Category archive: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Crunching Numbers: Top Drivers May Struggle at Sonoma

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For those of you who know me (we're all just one big happy family in this blog circle), you'll know that I love variety. Which is why I'm glad NASCAR has at least a couple of road courses on the schedule.

I love seeing drivers tested, and the drivers who excel at this type of racing get to the front. I'm also fond of the pit strategy and different approaches that take place during the race.

If you know that about me, you might also know that, as a sports fan, I love me some mayhem.

Unless I have a strong rooting interest, I'm behind a series going to a seventh game, or I'll pull for the underdog. And if you like a turnover in the points, you might get it this weekend in Sonoma.

What do Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle all have in common? If you said they're the top three in the points, you've given me the simple, obvious answer. Try harder.

If you said they all struggle on road courses, now you're smelling what I'm cooking.

All three of those drivers are still looking for their first Cup Series road-course win, and all struggle, especially at Sonoma. Let's use driver ratings going back to 2005 to break this down.

(Driver rating is a formula encompassing many of NASCAR's loop data categories and mirrors the NFL's quarterback rating. Anything over 100 is very good, and it maxes out at 150.)

Well, Biffle's driver rating at Sonoma is a paltry 78.4, 18th-best in the series. But that's the best of the three. Kenseth is a 71.8 (ranking 24th) and Earnhardt's is a 65.4 (27th).

That's why this weekend at Sonoma, I expect some points shuffling, both up from those who excel on road courses, and down from those who aren't in their comfort zone.

Looking for Trouble

Every week, my fellow members in ESPN Stats & Information crunch the numbers and tell us what to watch for the following weekend. Here's what they found:

There are 12 turns at Sonoma, but it's one of the final ones that does the most damage. In last year's race, all three accidents occurred in Turn 11, the hairpin turn, involving 10 cars. Since 2004, Turn 11, along with Turn 8, have accounted for more than half the accidents at Sonoma.

And, for a little more analysis, I went to my main man Ricky Craven, "NASCAR Now" analyst and all-around nice guy. He explained that Turn 11 is dangerous because drivers lock up their brakes in the hairpin. And Turn 8 is a danger zone because drivers don't complete their passes in Turn 7.

The Eliminator: Sonoma

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

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, will be the race winner.

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

1. There has been only one first-time winner in 23 Sonoma races all-time (15 drivers eliminated, 29 remaining).

2. Since 1987, every road-course winner had a top-5 finish earlier that season (11 eliminated, 18 remaining).

3. Of the past 14 Sonoma winners, the 13 who previously had raced at Watkins Glen finished in the top 14 in the last race there (seven eliminated, 11 remaining).

4. The past five Sonoma winners had never won a Sprint Cup Series road-course race (four eliminated, seven remaining).

5. Three of the past four race winners this season finished in the top eight in the previous Sprint Cup race (five eliminated, two remaining).

6. Of the past 13 Sonoma race winners, 12 entered the race fifth or lower in points (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Clint Bowyer

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Michigan win on Sunday did a lot of things for a lot of people.

It stirred up emotions. It set off a firestorm, both in support of his "being back," and of the "one win doesn't mean anything" variety. It also solidified his status as a championship contender.

But, while appreciating the cultural and social impact of the victory, let's also talk about the historical impact of it, namely how much history Junior made.

First of all, a 143-race winless streak wasn't just an eternity for Junior Nation, it was also the sixth-longest stretch a driver has ever gone without a win.

The top four drivers on that list all have something in common. They all changed teams during the winless streak, giving them a chance to basically start over in new equipment.

So Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s streak is second only to Terry Labonte for most starts between wins, all with one team. Labonte's came when he was out of title contention, outside the top 10 and well on the downswing of his career. He has not won another Cup race since and is in semi-retirement.

Junior, on the other hand, is now on the short list of title contenders, with a series-best 12 top-10 finishes in 15 races this season.

Another number is 26. That's the number of different Cup Series winners during Junior's winless streak. That includes eight drivers who picked up their first Sprint Cup Series win, three of whom have gone on to win again. Junior's teammate through the entire ordeal, Jimmie Johnson, leads all drivers with 23 wins in that span.

In one of those 23 Johnson wins, Earnhardt finished second, which brings me to my next number: seven. That's the number of times Earnhardt finished second between his past two wins.

Twice Earnhardt finished second to his former employee at JR Motorsports, Brad Keselowski. At the time of Junior's previous win, June 2008 at Michigan, Keselowski hadn't even made his Sprint Cup Series debut.

