Category archive: Brad Keselowski
Since it's my blog, I'm going to imagine that you asked why I thought Brad Keselowski's win on Saturday was so impressive. Let me tell you.
Keselowski has won on a short track, a restrictor-plate track and a superspeedway this season. That's just about all of them.
Let's not forget how down of a season Brad K. had in his first full season with Penske in 2010. He finished 25th in points, with just two top-10 finishes, both 10th. Since then, he's won six races, three last year and now three in 2012.
How can we put Keselowski's performance in perspective and try to find a driver whom he resembles?
Well, let's sort out all the drivers who had a sub-par first season but rebounded nicely who didn't run the full schedule the previous year, or drivers like Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson who won three-plus times each of their first two full seasons.
That leaves Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch, and the parallels between Keselowski and Busch are uncanny. Busch went winless his first full season, like Keselowski, and then won four races in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, he was the champion.
So, you can call Keselowski "Kurt Busch without the baggage," and I'm sure lots of owners would like a driver with that combo.
Trivia break: Keselowski now has seven career Cup wins. Who is the only driver with exactly eight in his career?
This is the time of year when I start thinking Chase. And I'm sure the drivers are, too.
In every year of the Chase, there's been a driver in the field with both nine and 10 races to go to move into the Chase field after being out at that time.
So, who could move in and who could move out? Kasey Kahne moved into the field with his second-place run at Kentucky, taking the second wild-card spot. But that's an obvious one.
Off the radar, watch out for Marcos Ambrose. In the past five races, only five drivers have more points than the Aussie. If he can steal a win at Sonoma, he could be racing for a title.
On the other end is Ryan Newman. Newman's falling out of the second wild-card spot, and since his Martinsville win, he's been terrible without a finish better than 12th in 11 races. That after having a win and three top-10s in the first six races.
Trivia break: Who is the only driver to make the Chase after being outside the top 20 with 10 races to go?
First Time Dominance
Austin Dillon, welcome to the club.
Dillon picked up his first Nationwide Series win Friday night at Kentucky, and it was never really in doubt.
Dillon led all but eight laps in the victory, the fourth-most dominant first win in series history, according to our friends over at Racing Resources.
Trivia break: Dillon's victory followed Nelson Piquet Jr.'s first win. Who were the last drivers to get their first Nationwide Series victories back-to-back?
Trivia Break Answers
1. Kyle Petty is the only driver to finish his career with exactly eight Cup wins.
2. Brad Keselowski was 22nd with 10 races to go last year before getting a wild card.
We're at Pocono Raceway, and this is the point of the year when I usually have two main points to make:
1. Triangle racing is more interesting than it's given credit.
2. Denny Hamlin flat owns this place.
Don't let last year's lackluster finishes fool you; Hamlin's still the man there. Despite two finishes outside the top 10, Hamlin still had the second-most fastest laps run (behind the absent Kurt Busch), and he averaged a top-5 running position.
It's easy to go on about Hamlin, but I wanted to take some time, words and Internet space to analyze the curious case of Jeff Gordon.
Gordon is 21st in points, but doesn't deserve to be. I wrote in Tuesday's blog that he's second in fastest laps run this season, but it doesn't stop there. He's also fifth in overall green-flag speed, much faster than your average 21st-place driver.
This slow start is actually reminiscent to last year, when he was 13th in points after 13 races. Check out the chart!
The good news for 24 fans is that in the next 13 races of last season, nobody was better than Gordon. He had 508 points, 43 more than any other driver, with 10 top-10s in 13 races.
He also was much improved on those loop-data numbers, with a 108.1 driver rating, nearly 20 points higher, and 335 fastest laps run, compared to 184 in the first 13 races.
Looking for Trouble
Every week, my fellow ESPN Stats & Information staffers crunch the numbers and tell us what to watch for this weekend. Here's what they found:
Pocono is called the "Tricky Triangle" due to its three distinct turns, making it almost like a road course.
