Category archive: Tony Stewart

There are a lot of great Fourth of July traditions: the Daytona race, barbecues and my annual vacation from work included. But that doesn't stop me from writing these blogs and doing my top-notch research that gets me all the ladies.

Some actual history was made at Daytona on Saturday. First, Tony Stewart picked up his 18th career Daytona win -- his fourth in a Sprint Cup Series points race. The only driver with more? Some guy named Dale Earnhardt, who won 34 races at Daytona.

But Stewart is still waiting for that pesky Daytona 500 win, much like that guy above him was before his landmark 1998 victory.

Even more impressive is that Stewart won after starting 42nd, becoming the third driver in series history to win after starting 40th or worse. Fonty Flock won at Raleigh in 1953 starting 43rd, and Johnny Mantz won the first Southern 500, also starting 43rd.

The previous modern-era record was 39th, done by Bobby Labonte at Atlanta in 2001 and Matt Kenseth in the 2009 Daytona 500.

Trivia break! Prior to Stewart, what 2012 Cup series winner had the worst starting position?

One cool CAT

Jeff Burton came home second at Daytona, making it through the last-lap wreck -- and all the other wrecks -- to pick up his best finish of the season.

In fact, Burton had just one other top-5 finish this season, in the Daytona 500.

Combined with his 10th-place run at Talladega, Burton has put up the second-most points in restrictor-plate races this season, trailing only Matt Kenseth, who has been third or better in all three plate races.

Over the past two seasons, Burton has four top-5 finishes, three of them coming in plate races. He also has four of his nine top-10s in plate races in that time.

Trivia break! Besides Burton and Kenseth, who are the only three other drivers with lead-lap finishes in all three plate races this season?

Classic Daytona

Daytona races are known for many things: surprise winners, close finishes and tight quarters. Oh, yeah, don't forget the wrecking.

The wrecks at Daytona on Saturday night collected 43 cars combined, some drivers being involved more than once. It was the highest total in a race dating back to 1990, when we started collecting complete data.

Thirty-two drivers were involved in at least one wreck. Six more started and parked, and one, Landon Cassill, had issues of his own.

That leaves just four drivers who ran the distance and didn't get involved in a wreck: Stewart, Burton, Ryan Newman and Brad Keselowski. All finished in the top eight.

Trivia break! Who was the last driver to sweep the two races at Daytona in a season?

Trivia break answers

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the previous worst starting spot for a winner, starting 17th at Michigan.

2. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Paul Menard also have lead-lap finishes in all three.

3. Bobby Allison was the last to do so in 1982.

I'll be the first to admit that numbers can be misleading.

Of course, except mine. My statistics have only good intentions, looking to guide you and me together on a path of enlightenment.

But other numbers can be misleading, especially when it comes to drivers at Charlotte. So let's break down three drivers, one who is worse than you thought, one who's better and a third who's a bit of both.

Jimmie Johnson: Charlotte is sometimes referred to as "Johnsonville." There was a period of time when the dude owned the place, at one point winning four in a row. But that time has passed.

Johnson's driver rating has slipped at Charlotte over each of the past six seasons (see accompanying chart), except a rebound in 2009.

Johnson looked like he was making a comeback at Charlotte in 2009, when he ran a race-high 71 fastest laps in a win. After that, though, the drop continued.

Over the past four Charlotte races, Johnson has run 88 fastest laps, a still-respectable number at sixth-best in the series but certainly not worthy of track ownership.

Kyle Busch: Busch's career at Charlotte was rocky at the start of his Cup career. In his first seven races there, he finished 25th or worse six times. But in his past nine starts, he's finished eighth or better in all but one.

Despite not having won there, his numbers are among the best. In the past 10 races at Charlotte, Busch has put up two of the three highest single-race driver ratings, but finished second and sixth in those races.

Tony Stewart: Early in Stewart's career, he was a regular front-runner at Charlotte, with six top-5s and nine top-10s in his first dozen races there. In his past 14? Not a single top-5.

But there's hope, Smoke fans. Last fall at Charlotte, Stewart put up a 121.2 driver rating, his best in his past 14 races there.