Those seven runner-up finishes between wins is also historically significant. Since 1985, only three other drivers had at least seven runner-up finishes between wins: Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Jeremy Mayfield.

In fact, the record for seconds between wins is eight, done by Gordon, Mayfield, Bobby Allison and Bobby Isaac. I'm sure Junior fans remembered each one of those runner-up finishes distinctly, but have let them go Sunday night.

Another number, and perhaps the most important one, may not be able to be measured quite yet, and that's the number of extra viewers, rating points and fans in the seats that this win may create.

As NASCAR prepares to go head-to-head with college and professional football during its championship Chase, it now might be able to play with an extra bullet in the chamber.

Who doesn't love a Saturday night race with a little controversy? Likewise, who doesn't love a blog with a little controversy?

Next step: Find a controversy. Maybe Formula One blogger Tom McKean and I are high-level art thieves. Or Marty Smith and I start running moonshine ... again.

Mystery cautions and close-call restart penalties aside, your winner Saturday night was one Kyle Busch, which is getting to be a familiar sight at Richmond International Raceway. It's the fourth straight year he has won the spring race at the track.

More impressively, it lowered his average finish at the track to a 4.7. That's the best mark by any active driver at any track, with a minimum of five starts (remember, we've run only a single race at Kentucky).

But let's go historic with this nugget, shall we? Busch's 4.7 average finish is just decimal points behind the best mark for any driver with at least 15 starts at a track. The best mark is Cale Yarborough at Nashville, with a 4.67 mark.

Trivia break! If we lower the minimum to 10 starts, which driver has the best career average finish at a track? Hint: It's a 1.8 at Bowman-Gray.

Can I have a second?

I'm not sure if people are aware, but there's a pretty popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and he's on a bit of a winless streak. The upside? He's getting pretty consistently close to a win, and if he wins, it'll make some history.

Earnhardt has finished second on seven occasions since his last win. The Cup series record for the most runner-up finishes between wins is eight, done four times: Jeff Gordon (snapped in 2011), Jeremy Mayfield (2004), Bobby Allison (1970) and Bobby Isaac (1970).

In total, nine drivers have had at least seven runner-up finishes between wins. Besides Gordon, the other active driver to do so was Kevin Harvick.

Junior's winless streak is now up to 138 races. Only six drivers in Cup history have gone that long between wins. The record belongs to Bill Elliott, with a 226-race stretch.

Trivia break! It could be worse for Junior. What driver holds the record for most second-place finishes without a win?

Dominant in defeat

Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart had big performances, but no wins Saturday to show for their efforts.

But let's focus on Edwards, who had an impressive 126.4 driver rating in defeat. Driver rating, a stat that incorporates many parts of NASCAR's loop data, maxes out at 150, and anything over 100 is very good.

Over the past two seasons, Edwards has had six races with a driver rating of at least 125, but just one win in those races.

Edwards is one of just two drivers over the past two years with at least three races with a driver rating of at least 125, but no more than one win in those races. The other? Jimmie Johnson.

Trivia break! What driver has the most races with at least a 125 driver rating over the past two seasons?

Trivia break answers

1. Rex White has a 1.8 mark at Bowman-Gray.

2. If you got this one, I'm impressed. G.C. Spencer finished second seven times without a win.

3. Kyle Busch has had 10 such races, and has won five of those.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway, for lack of a better word, is special.

I'm totally into the historic nature of the track, all the great races and moments that have taken place there, including this year's Indianapolis 500, which was both riveting and heartbreaking.

But this weekend is interesting for another reason. It's an opportunity for a driver to get an all-important win to move up the ranks in the wld card race to make the Chase. Currently, it'll just take one for the drivers between 11th and 20th in the points to get into a Chase spot. David Ragan could cement a Chase spot with another win, too.

First of all, when visiting "NASCAR Now" and Bristol, Conn., on Wednesday, Joey Logano told me he was going to win, so he's one of those wild card drivers who could use the leap.

But I also have statistics to back up three big drivers to watch at Indianapolis who are in need of a win in the next seven races.

Greg Biffle: Armed with a new crew chief, I hope notes were saved from the Greg Erwin regime on how to get around the Brickyard. Last year, despite not winning, Biffle had the best driver rating, average running position and overall green-flag speed in the race.

In 2009, Biffle ranked sixth in all those categories, so it isn't a one-year wonder for Biffle.

Juan Pablo Montoya: You could argue he could've won in 2009, or make the same argument with 2010. Dude's overdue to kiss the bricks and wash it down with some milk.