Some believe that the "Tunnel Turn" (aka Turn 2) is the trickiest of the three, but with the highest banking coming in Turn 1 (14 degrees) and drivers hitting 200-mph plus on the frontstretch, that area of the track leads to the most accidents.
Since 1990, there's been 48 accidents in Turn 1, compared to 31 in Turn 2 and 30 in Turn 3.
The Eliminator: Pocono
For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to forecast 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. The past 16 Sprint Cup Series winners finished 16th or better in the previous race at the track (29 eliminated, 15 remaining).
2. The past seven Pocono winners had a top-20 finish in the most recent Sonoma race (five eliminated, 10 remaining).
3. The past seven Pocono winners had a top-10 finish in the most recent Watkins Glen race (five eliminated, five remaining).
4. Fourteen of the past 15 Pocono winners did not finish better than 15th in the previous year's running of that Pocono race (four eliminated, one remaining).
Your winner: Brad Keselowski
When Brad Keselowski got his first career Sprint Cup win at Talladega Superspeedway three years ago, I think people chalked it up to an upset Talladega win.
It was for a team that had never won a Cup race, in Keselowski's fifth career start, and he had never led a lap until the final one. But it's clear today that Keselowski is the real deal.
His driving ability was best showcased at the end of the race, as he basically outsmarted the draft. Once he and Kyle Busch had separated themselves from the field, he managed to break the draft and erase the disadvantage the driver leading usually is in at the plate tracks.
That move propelled Keselowski to a win by 0.304 seconds. Now, three-tenths doesn't seem like much, but in plate racing at Talladega, it's practically a blowout.
Since the series introduced electronic scoring in 1993, that's the second-biggest margin of victory on record. The only greater one was a 0.388-second "blowout" by Dale Earnhardt Jr. over Tony Stewart in 2001.
In fact, since 1993, there have been only four plate races decided by over three-tenths of a second. Those two at Talladega, a six-tenths victory by Sterling Marlin over Dale Earnhardt in the 1995 Daytona 500 and ...
Trivia break! What driver won the July 2003 race at Daytona by over four seconds (it was a fuel-mileage race)?
Leader of the pack
Matt Kenseth had just about as dominating an effort as we've seen recently in a restrictor-plate race, leading 73 laps but finishing third. That's the most laps any driver has led at a plate race since Stewart led 86 in a July 2009 Daytona win.
No driver has led more in a Talladega race since Jeff Gordon led 139 there in the spring 2005 race, a race Gordon won.
That brings Kenseth's total in plate race laps led this year to 123, in just two races. Last year, in four plate races, Clint Bowyer led all drivers in laps led with 97.
No driver has led more laps in plate races in a season since Kyle Busch led 135 in 2009.
Trivia break! In the restrictor-plate era (since 1988), who holds the record for most laps led in plate races in a season?
Some fancy passing
NASCAR has been under fire from the fan base for the on-track product -- no denying it. I'll let you decide what you liked and didn't like about the first two plate races of the year. But I'll provide info for your argument.
Sunday at Talladega, there was 103 green-flag passes for the lead (not just at the start-finish line, but anywhere on the track). That's far up from Daytona's 44.
In last year's Talladega races, there were 159 in the spring, but 107 in the fall, so that number didn't drop off much.
There also were 11,459 green-flag passes Sunday for the entire race, about 4,000 more than there were in February at Daytona.
That number is actually up from last spring's wild Talladega race, which featured 11,025 green-flag passes.
Trivia break! Ten drivers have gotten their first Sprint Cup Series win at Talladega, but who is the only one with more career wins than Keselowski?
Trivia break answers
1. Greg Biffle won the race by 4.102 seconds for his first career Sprint Cup Series win.
2. Dale Earnhardt led 523 laps in 1990, winning three of the four plate races.
3. Davey Allison won 19 career Cup races.
It may be a whole new Bristol, with side-by-side racing replacing the single-groove, knock-'em-out-of-the-way style that we all grew up with, but we saw one very familiar sight Sunday: the Blue Deuce rolling into Victory Lane.
