Category archive: Carl Edwards

Greetings to all my NASCAR stat-loving, knowledge-seeking friends. You know who you are.

Today, let's talk a little Michigan, since that's the next race on the schedule and all. It's a repaved Michigan, which means speeds on an already-fast track are going to be up. And Pocono was pretty pacey last week with its fresh asphalt.

In this race, if the numbers are any indication (they usually are), I like a little combination I call Three Men and Five-Time at the front: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson.

Since 2005, when Edwards became a full-time Cup driver, those four drivers are atop just about every loop-data category at Michigan International Speedway. They're the only four with a driver rating over 100, they rank 1-4 in fastest laps, average running position, and speed both early and late in runs (not to mention overall green-flag speed).

But let's take a look at those results. Let's say, in theory, that anything outside the top 15 is a "subpar" finish, especially for those four. In those 14 races since 2005, Kenseth and Edwards each have a pair of subpar finishes, while Biffle and Johnson have six apiece.

Those stats can be backed up by looking at the green-flag pass differential for those four drivers. Edwards is plus-261 and Kenseth plus-159, while Biffle is just a plus-38 and Johnson is a minus-36.

And what makes that even more damaging is that the bulk of Biffle's and Johnson's losses have taken place at the end of the race. In the final 10 percent of races since 2005, Johnson is minus-71 in pass differential, while Biffle is a minus-64, by far the worst two totals. The third-worst mark is a minus-33.

So Biffle and Johnson might join the other two Roush Fenway Racing drivers up front Sunday at Michigan, but let's see if they stay there.

The Eliminator: Michigan

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. Eighty-three of the past 84 Michigan winners had a previous top-5 finish at the track (22 eliminated, 23 remaining).

2. The past eight Michigan winners had a top-20 finish in the previous Michigan race (eight eliminated, 15 remaining).

3. Nine of the past 10 spring Michigan race winners finished eighth or better in the most recent Darlington race (nine eliminated, six remaining).

4. Each of the past seven Michigan winners finished 19th or better in each of the previous three Sprint Cup Series races (four eliminated, two remaining).

5. Four of the past five spring Michigan race winners had a top-5 finish in the previous year's spring Michigan race (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Matt Kenseth

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

When a usually dominant superpower slows down from its normal winning ways, we as sports fans want to know, "What's wrong with X?"

Whether it's the Yankees, Patriots, Lakers or Hendrick Motorsports, domination is the norm, and anything less leaves us begging for an explanation.

Sometimes, it's not so easy to answer the question. In the case of Hendrick, the team has had strong runs, races it should've won and cases of bad luck.

Still, through it all, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been the most consistent driver in the series this year and is third in the standings. Jimmie Johnson is solidly within the top 10 in eighth place. Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne have had glimpses of strength negated by bad breaks.

But NASCAR is built on wins, and Hendrick hasn't done that since last October, the team's longest streak since a 17-race winless run over the 2001-02 seasons. The last time Hendrick went this long into the season without a win was 1993, aka Jeff Gordon's rookie season.

But Darlington could turn that around.

Dating back to 2005, when NASCAR began tracking loop data, all four current Hendrick Motorsports drivers rank among the top eight in driver rating at the Lady in Black, including Gordon, who's way out in front. No other team has more than one driver represented in the top eight.

However, which Jeff Gordon will show up? In 2010, Gordon had a career-best 134 driver rating, with his 69 fastest laps run in the race being twice as many as any other driver.

Last year, Gordon slipped to a still-respectable 107.3, the sixth-highest in the field.

Kasey Kahne is just as badly in need of a win as Gordon is, and last year, Kahne had the race's dominant car, all while driving for now-defunct Red Bull Racing. Kahne started from the pole and finished fourth, snapping a five-race Darlington stretch of finishes of 20th or worse.

But expect Kahne to start near the front. In nine career Darlington starts, he's won four poles.

Looking For Trouble

Every week, our friends over at ESPN Stats & Information crunch the numbers and tell us where the trouble zones might be this weekend.

After nearly 1,600 miles of Sprint Cup Series racing without an accident, we saw four, including a pair of nine-car pileups, at Talladega.

At Darlington, the sun might be the biggest obstacle. The sun is scheduled to set at Darlington around 8:13 p.m., during the first quarter of the race.

Since 2005, we've had at least one accident in the first quarter of the race in every Darlington night race, with 14 accidents total. Over the final 75 percent of the race, there have been a total of 20 accidents, with no more than eight in any other quarter.

The Eliminator: Darlington

For those of you who are 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 last year, I had Carl Edwards at Darlington, who finished second behind upset winner Regan Smith.

1. The last 13 Sprint Cup Series winners finished 16th or better in the last race at the track (30 drivers eliminated, 16 remaining).

2. The last 17 Darlington winners finished 17th or better in the previous week's race (nine eliminated, seven remaining).

3. Seven of the last nine Darlington winners had a top-10 finish in the last Texas race (four eliminated, three remaining).

4. Two of the last three Southern 500s have been won by drivers entering 15th or lower in points (two eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kasey Kahne

Here we are at the quarter-pole mark of the season, and this space is usually reserved for me telling you what I think you should watch for in Sunday's race.

But the truth is, it's my blog, my rules, and I feel like looking back over the first nine races of the season and pointing out some things I've noticed that are worth learning.

How about Jimmie Johnson? Despite being winless this year, Johnson leads the series in pass differential with a plus-94 mark. He has led more laps than any other driver and has been the fastest on the track far more often than any other driver.

