Category archive: Paul Menard

Ah, another race, another surprise winner.

Say what you will about races being decided by pit strategy, but I love it. It's another element to add to the track. It takes a wonderful mix of speed and cunning to win these races.

But has that led to the most unpredictable season in Cup series history? Well, has it?!? I'll cut this top section short, and break it down a couple of ways …

They've waited their turn

We've had four first-time winners this season. From 2008-10, there was a total of three. We haven't had more than that in a season since 2002, when there were five.

Digging deeper, three of the winners this year -- Regan Smith, David Ragan and Paul Menard -- had made more than 100 starts before their first win. We had only three such winners in the previous nine seasons combined.

There has only been one other season where at least three drivers got their first win after waiting over 100 starts; in 1988, Lake Speed, Phil Parsons and Ken Schrader all did so. Only Schrader went on to win another race.

By the way, Menard won in his 167th start, tied for the 10th most before a driver's first win all time.

Trivia break! Who holds the record for most starts before his first win?

Variety show

Menard was the 14th winner in 20 races this season. That's tied for the third fastest to 14 different winners in a season in Cup series history. In 2003, there were 14 different winners in the first 17 races; in 1950, 14 in the first 19 races.

If we look at just the modern era, dating back to 1972 (when the series cut back from running 50 or so races a season), we've had only five previous seasons in which there were at least 15 winners, all coming from 2001-07.

The modern-era record is 19 winners, set in 2001. But that year, we didn't get our 14th different winner until the 23rd race.

Trivia break! Of the 19 winners in 2001, who are the two drivers who also have won this season?

Menard holds on

Let's give Paul Menard his due, too. He did what no other driver could do down the stretch -- conserve enough fuel to make it home (but let's give credit to the RCR engine department as well).

Then, when he saw Jeff Gordon in his mirror and could comfortably make it to the checkers, he dropped the hammer.

Over the final five laps, Menard's average lap time was a 53.42, nearly a full second faster than he averaged the previous five laps. Gordon, on the other hand, ran a 52.95 average over those final five laps, ahead of the pace he ran the previous 10 laps.

Trivia break! Menard now has four top-5 finishes this year. How many did he have entering the season?

Trivia break answers

1. Michael Waltrip won in his 463rd career start, 184 more than any other driver.

2. Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick won in both 2001 and 2011.

3. Menard had just two top-5 finishes entering the season.

And here we are, just one race to go. Which means this is my last loop data-style stats preview for the year.

As much as I'd like to wax poetic (my favorite means of waxing) about the season as a whole and some of my favorite moments, I'd love to let you reflect on some of your favorite blog posts of the year (I won't make you choose, as long it's one of mine). There are a number of topics we have to hit on this week, and these tired fingers only have so many words left in them, despite their muscularity.

But we're in a time crunch here, and I wanted to throw a few thoughts out there before ESPN.com freezes and stores me for the offseason. I imagine it's the same process they use for the "Baseball Tonight" anchors -- I just hope my storage chamber has a nice view, unobstructed and all.

It's my last chance to throw a few nuggets out there, so if you're up for a change of pace from the Chase (yay rhyming!), here are a couple of thoughts:

First of all, let's talk about the Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year award, which I assume they'll still give. It'll be Kevin Conway -- not to ruin the surprise. He'll finish the year 35th in points, barring a minor miracle. But that's not even the worst a rookie of the year's finished in points, although it'll be the third worst. Why not a little offseason adjustment in rules so Brad Keselowski -- who wasn't eligible because of his part-time Cup schedule in 2009 -- could've won it? Just saying.

After a very quiet year, two Roush Fenway drivers -- Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth -- have put themselves in the top five in points, and another -- Greg Biffle -- has won a pair of races. All of the wins were with the new FR9 Ford engine, and with a better handle on that next year, I expect big things from the RFR camp.

Paul Menard's Cup career has been the subject of a lot of jokes to this point, but I think next year he puts those to rest by getting himself in the Chase picture at Richard Childress Racing. Over the past eight races, Menard has more points than Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Jeff Burton and Juan Pablo Montoya.

And to finish, we might see some short fields next year, but it won't be the end of the world. However, I'm not sure NASCAR will allow that to happen. So keep an eye out there for yours truly, driving my first car, a 1988 Chevy Celebrity. Let's go racing, boys!

Without further ado, here are my loop-data notes, with some help from NASCAR's sultan of stats, Mike Forde:

Beginnings and ends

Kevin Harvick said that Homestead might be his best track on the schedule, despite having never previously won there. He's got a point: It is his best track in terms of average finish, and Happy could pull off the comeback this weekend if the caution flags fly early and often.

That's because dating back to 2005, no driver has a better speed early in runs than Harvick, while Jimmie Johnson ranks fifth in that category and Denny Hamlin 12th. Harvick comes crashing back to earth on the long runs, though, falling to the 13th-best average speed, while Johnson is 10th and Hamlin remains 12th.

But all the chips are on the table now, and we might be able to throw all the past stats out as they'll leave nothing on the table Sunday.

Advantage: Hamlin?

OK, so maybe Hamlin didn't look so impressive in that previous blog entry, but he does have the fourth-fastest speed in traffic at Homestead dating back to 2005, and his ability to pass cars shows up glowingly.

Since 2005, Hamlin's pass differential at Homestead is a plus-119, by far the best among the Cup boys. Do you smell a list time?

Best green-flag pass differential at Homestead (since 2005)
• Denny Hamlin, plus-119
• Tony Stewart, plus-79
• Jimmie Johnson, plus-60
• Dale Earnhardt Jr., plus-57

And since you're curious (why else would you be reading this?), Harvick ranks seventh, with a plus-42.