Looking for trouble

Every week, my fellow members in ESPN Stats & Information crunch the numbers and tell us what to watch for this weekend.

Since 1990, more drivers have recovered from accidents and gone on to post top-10 finishes at Charlotte than any other intermediate track.

Carl Edwards (three times), Jeff Gordon (twice) and Martin Truex Jr. (twice) are among those with multiple "saves" at the track. Edwards has more such recoveries at Charlotte than all other tracks combined (two).

The Eliminator: Charlotte

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make a pick.

It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the race winner.

And if you want to see who was eliminated in each step, I'll post the info Friday on my Twitter account (@MattWillisESPN).

1. The past 14 Sprint Cup Series winners finished 16th or better in the last race at the track. (31 drivers eliminated, 16 remaining).

2. Nine of the past 10 Charlotte winners were 11th or better in the last Kansas race (eight eliminated, eight remaining).

3. Eight of the past nine Charlotte winners had a previous top-two finish at the track (three eliminated, five remaining).

4. There have been 10 different winners in the past 10 Charlotte races (three eliminated, two remaining).

5. The past three Charlotte winners finished 17th or better in each of the past three races (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kyle Busch

The men's and women's college basketball tournaments are down to just four teams each, but here in my NASCAR Bracket of Massive Significance, I'm not ready for that yet. Our quarterfinals have left us with some very intriguing matchups:

Earnhardt Bracket

Greg Biffle versus Martin Truex Jr.: Biffle's numbers at Martinsville are less than stellar. He's never had a top-5 finish there. Truex just has one top-5 but was eighth there last fall, so he's my pick.

Allison Bracket

Dale Earnhardt Jr. versus Matt Kenseth: These two have a history dating back to the Nationwide Series before it was the Nationwide Series. Junior has been excellent at Martinsville lately; I like him to reach the semis.

France Bracket

Kevin Harvick versus Tony Stewart: Fun matchup between last year's Martinsville winners. Stewart won his last start, but his three before that were all 24th or worse. Harvick has three straight top-5s at the Paper Clip, so he's my man.

Petty Bracket

Clint Bowyer versus Paul Menard: The only non-1-versus-2 matchup in the bracket. Bowyer's Martinsville numbers aren't great, but Menard has never had a top-10 there.

Three-man show?

In the previous 10 races at Martinsville, three drivers have separated themselves from the pack: Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson.

Those three all have an average finish of 5.1 or better in that time. No other driver has a mark better than 10th.

So, looking inside the numbers, who's the man to beat? Or who's the guy to pick up if you can have only one on your fantasy team? That depends on how you look at it.

In terms of how many times these drivers have been passed the previous 10 races, Johnson has been passed the fewest at 292. And he does the best of staying up front with an average position of 5.4. The other two each have been passed more than 300 times in those races, with average positions between sixth and seventh.

But if you look at pure speed, Gordon has been the fastest driver on the track most often. He's run the fastest lap on 559 circuits over the 10 races. Johnson's at 491, and Hamlin 420.

At the end of the race, a tight finish also favors Gordon. Over the final 10 percent in each of those 10 races, Gordon has a plus-2 pass differential, while Johnson and Hamlin have put up negative numbers.

However, not much separates these drivers, and all three will be heavy threats up front all day Sunday.

Looking for trouble

Every week, our stats and analysis team compiles a breakdown of the wrecks at the next track on the schedule. Here's this week's takeaway:

For everybody who missed the slam-banging action at Bristol two weeks ago, you might be in luck.

Since 2004, when Martinsville was repaved, no track has featured more accidents than Martinsville with 154. The next highest is Charlotte with 108, then Bristol at 103.

And when deciding what end of the track to focus on, pick Turns 3 and 4. Since 1990, there've been 130 accidents in Turns 3 and 4, opposed to 86 in Turns 1 and 2.

The Eliminator: Martinsville

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make my race pick. It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you why one guy will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the race winner.

1. Eleven of the past 12 Martinsville winners finished in the top 20 in the previous week's race ( 26 eliminated, 19 remaining).