His numbers were more impressive in 2009, when he was second in average position and green-flag speed and first in driver rating, than they were last year. But he was the fastest car on 100 of the 320 laps run at Indianapolis the last two years, by far the most of any driver.

Mark Martin: His season has been a struggle so far, but sitting in 20th, one win puts him in that second wild card spot, and Indianapolis is as good a spot as any.

In 2009, when Martin finished second in points, he led the field in green-flag speed and average position. But last year, when Martin missed the Chase, he still ranked fourth in both of those areas. So, even with his late struggles, Indianapolis remains a strong point on the schedule.

The racing might not always be great at Indianapolis, but with drivers making a run for a Chase spot, it'll definitely be tense.

The Eliminator: Indianapolis

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's never been a first-time Cup winner at Indy (17 drivers eliminated, 31 remaining).
2) Of the last 13 Indy winners, 12 had a previous top-five finish there (11 eliminated, 20 remaining).
3) Of the 17 all-time Brickyard winners, 16 had a win earlier in the season (11 eliminated, nine remaining).
4) The last 13 and 15 of the 17 all-time Indianapolis winners had a top-12 finish in the last Cup race overall (four eliminated, five remaining).
5) Of the last 16 Brickyard winners, 15 finished sixth or better in at least one of the previous two races (four eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Jimmie Johnson

One question I get asked more than others (besides that annoying "why do they always turn left?" question) is what driver do I root for?

Placing journalistic integrity (of which I have a little) aside, when I started watching NASCAR, I rooted for Bill Elliott, since he was who my friend who got me into the sport rooted for.

Now, I just root for tight finishes and a variety running up front. That's why this season has been such a treat for me.

In 19 races this season, we've already seen 13 different winners, ranging from the old guard of Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon to new blood of Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and David Ragan. It's not just a variety of drivers, it's a variety of teams, which I think bodes well for NASCAR.

We've already had just as many different winners this season as we did last season, with 17 races left. Last year, we didn't have a 13th different winner until the next-to-last race. There were 14 winners in 2009 and 12 in 2008.

With drivers such as Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Dale Earnhardt Jr. yet to win, we could see this season challenge the Cup series record of 19 winners in a season.

And that's music to my ears. The more competitive and unpredictable these races are, the better it is.

Now on to that 13th different winner ...

Newman's own record

There's no doubting Ryan Newman's ability to win poles; his 47 are the 10th most in Cup series history.

However, he hadn't been able to seal the deal when starting up front for some time. He'd last won from the pole position in July 2003 at Pocono.

That's 34 straight winless races after winning the pole, a Cup record. Second is a tie between Geoff Bodine and Ricky Rudd, both of whom went 26 straight.

Trivia break! Who are the only two active, full-time drivers with more career poles than Newman?

A team sport

I'm a researcher, but I have my limits. So I like to pass along great info if I hear it and give proper credit. So, I've seen this note both on Jayski.com via Marty Smith, and also on TNT after the race.

Newman and Stewart started 1-2, and finished 1-2. They're the first set of teammates to start and finish 1-2 in a race since Darrell Waltrip and Ken Schrader did so for Hendrick Motorsports in the 1989 Daytona 500.

Before 1989, the last time a driver started and won from the pole, with his teammate starting and finishing second, was April 1957 with Fireball Roberts and Paul Goldsmith for DePaolo Engineering. Great note.

Trivia Break!!! Who were the last pair of teammates to finish 1-2 this season?

Hitting the century mark

Kyle Busch won the Nationwide race at New Hampshire for his 100th career win across the three NASCAR National Touring Series, which includes the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series. It's something I've written at length before in this blog.

Only 22 percent of Busch's wins have come in Cup, while all of Richard Petty's and all but one of David Pearson's came at the elite level. However, Petty often ran against far weaker fields and Pearson rarely ran a full schedule, so judge the wins as you will.

It also was Busch's 49th Nationwide Series win, tying Mark Martin's career record. Busch has won 22.6 percent of his starts in that series, Martin 20.9. Among the rest of the top five on the wins list, none has a win percentage over 15.

Trivia break! Who are the rest of the top five on the Nationwide Series career wins list?

Trivia break answers

1. Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin have more poles than Newman.

2. Just two races ago, David Ragan and Matt Kenseth finished 1-2 at Daytona.

3. Kevin Harvick (37), Carl Edwards (33) and Jack Ingram (31) complete the top five.

You know what's odd? Maybe even downright strange?