Johnson has paced the field on 334 laps this season; the next-highest mark is Matt Kenseth's 166. Plus, Johnson is the fastest car in the second, third and fourth quarters of the race, so his key to victory might be getting off to a faster start.

Now let's go lightning style on three other drivers who have caught my eye:

• Mark Martin -- People are waiting for him to win a race and are wondering if he'd be a Chase contender if he were running full time. I'd say contender, yes, lock, no.

The issue? Falling off late in races. Martin is about 0.75 mph faster than the average green-flag speed in the first quarter of races he runs this season, but that mark drops every quarter of the race.

• Kevin Harvick -- While Hendrick Motorsports has garnered attention this year for not winning, Richard Childress Racing is also winless this season. Harvick is the most notable of those drivers to be winless.

His problem, like Martin's, has been adjusting as the race goes. No car is faster than Harvick on average in the first quarter of the race, 1.3 mph quicker than the average speed. But his speed drops even lower than Martin's, down to just 0.35 mph faster than the average car in the final quarter, which puts him about 14th in the series.

• Carl Edwards -- Edwards has been a disappointment early on in the season, but the truth is that his points position has been better than his performance. He's 14th in the series in average position and driver rating this year but ninth in series points.

The key to his success are late-race runs. He leads the series in pass differential in the final 10 percent of races with a plus-31. Second place is just at plus-19.

Looking for Trouble

The past few races have been noteworthy for their lack of accidents and overall cautions. But this week we go to Talladega, where it doesn't take much to trigger a 15-car pileup. This is what the bright minds over at ESPN Stats & Information have to say:

Since 1990, when we began compiling complete data, this is by far the longest the Sprint Cup Series has gone without an accident -- not counting a spin or brush with the wall that brings out a debris caution.

But at Talladega, it's not over 'til it's over.

Since 1990, we've had six last-lap wrecks at Talladega, twice as many as any other track in that time.

The Eliminator: Talladega

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 projected race winner.

And even though it's Talladega, I'll still try my best here.

1. The past 12 Sprint Cup Series winners finished 16th or better in the previous race at the track (29 eliminated, 15 remaining).

2. Eleven of the past 12 spring Talladega winners finished in the top 12 in the most recent Sprint Cup Series race (nine eliminated, six remaining).

3. The past six spring Talladega winners finished 15th or worse in the previous year's spring Talladega race (two eliminated, four remaining).

4. Six of the past seven Talladega winners were winless on the season entering the race (three eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Kasey Kahne

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.

The first round of my annual NASCAR Bracket of Massive Significance was nothing if not mad.

Bristol wrecking and bad luck led to such upsets as Bobby Labonte over Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers over Jimmie Johnson, and David Gilliland over Carl Edwards.

But there's still plenty of big names and stars left in the running, including a matchup between last week's top two finishers, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth. Seeding was based off last week's standings when the brackets were formed.

Petty Bracket
(1) Greg Biffle vs. (16) Bobby Labonte: Gotta love the points leader here.
(8) Martin Truex Jr. vs. (24) Juan Pablo Montoya: Neither has great numbers at California, but I'll take Truex, who's on a roll.

France Bracket
(4) Dale Earnhardt Jr. vs. (13) Ryan Newman: Newman was fifth in the last two California races, while Junior is top-fiveless in the last seven races.
(5) Matt Kenseth vs (21) Brad Keselowski: Kenseth is powerful here; taking him.

Earnhardt Bracket
(2) Kevin Harvick vs. (15) Jeff Burton: I'll take Harvick, the defending champ who has three straight top-seven finishes here.
(7) Tony Stewart vs. (10) Mark Martin: The collection of 55 drivers runs into the defending champ. I like Smoke here.

Allison Bracket
(14) Clint Bowyer vs. (30) AJ Allmendinger: The Dinger's had problems settling in, while Bowyer's been heating up. Give me a sip of Five-Hour Energy.
(11) Paul Menard vs. (27) David Gilliland: The Cinderella run comes to an end. Menard and his Nardburns moves on.

Just How Good Is The 48?

There's no denying that Johnson is a flat-out stud at California. In the last nine California races, he's finished in the top three eight times. The other race? A pathetic ninth.

Last year, Johnson finished an oh-so-tight second to Harvick after Harvick passed him in the final turn, and I imagine Johnson will be out for revenge.

But just how good is Johnson at California? Since the start of 2007, you can make the case that it's his best track on the circuit.

In that time, of the 2,150 laps Johnson has run at California, he was the fastest car on the track on 405 of them, nearly 19 percent.

That's Johnson's highest percentage at any track since 2007, beating his second-best track, Chicago, by nearly 2 percent.

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:

Two of the drivers looking to break long winless streaks could be in trouble this weekend. Biffle and Earnhardt have each been collected in four accidents at California, the most of any drivers.

So how do they prevent this? By starting up front.

All time at California, cars starting in the front five rows have been involved in 18 accidents. That number grows as you go through the field. Twenty-five that start 11th-21st and 32 from 22nd-32nd.

The Eliminator: California

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 my pick for the race winner.

1. The last 11 California winners had a previous top-four finish at the track (27 drivers eliminated, 19 remaining).

2. The last four California winners finished in the top 15 in the last Charlotte race (eight eliminated, 11 remaining).

3. The last 11 California winners finished in the top nine in the last California race (five eliminated, six remaining).

4. The last six California winners finished ninth or better in the last Kansas race (two eliminated, four remaining).

5. Six of the last seven California winners finished in the top nine in the last Chicago race (two eliminated, two remaining).

6. The last four and 10 of the last 11 California winners had a top-six finish in one of the previous two Cup races (one eliminated, one remaining).

Your winner: Carl Edwards

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