2. The past seven spring Martinsville winners finished ninth or better in the previous Martinsville race (12 eliminated, seven remaining).

3. The past nine Martinsville winners had a top-10 in the most recent Richmond race (three eliminated, four remaining).

4. The past seven Martinsville winners had a top-5 finish in the previous New Hampshire race (three eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Tony Stewart

What a great time to be a sports fan! NASCAR is in full swing, but right now, it gets overshadowed by the NCAA tournament.

But why let the college hoops fans have all the fun and enjoyment that brackets can bring?

For the past few years, I've had a little NASCAR bracket this time of year, humbly called the Bracket of Massive Significance.

Simply put, the top 32 in points are matched up bracket-style, going head-to-head, with the top finisher advancing. And in the spirit of the tournament, all the craziness of the first weekend begins with Bristol.

The matchups:

Petty Bracket
(1) Greg Biffle vs. (32) Landon Cassill
(16) Bobby Labonte vs. (17) Jeff Gordon
(9) Joey Logano vs. (24) Juan Pablo Montoya
(8) Martin Truex Jr. vs. (25) Jamie McMurray

France Bracket
(4) Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. (29) Kurt Busch
(13) Ryan Newman vs. (20) Dave Blaney
(12) Kyle Busch vs. (21) Brad Keselowski
(5) Matt Kenseth vs. (28) David Ragan

Earnhardt Bracket
(2) Kevin Harvick vs. (31) Casey Mears
(15) Jeff Burton vs. (18) Marcos Ambrose
(10) Brian Vickers vs. (23) Jimmie Johnson
(7) Tony Stewart vs. (26) Kasey Kahne

Allison Bracket
(3) Denny Hamlin vs. (30) AJ Allmendinger
(14) Clint Bowyer vs. (19) Regan Smith
(11) Paul Menard vs. (22) Aric Almirola
(6) Carl Edwards vs. (27) David Gilliland

Some intriguing matchups in the first round. Let's start the conversation in the comments section, and fill out your brackets.

Smoke-free zone at Bristol?

Coming off a nice win at Las Vegas, Tony Stewart is heading to one of his worst tracks statistically. Sure, he won the fall race at Bristol Motor Speedway in 2001, but his top-10 percentage of just more than 30 percent is his worst at any Cup track he has raced at more than once.

Dating back to 2005, his overall driver rating at Bristol is an 89.5, which is 10th best at the track, and doesn't seem that bad.

But let's just look at the past three years, in his time with Stewart-Haas Racing, when Stewart has had a driver rating of 80.4 or lower in five of six starts there.

Last fall at Bristol, Stewart's driver rating was a paltry 46.6, and he didn't run a single lap in the top 15. Over the past six races at Bristol, his average driver rating is a 72.1. If that were his career mark at the track, it would rank him 24th among all drivers.

Looking for trouble

Every week, our stats and analysis team compiles a breakdown of the wrecks at the next track on the schedule. Here's this week's takeaway:

Although Bristol has undergone a major facelift recently, the fact remains that there are more accidents at Bristol than any other track.

In fact, Bristol has averaged 7.7 accidents per race since 1990, two more per race than the next-highest track, Martinsville.

And there's no breathing room, as each area of the half-mile track accounts for no more than 20 percent of the total accidents there, but also no fewer than 14.8 percent of the total accidents.

The Eliminator: Bristol

For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to make my race pick. It's pretty simple. Instead of telling you why one guy will win, I point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, is the projected race winner.

1. Seventeen of the past 18 Bristol winners had a previous top-four finish at the track (23 eliminated, 23 remaining).

2. The past seven spring Bristol winners finished 18th or better in the previous Richmond race (11 eliminated, 12 remaining).

3. The past 11 Bristol winners finished in the top 20 in both of last year's Bristol races (five eliminated, seven remaining).

4. Six of the past seven Bristol winners had a top-four finish in one of the previous two races (six eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Ryan Newman.

A week after Darian Grubb proved he could win without Tony Stewart, Tony Stewart proved he could win without Darian Grubb. Classic fairy-tale ending.

But let's get away from the romanticized tales of vindication and betrayal, and start talking some numbers. And today's number is 14.