Here we are at the midway point of the season, and I don't remember spending too much of my blog space talking about the Hendrick Motorsports drivers. Considering they have a five-time champ, a four-time champ and NASCAR's fan favorite, it stood out a little bit.

But I'm a stats guy at heart, so, when their performance tailed off slightly, I had other things to write about. At New Hampshire, however, I think the three Hendrick drivers currently in Chase position will solidify their spots for the playoff run, maybe even take that precious checkered flag.

Let's break down this three-pronged attack, driver by driver:

• Jimmie Johnson -- Johnson has three career New Hampshire wins, but only one of those has come in the past 14 races at Loudon, that being last spring's race. However, his finishes haven't matched how well he's run, especially in the spring races.

In the past three spring races, nobody's run more fastest laps than Johnson, who has ranked first, first and second in fastest laps run in those races. But his finishes in those three races are first, second and ninth.

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- Junior has never won at New Hampshire, but it doesn't mean he hasn't been fast. Last year, despite his struggles, he finished eighth and fourth in the two Loudon races.

So, ignore Earnhardt's finishes and instead focus on the fact that at the midrace point, he's been running in the top 11 in the past nine races there, and in the top three in four of those events.

• Jeff Gordon -- Like Johnson, Gordon has won thrice at New Hampshire, but those wins came in 1995, '97 and '98. But don't let that get you thinking he won't be a strong contender Sunday.

Gordon has finished sixth or better in six of the past nine New Hampshire races, taking second in three of those. Plus, his loop data marks are strong -- check out the chart:

So, don't focus just on the wins, and look beyond the numbers for Hendrick Motorsports' strength.

Eliminator: New Hampshire edition

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.

And while my winless streak is at nine races, the Eliminator's picks have finished eighth or better in five of the past six races. But it's time to get a winner. And I just need two steps:

1. Twelve of the past 13 New Hampshire winners finished 19th or better in the race leading into Loudon (29 eliminated, 19 remaining).

2. The past three New Hampshire winners had a top-10 finish in the most recent Richmond, Martinsville and Phoenix races (18 eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kyle Busch.

Greetings, my loyal minions! Come, rejoice with me, for this is All-Star weekend!

Of course, I'm counting on your loyalty to put me into the NASCAR blogger showdown. You'll get yours, Marty Smith!

Wait, that's not a real thing? It will be now!

Anyway, I thought All-Star weekend would be a good time to take a look back at the 11 races we've had so far and name some loop data all-stars, based, as always, on my own thoughts and opinions, and the numbers. I always consider the numbers.

The MVP

You'd think I'd like the points leader as the most impressive driver through this point of the season, but the numbers point to Kyle Busch, not Carl Edwards. And that doesn't even include Busch's royal beatdown of the Nationwide Series this season.

But the numbers speak for themselves. Let's start with driver rating, NASCAR's complicated and immense mathematical formula that'll shoot out a number that'll tell you who's the best in a situation. The number pretty quickly mirrors the NFL's passer rating. Anything over 100 is very good, and it maxes out at a perfect 150.

Kyle Busch's driver rating this season is a 112.9, which is 10 points higher than any other driver. There are only five other drivers who have a driver rating this season higher than 90.

It's Not All Good

So, how did Busch end up third in the points despite his gangbuster numbers? It's all about late-race issues.

Busch, along with the rest of the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, rank among the bottom seven in the most positions lost over the final 10 percent of races this season. Check out that list on the right!

Mr. Consistency

If I were to tell you a driver was ranked 12th in fastest laps run and 12th in average green-flag speed (16th in speed early in runs and 11th in speed late in runs), you'd probably think said driver was living outside the top 10 in points.

But I'll give you an "a-ha" moment and tell you that the above driver is Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has gained some much-needed consistency this season.

The key to Junior's success has been his ability to avoid trouble, run on the lead lap and gain positions as the race goes on.

No driver has run more laps on the lead lap this season than Junior, who's been on the lead lap for over 94 percent of the laps this season. Only two other drivers, Busch and Edwards, are over 90 percent.

Since we're not points racing this week, I'll skip my normal eliminator part of this column and just implore you to enjoy the racing. No points racing Saturday night, just going for mountains of cash.

Children sing, church bells chime and rainbows stretch across the sky to the delight of Mr. Sunshine, who is wearing sunglasses in true cartoon fashion.

That's because this week momentum shifted and my weekly Eliminator pick finally hit, with Matt Kenseth at Texas. For more details, please see the Thursday edition of my Crunching Numbers blog, also known as the best part of your day.