We also saw one getting-much-more-familiar sight: Brad Keselowski celebrating a win. That's four in the past 28 for him.
That's the 10th Cup win at Bristol Motor Speedway for Penske Racing, all 10 coming from the No. 2 car. Keselowski is now responsible for two of those wins, with Rusty Wallace getting seven and Kurt Busch the other.
Penske's 10 Bristol wins are tied with Roush Fenway Racing for the most among active teams at the track. And it's good enough for a tie for second all time, behind only Junior Johnson's 16 owner wins at the half-mile bullring.
Keselowski also joined some pretty select company in drivers to win back-to-back Cup races at Bristol, becoming the 12th driver to do so. The only other active drivers to pull off that feat are the Brothers Busch. Kurt won three straight in 2003-04, while Kyle Busch twice went back-to-back.
Trivia break! Who holds the record for consecutive Cup wins at Bristol?
New power team?
Michael Waltrip Racing did something Sunday that it had never done, putting multiple cars in the top five. Not only that, but it put all three of its cars in the top five.
With those three top-5s, MWR now has as many top-5 finishes this season as the entire four-car Hendrick Motorsports organization. Only Roush Fenway Racing has more top-5s than Waltrip.
Furthermore, all three MWR cars are in the top 10 of the owner points standings (MWR is the only Cup team with three cars in the top 10).
Trivia break! Who recorded the first top-5 finish for Michael Waltrip Racing?
Everybody's a winner
Although four car makers winning four straight races happened last year, a streak like this to start the season is a rare occurrence.
The last time we had different car models win the first four races of the season came in 1986, when Geoffrey Bodine won in a Chevrolet, then Kyle Petty in a Ford, Terry Labonte in an Oldsmobile and Morgan Shepherd in a Buick.
The amazing part, however, is my little trivia challenge below.
Trivia break! In 1986, we had different manufacturers win the first five races. Rusty Wallace won the fifth race in what make?
Trivia break answers
1. Darrell Waltrip won seven straight from 1981-84.
2. Michael Waltrip did it himself, with a second-place finish at New Hampshire in 2008.
3. Rusty Wallace won in a Pontiac.
I'm going to call it like I see it. As a stats guy, I love it when I'm right. Who doesn't?
But, sometimes, I like being proved wrong when it means somebody has thrown past evidence aside to succeed, and that's why I'm digging Brad Keselowski after he finished second at New Hampshire.
It's a little strange that Keselowski struggled to the degree he did last season. I mean, he was winning a Nationwide Series championship while simultaneously putting up no top-5s and two top-10s on the Sprint Cup side. And none of those top-10s came in the first 31 races, and he didn't finish better than 10th all year.
Maybe something just clicked, and maybe it was the addition of crew chief Paul Wolfe on the Cup side that got him the rest of the way there. Either way, Keselowski's improvement has been impressive.
Let's take a look at his driver rating, a figure that measures a driver's total performance on a scale from 0-150. From last year, his driver rating is up 22.2 points, the biggest jump by a full-time driver this season.
To compare, last year, only one driver had a jump that big, Kevin Harvick, whose rating jumped 22.3 points as he finished third in the points.
Keselowski's driver rating this year is a solid 87.3, 11th best in the series. But that's not a fair look at it, since Keselowski did struggle somewhat early in the year.
After the July Daytona race, Keselowski's driver rating on the season was a 76.6, ranking 20th among the full-time Cup drivers. Since then, his driver rating per race averages out to 103.7. If he put up that mark for the entire season, he'd rank second in the series behind Kyle Busch.
I was among the many who were just waiting for Keselowski's Cinderella run to end. Now, I'm starting to think it just might not.
The Eliminator: Dover Edition
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) The past 12 Dover winners had a top-20 finish in the previous Phoenix race (25 drivers eliminated, 20 remaining).
2) The past eight fall Dover winners finished in the top 11 of the previous year's fall Dover race (12 eliminated, eight remaining).