No, that's not because it's Tony Stewart's car number, give me some credit now. This was the 14th season in a row in which Tony Stewart has won a Cup race, making him just the eighth driver to do so, joining Richard Petty, David Pearson, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Jeff Gordon.

What else makes it impressive is that, other than this season, Stewart's only finished one year with just a single win during that streak. Among the other seven drivers, only Petty and Gordon had one or fewer single-win seasons during their streaks.

Trivia break: With his 45th career Cup win, Stewart moved into sole possession of 15th all-time. Who was he tied with?

None Shall Pass

Last year at Las Vegas, Stewart was dominant, leading 163 laps. But he came up short, finishing second to Carl Edwards.

This year, he didn't lead as many laps, but his average position on the track was two-and-a-half spots better. Plus, he was only passed nine times under green flag, compared to 71 last year.

That marks the fewest times a driver has been passed under green in a Cup win since Jimmie Johnson was only passed six times when he won at Phoenix in November 2009.

Trivia break: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made it three-for-three for non-Cup regulars in the Nationwide Series this weekend. When was the last time the first three Nationwide races were won by non-Cup drivers?

Third Time's The Charm

A little way behind Stewart, Greg Biffle was finishing third for the third time in three races this season. The rule of threes is in strong effect here.

The last time a driver started a season with three straight top-three finishes came in 2006, when Jimmie Johnson did it on his way to a title.

However, dating back to 1980, four other drivers besides Biffle and Johnson have done it, and none of them went on to win a title.

Trivia break: Who was the last driver to start a season with four straight top-three finishes?

Trivia Break Answers

1. Stewart broke a tie with Bill Elliott.
2. In 1995, Chad Little won the first two, and Kenny Wallace the third race.
3. Earnhardt had four straight top-threes to start the 1989 season.

You couldn't have asked more of a season that included 18 different winners, a points battle that ended in a dead heat and was decided on a tiebreaker and a NASCAR stats blogger who provided about 80 blog posts throughout the season.

I won't lie: Sometimes, this job can be really cool. One of those times was Monday, when Tony Stewart was on the ESPN campus and I got a chance to ask him about his run to a title and what, to me, was the lasting moment of this race -- his thrilling, four-wide pass in his mad dash to the front.

Putting on my analyst's hat for a second, it wasn't just that he made it four-wide, it's the fact that he could drive it down on the bottom, make it stick and make the pass, while most drivers could only make passes if they had the high line, struggling to keep it underneath another car.

Stewart then gave me a quick lesson about the line he was taking, how it differed from the line others were taking, and how he managed to hone that type of move driving on dirt tracks throughout the year.

A cool experience for little ol' me, and a perfect segue to my final three-tiered notes of the season.

Historic win

It's a little early to go lightning-round mode, but let's recap some history.

Stewart became:

• The ninth driver to win at least three Cup titles.

• The seventh driver to win a Cup title with two teams.

• The seventh owner/driver to win a title.

• The fourth driver to enter the final race out of the lead, and win the title.

Take a deep breath, as you're not going to see that much history made often.

Trivia break! Who are the other six drivers to win Cup titles with two different teams?

A win to win it all

Another rare feat Stewart pulled off is a win in the finale by a driver who also won the championship.

Stewart's the first driver to do it since Jeff Gordon in 1998, and just the seventh driver overall. Before that, the last time it was done was by Richard Petty at Texas World Speedway in 1971.

Trivia break! Before Stewart, who was the last 40-year-old to win a Cup title?

Don't forget about Carl

It's sobering to think that it would've taken Carl Edwards only one more point for him to win his first Cup championship.

There were two Chase races in which he didn't lead a single lap. How about the Southern 500, when he couldn't get around Regan Smith in the closing laps for the win, costing him three bonus points?

Or the Chase Talladega race, where he finished 11th, 0.03 seconds behind 10th-place Martin Truex Jr.

Nonetheless, Edwards finished the Chase with an average finish of 4.9, the best mark in Chase history, but not enough to overcome the 15 bonus points Stewart got for his five wins.