Young and restless

Besides the top three in points, no driver has accumulated more points in the Chase this year than Joey Logano. Logano has finished seventh, sixth, fifth, fourth and then third, in that order. And compared to his first 31 races this year, Logano's past five have been a huge step in the right direction.

Logano's average finish in the first 31 races was a 18.0, with a 77.5 driver rating, 17.7 average running position and a negative-77 pass differential. And he averaged only 4.3 fastest laps per race.

In the past five, however, he had a 5.0 average finish, a 103.0 driver rating, a 9.9 average running position and plus-66 pass differential. Not to mention 8.8 fastest laps run per race.

Hamlin might be joined in a title hunt next year by the man in the orange car.

That's all I have for you this week -- enjoy the final race of the year!

Walking back into work Monday morning after a cozy little three-day weekend, I knew what the main NASCAR topic would be after Atlanta. There's no shortage of articles out about it, if you want to read them. Before you do, read my blog, because we need you here. I want you on this blog. I NEED you on this blog!

On the other hand, there is a shortage of articles about the race winner. Call me antiestablishment (do it; it makes me feel like a rebel), but I think I'm going to focus on the actual race and not so much on a good, old-fashioned feud. I do love feuds, however, especially if they're hosted by Richard Dawson.

Which reminds me, I asked 100 NASCAR fans what they thought I should analyze for my post-Atlanta blog. Well, not really; I don't have that much time. I do have a regular, full-time job as a researcher here at the Worldwide Leader. Hey, just because I saw Darth Vader at work and talked burritos with Lomas Brown doesn't mean I wasn't working hard. Mmm, burritos. (Insert potential sponsor opportunity here.)

But while answering questions for analysts for "ESPN First Take" on Monday (some of them weren't related to food or space villains), I chatted with Ricky Craven, and talk did turn to the Carl Edwards-Brad Keselowski incident. That seems to be where the eyes of the NASCAR world are turning this week, and with a bye week on the horizon, we'll have plenty of time to react and figure it out.

The race is still red-hot in my mind, though. So let's take at least one more opportunity to look back at three other things I took away from Sunday's race at Atlanta.

Spring into action

Toward the end of the race, I heard the broadcast mention that Kurt Busch was the first driver to win back-to-back spring races at Atlanta since Cale Yarborough in 1968 and '69. Well, that's just half the story, so I did the research that I would do only for you, my loyal, devoted fans.

Turns out you can pencil in Busch's name as the winner of the 2011 spring race at Atlanta, because any driver who has won back-to-back spring Atlanta races went on to win the third straight the following season. Cale Yarborough won from 1967 to '69, and Fred Lorenzen won from 1962 to '64.

Busch moved into a tie for 28th all time in Cup series wins along with, among other drivers, Jeff Burton, Benny Parsons and a driver who had a ton of success at Atlanta, Bobby Labonte.

Trivia break! Who is the only driver in NASCAR's modern era to win back-to-back fall races at Atlanta?

Menard on a roll

You also may have heard at the end of Sunday's race that Paul Menard had a career-best finish of fifth, except that note was incorrect -- he finished second at Talladega in 2008.

Menard's fifth-place run was good enough to move him up to ninth in points. Although we're just 11 percent into the season, he has to be labeled as one of the surprises of 2010. The question is, can he keep it up?

Menard has had a top-20 finish in all four races so far, but Atlanta was his first top-10 finish of the season. His average finish of 13.3 is more than 20 positions better than where he stood at this point last season. Let's look at Menard's standing after four races since he started running full time in 2007:

• 2010 -- 13.3 average finish, ninth in points
• 2009 -- 34.5 average finish, 38th in points
• 2008 -- 22.5 average finish, 25th in points
• 2007 -- 27.7 average finish, 37th in points

Will he stay up there through the season? The loop data notes don't look good. Menard ranks 22nd or worse this season in average position, driver rating, fastest laps run and green-flag speed. Some pretty key stats, if you ask me.

On the other hand, Menard is turning it on when it matters, ranking third in the series in positions gained in the last 10 percent of each race this season. I just provide the evidence; you tell me what you think he can do. I'm just here for your help.

Trivia break! Who has gained the most positions in the last 10 percent of races this season?

The Chase is on

It's actually not really all that close to the Chase, but the upcoming off week made me pause, albeit briefly, and wonder how important it is to be in the Chase field this early on.

Well, as of recently, it's not that important. In the first two years of the Chase, only two drivers made the Chase after being out after four races. In 2006 and 2007, the number increased to only three in each year.

However, in each of the past two seasons, no fewer than five drivers who were outside the Chase field after the first four races went on to make the Chase. Oh, wait, it gets better. Last season, Mark Martin was 34th and Ryan Newman 32nd after four races, but both of them rebounded to make the Chase.

In the first four Chase seasons, the eventual winner was no lower than seventh after the first four races. However, in each of the past two seasons, Jimmie Johnson was 13th in points and went on to win championships.

The driver currently 13th in points? Dale Earnhardt Jr. Rejoice, Junior Nation!

Trivia break! Who is the only driver to lead the points after four races and not go on to make the Chase?

Trivia break answers

1. Bobby Labonte won back-to-back Atlanta fall races in 1996 and '97.

2. Another Dale Jr. reference: He has gained 33 positions in the last 10 percent of each race this season.

3. In 2007, Mark Martin led after four races but didn't run the full season and missed the Chase.