But the bigger story is that Roush Fenway Racing has been even more solid than my Eliminator -- which had been downright shaky before my Kenseth pick. Hey, I'm not running from the truth here.

After Ford was held winless for the first 20 races of the 2010 Sprint Cup season, the whole Ford camp, led and anchored by RFR, has rebounded behind the strength of the FR9 engine.

Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards combined to win four of the final 16 races last season. In 2011, three different Ford drivers already have won, and Carl Edwards is atop the points.

And the best part, if you're a Ford driver, owner or fan, is that they're running at their best on the intermediate tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule.

But now, let's look back at Kenseth's win.

Ken-do attitude

Kenseth won the first two races of the 2009 season, including giving Jack Roush his first Daytona 500 win. But Kenseth failed to make the Chase that year, and then went winless last year.

Not only did he go winless; he failed to lead much along the way. Check out these numbers:

• 2009: first two races: two wins, 91 laps led
• 2009: final 34 races: zero wins, 154 laps led
• 2010: season: zero wins, 108 laps led
• 2011: first six races: zero wins, five laps led
• 2011: Saturday: one win, 169 laps led

Trivia break! Who are the seven drivers to win a Cup race for Roush Fenway Racing?

Streak busters

For me, Cup racing is at its best when I feel that there are a number of drivers who can go out there every week and win. Don't think I would've done well in the old days with just a few potential winners per field.

A number of notable drivers have snapped long losing streaks over the past couple of seasons, and they've put themselves back in the picture with wins.

Over the past two years, seven drivers have broken winless streaks of at least 70 races, including Kenseth on Saturday. Two more, Jeff Gordon and Biffle, ended winless streaks of over 60 races.

Who could be the next one? I know who the fans' vote would be (psst … it's Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

Trivia break! What active driver has made the most starts since his last win?

Shout-outs aplenty

Let's talk surprises, lightning round-style!

• Dale Earnhardt Jr.: He hasn't been this high in points this late in the season since 2008.

• Paul Menard: Got his second top-5 of the season; he had just two top-5s in his 147-race career entering the season.

• David Ragan: Scored his second top-10 this season; he had just three last year and two in 2009.

Trivia break! Earnhardt has four top-10s this season. How many did he have in 2010?

Trivia break answers

In order of wins: Mark Martin, Edwards, Kenseth, Jeff Burton, Biffle, Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray.

Robby Gordon is riding a 262-race winless streak.

Earnhardt had eight top-10s last season.

Here we are, down to the last four in this little NASCAR bracket that has become so dear in all of our hearts over the past few weeks.

But I'll refrain from calling it the Final Four, since I'm not willing to deal with any lawsuits. You have to pick your battles, and I'm sure there'll be some copyright infringements I'll really want to make somewhere down the road.

So, I'll call this the Fast Four. Yeah, that's pretty catchy.

The quarterfinals all featured matchups that were decided by at least eight positions, but did give us an upset. Kevin Harvick knocked out Jimmie Johnson, whose streak of 17 straight Martinsville top-10s was snapped.

He'll go on to face Matt Kenseth, who, in typical Kenseth fashion, has quietly rattled off solid finishes on his way to the semis. Kenseth now will go to Texas, where he's been in the top three in six of his past 11 races. I'll take him over Harvick, despite Harvick's mark of four top-10s in his past five Texas races.

In the other semi, it's the matchup we all wanted to see. After knocking off Kurt Busch at Martinsville, Dale Earnhardt Jr. now will try to make it a Busch sweep against Kyle Busch. Earnhardt's had some great runs at Texas, but not lately, with just a single top-10 in his past eight races. Give me Kyle Busch, who was third in this race last year.

But now on with the Texas preview!

Junior's comeback year

OK, Junior Nation, it's time for me to weigh in on Junior's season, with some numbers to back it up.

I've noticed two big themes with Earnhardt this year. The first is how he's not falling off late in the race, the other is how racy he is with cars at the front of the pack. Now, numbers will be my friends.

Earnhardt moved up five spots over the final 10 percent (or 50 laps) of last Sunday's race at Martinsville. He now has a positive pass differential for the season over the last 10 percent of the race.

Last season, Earnhardt was a minus-28 over the last 10 percent of races. That was good for 70th out of 75 Sprint Cup Series drivers.

Also notable is that Junior has made 447 "quality passes," which are green-flag passes inside the top 15. That's the most of any driver this season, in a category that he ranked 17th in last season.