3) The past six race winners this season all finished seventh or better in the previous week's race (seven eliminated, one remaining).
Your winner: Jeff Gordon
We're just two races before the Chase, and while wins are important, let's think big picture: the drivers fighting for a spot in the playoff and a shot at the championship.
Although some haven't officially locked up Chase spots, I'll call the top eight drivers in the standings locks. And Brad Keselowski's three wins also put him in, although he might still race his way into the top 10 and get the bonus points for those wins.
Where does that leave us? I think drivers ninth to 23rd in points have a realistic shot to make the Chase -- or fall out. If Keselowski races his way into the top 10, it might come down to several drivers with a single win for the final spots.
How should we judge? With this weekend's race at Atlanta, I'll look at the 1.5-mile tracks we've visited this year. Not all are equal, but it's a good starting point.
Among the group mentioned above, Tony Stewart could take a big step forward toward clinching. He's the defending race winner, and his average driver rating in the five 1.5-mile tracks this season is tops among those ranked ninth to 23 in points.
Who else? How about Greg Biffle? The Biff has just one top-5 finish this year, but in three of the five 1.5-mile races this season, he's had a driver rating in the top seven, and in the other two, never worse than 15th.
David Ragan could surprise, too. Even though he's just outside the top 20 in points, he had a top-5 driver rating earlier this year at Texas and Charlotte.
Let's flip it and talk about who could struggle. No driver between ninth and 23rd in points had a worse average driver rating this season in the 1.5-mile races than Mark Martin, with a 63.4. To compare, Stewart's leading mark was a 100.4. Martin's driver rating never ranked in the top 20 in any of those five races.
Clint Bowyer has Chase experience, but he might have to lean on Richmond. In four of the five 1.5-mile races this season, his driver rating was under 80, each time ranking outside the top 15 in the field.
Phew, that was a lot of info. Sit back, digest it, prepare yourself for Atlanta, and enjoy my Eliminator!
The Eliminator: Atlanta 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.
1. The last 19 Atlanta winners entered the race 19th or higher in points (28 eliminated, 19 remaining).
2. The last five and eight of the last nine Atlanta winners had at least 10 previous career wins (five eliminated, 14 remaining).
3. The last eight and 11 of the last 12 Atlanta winners finished in the top 12 in the most recent California race (five eliminated, nine remaining).
4. The last six fall Atlanta winners finished in the top 11 in the most recent Michigan race (five eliminated, four remaining).
5. The last five fall Atlanta winners finished in the top 11 in the most recent Las Vegas race (one eliminated, three remaining).
6. The last five and eight of the last nine Atlanta winners had a previous Atlanta win. (two eliminated, one remaining).
Your winner: Carl Edwards.
The biggest story coming out of Pocono is definitely what Brad Keselowski did on a fractured ankle. And I have to say, I'm thoroughly impressed. I sprained an ankle playing in the ESPN Flag Football League a couple years ago, and that was bad enough on its own.
But what's even more impressive is the history of NASCAR drivers not only running while fighting injuries but excelling.
Monday on NASCAR Now, we revisited some of the notable ones. Terry Labonte running the final two races of his 1996 championship season with a broken wrist, Ricky Rudd winning at Martinsville after being burned and doing his Victory Lane interview laying down with ice bags and an oxygen mask.
I know NASCAR isn't like traditional sports in that you don't have to able to run fast, jump high or throw far, but physical conditioning is important, and having to press down on a fractured ankle hundreds of time a race is taxing. Plus, just a momentary lapse in concentration could be costly.
Now, let's dig a little deeper into Keselowski's performance.
Moving Up A Rung
Last season, Keselowski became the 22nd driver to win what is now called a Nationwide Series championship. With the new one-series rules in effect, he'll likely not be running for another anytime soon.
Of those 22 previous champions, Keselowski is only the ninth to win at least three Sprint Cup Series races. If he reaches five, he'd be just the seventh to do so.