Trivia break! Besides Edwards, which two drivers in Cup history finished second in points multiple times but never won a title?

Trivia break answers

1. Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, Buck Baker and Tim Flock.

2. Dale Jarrett was 42 when he won the Cup in 1999.

3. Mark Martin did so five times, James Hylton three times.

First of all, I'd like to thank everybody for sticking with me throughout the season. We had a rocky road: my drug issues, my torrid affairs, my bank-robbing spree.

OK, none of those things actually happened, but that's not how I'll write it in my memoirs. I'll have the best memoirs ever.

The 2011 Chase has been odd, as we have drivers with two completely different methods sitting atop the points. Tony Stewart has looked dominating with his wins, but Carl Edwards' consistency has been remarkable.

By the pure numbers, Stewart has had the most impressive Chase. Not only are his four Chase wins tied with Jimmie Johnson for the most in a single Chase, but his 111.8 driver rating is tops in the Chase and nearly 11 points higher than Edwards' mark.

In fact, Edwards' 101.1 driver rating in the playoff is fourth-highest among the dozen Chasers, also behind Matt Kenseth and Johnson. But he's avoided the calamities that have plagued other contenders, which is why he takes a three-point lead into the finale.

Now, heading to Homestead-Miami Speedway, it's Edwards' time to shine.

Of any track where Edwards has made more than one Cup start, his 5.7 average finish at Homestead is his best mark. In fact, that's the best by any driver who's ever made a Cup start there.

NASCAR has this sweet little statistic called driver rating. It pretty nearly resembles the NFL's passer rating in that anything over 100 is pretty solid and 150 is perfection.

Last year at Homestead, Edwards not only won the race -- he put up a perfect 150 driver rating.

Do you know how many times that's been done over the past two Sprint Cup Series seasons?

Just that one time. Edwards had an average running position of 1.5, led more than 70 percent of the total laps and led the field by running the fastest lap on 61 of 267 circuits.

What makes it even more remarkable is that just two years prior, Edwards nearly did it as well, with a 147.1 driver rating in his Homestead win.

Stewart is no slouch at Homestead. In fact, he's one of three drivers to have won there at least twice. But his wins came in 1999 and 2000, in the first two races at the track and before the reconfiguration.

In the past six races, dating back to when NASCAR began tracking loop data, Stewart had a driver rating over 90 only once there, a 109.3 in 2008.

My official prediction: This is where Edwards drops the hammer. But if 2011 has shown us anything, it's that anything can happen at any time.

The Eliminator: Homestead

Most people just pick winners, some by hunches, some by stats and some by just picking names off the top of their heads. I don't pick winners -- I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

1. The past six Homestead winners finished in the top 13 in the previous year's race (36 eliminated, 12 remaining).

2. The past nine Homestead winners had a top-10 finish in the most recent Atlanta race (five eliminated, seven remaining).

3. The past three Homestead winners finished sixth or better in the most recent Kansas race (two eliminated, five remaining).

4. The past four Homestead winners finished fourth or better in the most recent Sprint Cup race overall (four eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Carl Edwards.

And then there was one, and we're right where we left you. Three points separate Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart for a coveted championship.

The difference? Instead of being virtually a two-man race, it's now literally a two-man race as everybody else has been eliminated … even Chad Little.

Maybe you don't have a rooting interest, and are looking for somebody to sport a T-shirt for in the finale. Well, both are racing for some history.

Edwards is trying to give owner Jack Roush his third title in the last nine years. He's also trying to cement his legacy as just the second driver to win Cup and Nationwide titles, joining Bobby Labonte.

On the Stewart side, his legacy could take a huge jump if he's hoisting the trophy.

In the last 30 years, only Alan Kulwicki has won a Cup title as an owner/driver. Before Kulwicki, the last to do it was Richard Petty in 1979.

Stewart would also become the ninth driver to win at least three Cup titles and the seventh driver to win titles with two different teams.

Now, with the statistical analysis!

Kahne Was Able

Kasey Kahne had been regularly running up front for the past few weeks, and you have to admire his ability to not mail it in, knowing there's a nice, warm seat waiting for him at Hendrick Motorsports next season.