The Eliminator: Texas Edition

Most people just pick winners, some by hunches, some by stats, 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. The past 16 and 19 of 20 total Texas winners came from 18th or better in points entering the race (26 eliminated, 18 remaining).

2. The past nine Texas winners had at least nine prior Cup wins (six eliminated, 12 remaining).

3. Eleven of the past 12 Texas winners finished ninth or better in the last California race (five eliminated, seven remaining).

4. The past five Texas winners finished eighth or better in the most recent Texas races (five eliminated, two remaining).

5. Seven of the past eight Texas winners had a previous top-2 finish at the track (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kenseth.

Crunching numbers for Texas

November, 4, 2010
11/04/10
11:35
AM ET

I don't know if you've heard that we just had some elections here in the United States. If you haven't heard, that's actually sort of impressive. It was all over TV, radio, the Internet, newspapers, magazines, skywriting, etc.

I, like many of my fellow Americans, exercised my democratic right to vote. I voted for Kodos (bonus points for getting the reference). But why should the fun stop there?

Everybody loves some voting -- I know I do. So, let me take this space to give you my votes for some key NASCAR categories. But why should mine be the only voice heard? Feel free to leave your votes down in the comments section, and let's start a little conversation among my superfans.

Before I start on that, the easy one: My vote for 2010 Sprint Cup Series champion remains Kevin Harvick. Why? He was my eliminator-anointed pre-Chase pick to win the title. I'm loyal, and I'm stubborn. Therefore, I'm sticking with Harvick.

Now for more votes …

Best Organization: Richard Childress Racing. What a change from last year, when RCR didn't put a team in the Chase. Now it has a title contender, the only driver to win twice in the Chase and a driver in Jeff Burton who is due a couple wins from this season. Not to mention a share of the top engines in the series with Earnhardt Childress.

Best Run of Paint Schemes: Tommy Baldwin Racing. A start-and-park team I really feel is doing a nice job developing into something more down the road. But check out the schemes at Jayski.com and you'll find something you like. Whether it's the underrated sweet Wave Energy Drink blue car, the Kim Kardashian pink car or the Richie Evans tribute car, when it's had a sponsor, the 36 has been putting something pretty out there.

Next Driver to Win His First: Paul Menard. I almost went AJ Allmendinger here, but Menard's shown a lot of growth over the past few weeks, and next year, he'll be driving for a team I just labeled the best in the sports.

Now, on with the prerace loop-data notes.

Three's company

Simply put, there's a three-man championship race, and I think it's my duty to tell you what to expect out of these guys at Texas.

In the spring race, Denny Hamlin won over Jimmie Johnson, with Harvick seventh. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

Hamlin ran the fastest lap 13 times, with a plus-20 pass differential and a 111.6 driver rating. But Johnson actually had the edge, with 53 fastest laps, a plus-23 differential and a 127.4 driver rating.

Harvick didn't put up great numbers, with a 85.1 driver rating, plus-1 differential and no fastest laps run. But he did drive a classic Harvick race in that he came from midpack to get a top-10.

Hot-and-cold Carl

At Texas, Carl Edwards' 17.5 career average finish puts him 11th among Chase drivers, beating only his teammate Greg Biffle in that department. On the other hand, he's the only driver to win three Cup races at the track.

That average finish, and a lot of Edwards' stats, are dragged down by three crash DNFs at the track, including one in each of his past two starts there. In fact, in 11 career races at Texas, Edwards has the three wins, and no other finish better than 10th.

The question is, which Edwards will show up? He's a high-risk, high-reward fantasy play for Texas. His recent races there were forgettable, but in 2008 he pulled off the sweep, and was nearly perfect in doing so, putting up driver ratings of 139.8 and 146.7 in those races. The scale goes to 150.

It's a Junior mint

Again, more bonus points for getting the reference. I'm just giving away bonus points!

Occasionally, I like to appease Junior Nation, or anger the Junior Haters, however you want to look at it. Either way, those two factions make up approximately 140 percent of the NASCAR audience.

But Dale Earnhardt Jr. was strong at Martinsville and Talladega -- there's no doubting that -- and he's been strong at Texas in the past. Here's what impresses me about his performance there:

Earnhardt has the second-best average position among all drivers at Texas going back to 2005, meaning he's been running up front. He also has the most average passes, both total and per race at the track, meaning he's not just running up front, but he's passing cars up there as well.

Well, that's all I have for you this week. Don't forget to cast your votes, and enjoy the race!