chase. And it all starts with this week's race in New Hampshire. What a great segue to my stats preview!
Jeff Gordon has been criticized and praised alike for his actions last week at Sonoma. While some of his tactics might be objectionable, people seem to think that a newly aggressive Jeff Gordon could contend for that elusive fifth championship, even reaching that mark before his teammate, Jimmie Johnson.
But until Gordon starts winning some races, he'll have a tough time winning a championship. No driver has ever won the championship in a season in which he was held winless. Even in the inaugural NASCAR Cup Series season of 1949, which had only eight races, Red Byron won twice on his way to a title.
Well, Gordon could get that elusive win this weekend at New Hampshire. Although he hasn't won there since 1998, Gordon has been very impressive there over the past five years and has finished second in three of the past six races at Loudon, including two of the past three spring races.
Over the five-year span, Gordon leads all drivers with a 7.4 average position and 341 quality passes (green-flag passes in the top 15). He also has the second-highest average speed and driver rating in that span.
So watch for Gordon's focus to switch from postrace call-outs to Victory Lane.
As much as he gets killed by his legions of fans, it's important to note that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is currently just one spot and 57 points out of a Chase position, so he's right there. This week, he goes to a track where he's never won and hasn't had great recent finishes, but I'm still going to classify as one of his best.
Let's take a second to go behind just his finishes and look at his speed since, as we all know, speed tends to be important at this level of racing. List it!Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s speed ranks at New Hampshire over the past five years
Junior Nation can send their praises and well-wishes to me at ESPNMattWillis@yahoo.com.
The best overall performance last year in the two races at New Hampshire may have come from Kurt Busch. Busch finished third and sixth in the two races, but ran better than that in both.
Busch was second in average position in the June race, and third in the September race. In terms of overall green-flag speed, he was the second-quickest in June and had the best overall speed in September.
Busch has won at New Hampshire three times, including sweeping there on his way to the 2004 championship. He had only three wins total that season, so consider him always a threat to win there.
That's all I have for you this week. Enjoy the race!