With his current team, Red Bull Racing, facing a very uncertain future after this season, it was also great to see him give that team a visit to Victory Lane before year's end.

Kahne has been impressive throughout the Chase. His 331 points so far is the third-most among all drivers, trailing only Edwards and Stewart. It's 35 more than Kevin Harvick, who's third in points.

Trivia break: How many other Cup wins does Red Bull Racing have?

Model of Consistency

One of the biggest storylines of this Chase is how Stewart, with four Chase wins, continues to trail Edwards, who hasn't won in the Chase and has a single win this season.

But Edwards' average finish so far in the Chase is a 5.2. That mark would be better than six of the seven prior Chase champions, and the third-best mark all-time.

In 2007, Jimmie Johnson had a 5.0 in winning the title. Jeff Gordon's 5.1 that year was good enough for second.

Trivia break: What Chase season had the worst average finish by a champion?

Sweet 18

If you've been reading me throughout the year (thanks to some, and a threatening glare to those who said no), you know I love competition.

This year has proved to be one of the most wide open, with 18 different Cup winners -- leaving us just one shy of tying the Cup record.

Nineteen winners was last done in 2001, including a first-time winner in the season's final race.

It had been done twice before that too, in 1958 and 1961, but in each of those cases, there were over 50 races in the season.

Trivia break: Who won the 2001 season finale to become the 19th different winner?

Power Rankings

I wanted to come up with something to rank the strength of the Chase drivers on a race-by-race basis. So I came up with a nerdy formula, using recent performance, along with recent results at the track, to predict who'll be strong in the next race, and the next race only.

Here are my Chase power rankings for Homestead.

1. Carl Edwards
2. Tony Stewart
3. Matt Kenseth
4. Jimmie Johnson
5. Kevin Harvick
6. Denny Hamlin
7. Ryan Newman
8. Kyle Busch
9. Kurt Busch
10. Jeff Gordon
11. Brad Keselowski
12. Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Trivia Break Answers

1. Brian Vickers has Red Bull Racing's only other win, at Michigan in 2009.
2. Jimmie Johnson won the 2006 title with a 10.8 average finish.
3. Robby Gordon became the 19th different winner of the season.

If you've made it this far on the ESPN.com NASCAR page, you're well aware of what's going on at the top of the Chase.

And you're also well aware of the whole situation over in the No. 18 camp. Of course, I'm referring to Michael McDowell's 33rd-place finish at Texas.

Wait, that's not what you were talking about? Wait, he did what?

Nah, you come to my little notch on ESPN.com to dig a little deeper, get more informed and chuckle at my feeble attempts at comedy (see above). So, that's what I'll give you, since I'm nothing if not thoughtful.

So, to recap, we have Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart atop the Chase standings, but if you really look at the first eight Chase races, neither has been the most impressive Chase driver.

If you gauge it by driver rating, NASCAR's formula that encompasses many statistics and tries to quantify a driver's real performance instead of just finishes, then you like Matt Kenseth.

Kenseth's driver rating is a 109.6, one of three drivers at more than 100 for the Chase, along with Stewart (108.7) and Jimmie Johnson (106.1). Edwards is fourth with a 98.2.

Let's recap Kenseth's Chase, just to get an idea of how much closer he should be to a championship.

At Chicago, Kenseth ran out of gas late and finished eighth after a push. But since that push was illegal, Kenseth was given a 21st-place finish, losing 13 points. At Talladega, Kenseth lost his drafting partner, and even though Trevor Bayne tried to push him, it was too late to make a run. Then at Martinsville, incidents with Brian Vickers and a multi-car wreck that included Kyle Busch led to a 31st-place finish.

In the other five races, he's finished sixth or better. He's just 38 out of the lead, even with the misfortune.

How about looking at just raw speed? Well, that belongs to Mr. Five-Time, Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson's run the fastest lap on 13.1 percent of the circuits in the Chase. No other Chaser is better than a 7.1. And he just didn't dominate in one race to cheat that total higher. No, he ran 49-plus fastest laps in four different Chase races, and 23 in another.