Trivia break: Who holds the record for most Cup wins among Nationwide Series champions?
Keselowski's first Cup win, in 2009, came with Phoenix Racing with support from Hendrick Motorsports. His Kansas win earlier this season was his first with Penske, and now, he's the fifth driver to win multiple Cup races with Penske Racing.
To compare, teammate Kurt Busch is in his sixth season with Penske and has won only nine Cup races.
Keselowski's turnaround has been amazing. He didn't have any top-5 finishes last season and didn't have a top-10 finish until the 32nd race. He had no finish better than 10th all year. This year, he already has three top-5s and six top-10s.
Trivia break: Keselowski is the 97th driver to win three Cup races. Who is the only other active driver with that many? (Hint: He's racing full-time in another series.)
Nice Cup Of Joe
Lost in the fun of Keselowski's win was how impressive the Joe Gibbs Racing cars were, despite their finishes.
To do the math, that means the three JGR cars led a combined 136 of the 200 laps, and were one rainstorm away from picking up the win.
Trivia break: Who are the only two drivers with more Pocono wins than Hamlin's four?
Trivia Break Answers
For us NASCAR statistical bloggers, of which I believe I'm the only one, there are certain nightmare situations.
Like having all your notes written, and then an engine failure or a late-race caution completely destroys your race recap. Or when your calculator overheats, since I don't keep an abacus at my desk anymore.
But, the ones that keep popping up are these darn restrictor-plate races.
Don't get me wrong, I love the wildness and the anyone-can-win style of racing. It's just that trying to break down these races and giving you, my adoring fans, some fine statistical preview is just a lot more difficult than the typical week.
But I've done my best, combing through the numbers, and while I might not know what's going to happen Saturday night at Daytona, there are a number of things that I think I know.
First of all, there's a pretty level playing field. At the Daytona 500, out of the 43-car starting field, 40 drivers ran the fastest lap on at least one circuit. At Talladega, 37 of the 43 drivers had at least one fastest lap run.
The only driver who ran both races but didn't run a fastest lap in either one was Joe Nemechek. So if Front Row Joe makes the field, don't expect great things out of him.
I do know one thing, in both of the prior restrictor-plate races this year, Clint Bowyer topped the field in average running position (just the driver's average position by lap) in both races. He finished 17th at Daytona and second at Talladega.
In fact, expect the whole Richard Childress Racing team to run up front and be in the mix. Jeff Burton was second in average running position at Talladega, and Paul Menard fourth in both prior restrictor-plate races. On top of that, Childress-powered Regan Smith was fifth-highest in both races, and he showed he was among the best pushers in February at Daytona.
But, that's just what I think I know.
The Eliminator: Daytona
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.
Last week, my pick was Jeff Gordon, and he finished second. I'm just saying.
1) The last 14 and 25 of the last 26 Daytona winners who had raced there before had a previous top-5 finish there (17 drivers eliminated, 28 left).
2) The last three July Daytona winners had a previous win at Talladega (17 eliminated, 11 left).
3) Six of the last seven July Daytona winners finished eighth or better in that year's Daytona 500 (nine out, two left).
4) The last five Sprint Cup Series winners this season finished in the top 20 in each of the previous three races (one out, one left).
Your winner: Kyle Busch
If there's been one prevailing theme to this season so far, it has to be the semisuccessful return of my weekly Eliminator pick.
Wait, no, that isn't it, but if that's what you've taken out of this season so far, then bless you.
No, it's a matter of drivers coming out of nowhere during the course of the race, the beneficiary of late-race shuffling due to accidents, pit stops, natural disasters or some sort of alien invasion.
It's a developing trend. In the first nine races of the season, the winner ranked among the top three in the race in overall green-flag speed. There were only two exceptions. The first was when Jimmie Johnson won at Talladega, a race where you can usually throw out the stats, since everyone's on a level playing field, more or less.