So, while Edwards and Stewart have made it a two-man race, don't ignore the fact that, breaking down the numbers, it's Johnson and Kenseth who have been most impressive.

The Eliminator: Phoenix

Most people just pick winners, some by hunches, some by stats, and some by just picking a name off the top of their head. I don't pick winners, I pick losers. I'll make my race pick by telling you why all but one driver in the field just can't win.

1. There hasn't been a first-time race winner at Phoenix since 1996 (14 drivers eliminated, 32 remaining).
2. The past nine Phoenix winners finished 16th or better in that Phoenix race one year ago (16 eliminated, 16 remaining).
3. The past 11, and 20 of the past 21 Phoenix winners finished in the top 11 in the last New Hampshire race (10 eliminated, six remaining).
4. The past eight, and 11 of the last 12 Phoenix winners finished 12th or better in the last Phoenix race (three eliminated, three remaining).
5. The last five fall Phoenix winners entered the race in the top five in points (two eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Carl Edwards

We've reached an interesting point in the season.

Four wins versus no wins? Advantage: no wins.

Analyzing the new points system prior to the season, it became obvious that this new format did less to reward good finishes and more to punish poor ones. The three-point bonus for winning races is nice, but I'd be game for upping that to five points, meaning a maximum of 50 points instead of the current 48.

Edwards is having a legendary Chase, challenging Jimmie Johnson's mark for the best average finish in a playoff, but he's doing it with consistency, not checkered flags.

Do you remember Edwards' lone win this season? Allow me to refresh your memory, as that's sort of my job.

Back on March 6, Tony Stewart dominated at Las Vegas but took four tires on the final stop and dropped from first to third. Carl Edwards took two and won the race by 1.2 seconds over Stewart.

Had Stewart been able to pass Edwards, or had he played a different pit strategy, he might be looking at a three-point lead instead of a three-point deficit.

But that's playing the what-if game, and I'm here to play that what-is game! And then maybe some Hungry, Hungry Hippos!

Mr. Consistency

There are worse things in the world to be than consistent. But some people equate consistency with boring, and that shouldn't be the case.

Edwards has a 5.6 average finish in the Chase, opposed to 7.4 for Stewart. Of the seven previous Chase champions, only one of them finished the Chase with an average finish better than Edwards' mark -- Johnson's unreal 2007 season, when he finished with a 5.0.

Trivia break! What is Edwards' worst finish in the 2011 Chase?

Four for the road

Before this year, every Chase record belonged to Johnson, and most still do. But now Stewart has wedged his name alongside the defending five-time champion's.

Those two are the only drivers to have won four races in a single Chase, and Stewart still gets two more shots to leave Johnson in the dust.

Of course, Johnson has won four races in a Chase three times -- Stewart's on his first.

Trivia break! Who is the only other driver besides Johnson and Stewart to win as many as three races in a Chase?

Magic number

This entry is brought to you by the No. 10.

Stewart now has 10 Chase wins. He's just the second driver to reach that mark, trailing Johnson's 20.

Ten also is the number of wins Stewart has as an owner/driver. He's the eighth driver to reach that mark. Of the previous seven, only one has won a Cup race after 1965, the legendary Richard Petty.

Trivia break! How many of the other six owner/drivers with at least 10 wins can you name?

Power rankings

I wanted to come up with something to rank the strength of the Chase drivers on a race-by-race basis. So I devised a nerdy formula, using recent performance, along with recent results at the respective track, to predict who'll be strong in the next race, and the next race only.

Here are my Chase power rankings for Phoenix:

1. Tony Stewart
2. Jimmie Johnson
3. Matt Kenseth
4. Kyle Busch
5. Jeff Gordon
6. Carl Edwards
7. Ryan Newman
8. Kevin Harvick
9. Kurt Busch
10. Denny Hamlin
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
12. Brad Keselowski

Trivia break answers

1. Edwards finished 11th at Talladega, his worst mark so far.

2. Edwards won three Chase races in 2008.

3. Besides Stewart and Richard Petty: Lee Petty, Herb Thomas, Rex White, Jack Smith, Buck Baker and Junior Johnson.