The other was Kevin Harvick's Martinsville win, when he was 13th in the field in overall speed. Harvick's victory was also the only race where the winner did not have a "top-10" car, meaning that the driver's average running position in the race was among the top 10 in that race.
But lately, the only criteria for a winner has just been an ability to stay on the lead lap. In half of the last six races, the winner has not been among the top 10 for a race in either green-flag speed or average running position. Take a look at that chart.
In five of the first nine races of the year, the winner had the top overall green-flag speed in the race. But it hasn't happened in any of the last six races.
Could we see the same late-race unpredictability at Sonoma? It sure does keep me glued to my TV.
The Eliminator -- Sonoma Edition
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.
And if you doubt the mighty Eliminator power, check out the U.S. Open Golf Eliminator I did early last week before the tournament. McIlroy!!!
1) Since 1987, every road course winner had a top-5 finish earlier that season. (18 drivers eliminated, 26 remaining).
2) There's only been one first-time race winner in 22 all time Sonoma races. (Five eliminated, 21 remaining).
3) Of the last 13 Sonoma winners, 12 who had previously raced at Watkins Glen finished in the top 14 in the last race there. (12 eliminated, nine remaining).
4) Of the last 18 Sonoma winners, 16 who had previously raced there had a top-15 finish in the last race (five eliminated, four remaining).
5) Each of the last four Sprint Cup Series race winners finished in the top 20 in each of the last three races (two eliminated, two remaining).
6) Of the last 12 Sonoma winners, 11 entered the race fifth or worse in the points. (one eliminated, one remaining).
Your winner: Jeff Gordon
The driver with the most wins in the series thus far, Harvick, has won three times with nine combined laps led in those races (for more detail on this, see last Tuesday's blog).
But the overwhelming theme of the season has been drivers dominating races, but not coming away with the win. Only three of the 13 races we've run so far this season have been won by the driver leading the most laps.
Has it been a number of chance occurrences?
Or have we reached a state in NASCAR where having a fast car isn't any more important as fuel and tire strategy coupled with just having a car that can hang around the lead lap.
And even staying on the lead lap is overrated, as Harvick took a couple wavearounds before he won at Charlotte.
All those questions but for now, let's talk Kansas.
There have been 179 drivers win a Cup Series race. Of those, 59 never won another Cup Series race. Well, cross Brad Keselowski off that list, the 120th driver to win multiple Cup races.
And if you had some déjà vu, you're not alone. Although the wins came with different teams and at different tracks, there was quite a bit in common.
In both races, Keselowski led only once. At Talladega in 2008, it was just one lap for Phoenix Racing. On Sunday at Kansas, it was a whopping nine for Penske Racing. And both times, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second.
Trivia break: Keselowski is the sixth driver to win a Cup race for Penske Racing. Who are the other five?
You might not have known it by listening to Kurt Busch's in-car radio on the first lap, but he actually had a pretty solid car.
How solid? Well, I'm getting to it. He led 152 of the 267 laps, the most ever led in a Kansas race.
Unfortunately, Busch failed to win, coming home ninth and succumbing to the trend I talked about above.
Trivia break: Who previously held the record for most laps led in a Kansas race?
Odds, Ends And Junior
So many stats, so little space. So here we go. Bullet points!!!
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. got his fifth runner-up finish since his last win. The Cup record for second-place finishes between wins is eight, last accomplished by Jeff Gordon earlier this year.
• Denny Hamlin was third. He has four top-10s in his past five races, after having just one in his first eight.
• With his fifth-place finish, Jeff Gordon now has five straight top-5s at Kansas.
Trivia break: With Justin Allgaier's win at Chicago, he'll now look to become the first non-Cup regular to win twice in a Nationwide Series season since who?
Trivia Break Answers
(1) Mark Donohue, Bobby Allison, Rusty Wallace, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch have also won for Penske.
(2) Mark Martin led 139 laps in 2005, and did end up winning that one.
(3) Brad Keselowski won multiple times in 2008 and 2009 running a partial Cup schedule.